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.