Shedding New Light on the Evaluation of Accented Speakers: Basic Mechanisms Behind Nonnative Listeners’ Evaluations of Nonnative Accented Job Candidates, Janin Roessel, Christiane Schoel, Renate Zimmermann, and Dagmar Stahlberg, Journal of Language and Social Psychology 2019, Vol. 38(1) 3–32, DOI: 10.1177/0261927X17747904.
This article immediately piqued my interest for several reasons: (a) I have given presentations and lectures as a non-native speaker of German a few times before; (b) I am always terrified of being judged as incompetent when I speak German in a situation like this, even though a lot of people tell me my German accent is relatively slight (especially for an American); and (c) I work with non-native English speakers all the time and I wanted to explore some of the literature on this topic to understand better how I can support them.
The results of this research are not good for the non-native speakers among us, especially those with strong foreign accents.
The authors conducted multiple studies of how Germans evaluated English-language job talks of psychology professor candidates who would be teaching in German. According to their results, those candidates who had strong German accents when speaking English were downgraded, regardless of the quality of the content of the candidate’s speech. The studies also showed that comprehensibility did not serve as a mediating factor, and that accent had little to no effect on how the warmth of the speaker was assessed.
Basically, in other words, if someone’s speech has a quality of foreignness, it creates an “affective reaction” in the listener that, it has been shown, can be an “important predictor of prejudice and discrimination.” This is happening regardless of how well they know the subject matter and how qualified they are to speak on the topic.
These are some ugly results, but I am not surprised by them, unfortunately.
Why is this a big deal? Well, as societies become increasingly globalized, more and more people are compelled to use a language other than their mother tongue as their “lingua franca for communication.” The authors cite as a particular problem the “limited malleability” of a non-native accent, which means that people are going to be assessed on how their speech sounds rather than what it contains, and there is not a whole lot they can do to change that.
I can’t wrap up this piece without mentioning that, in today’s United States, there is a significant backlash against people who are perceived as “foreigners,” in terms of appearance, name, or accent (or all three). It is easy for me to complain about having an American accent when I speak German, but I am also white and have a high level of German linguistic and social fluency. I have not experienced overt discrimination in Germany in many years. Many of my fellow humans are not so fortunate. I am now compelled, more than ever, to listen closely, be mindful of the ways in which I judge others who speak with accents, and encourage them to keep talking, because what they have to say is important.