Why Do People Doubt You When You Speak With An Accent?

In my coaching practice, I often hear that people feel they are being discriminated against due to the fact that they have an accent.  Accent discrimination is rampant and surprisingly legal.  The question is, why do people discriminate?

New research done at the University of Chicago suggests prejudice is only part of the problem.  Non-native accents make speech more difficult for native speakers to parse, and thereby reduces “cognitive fluency”, or the process by which the brain organizes stimuli.  This causes people to doubt the veracity of what is said.  From “The Scientific American”:

As a test case, researchers asked people to judge the truthfulness of trivia statements.  Statements were recited by either native or non-native English speakers. (Example: A giraffe can go without water longer than a camel can.) The non-native speakers had mild or heavy Asian, European, or Middle Eastern accents. The subjects were told that all the statements had been written by the researchers but, still, the subjects tended to doubt them more when recited with an accent.

This has broad implications.  It may be that accent discrimination isn’t really about prejudice as much as the brains inherent distaste for any information that is difficult to process.   This may be cold comfort for those who have difficulty being understood on a regular basis.  By encouraging both higher levels of spoken English fluency AND increasing awareness around the science of accent “discrimination”, we can increase effective communication across the globe.

Intonation and Accent Reduction

What do you think is more important in terms of reducing your accent; correcting your problem sounds, or correcting your melody and pitch?  If you answered the latter, you are correct.  In linguistics, prosody is the rhythm, stress, and intonation of speech.  It is generally accepted among linguistics that prosody accounts more for our ability to be understood than our individual sounds.

In conversation, native English speakers tend to highlight one focus word in a phrase (a noun, verb, adj. or adv. that conveys particular meaning).  As a conversation progresses, each new thought becomes the focus word.  Each focus word gets stress emphasis, and a change of pitch. Let’s take an example:

I lost my HAT. (“Hat” is the focus word.  It is the focus of the sentence.)

What KIND of hat?  (“kind” is now the focus, or new thought)

It was a RAIN hat.

What COLOR rain hat?

It was WHITE.

There was a white hat in the CAR.

WHICH car?

The one I SOLD!

Get it?  Each new idea gets emphasis, and a change of pitch.

Stay tuned…at the end of the week I will post a video demonstrating American English pitch patterns!