I was recently wondering what kind of voice I’d like best on my GPS. I don’t really trust the computerized lady who currently gives me directions. She too often leads me down closed roads. If I had my choice (and by that, I mean if I were willing to pay for it), I’d like to have a nice, polite lady or gentleman from England telling me where to turn, and calmly repeating, “Recalculating,” with a proper British accent.
That got me to thinking about my response to people with “foreign” accents. Do my prejudices keep me from fully trusting non-native speakers of English? I would like to think, No, I’m a global citizen, and I don’t judge the truthfulness of what is said by how it is said. But research from the University of Chicago, published in 2010, suggests that I probably don’t know myself very well, and it all has little to do with prejudice.
Researchers Shiri Lev-Ari and Boaz Keysar conducted two experiments, testing their hypothesis that “processing difficulty,” or how hard it is to understand a spoken communication, plays a major role in judging the credibility of non-native speech. (The pair cite other examples of how “processing fluency” has been shown to influence believability, such as a phrase being chosen as more accurate because it rhymes, or judging a sentence more truthful because it is printed in an easy-to-read color.)
In the first experiment, Lev-Ari and Keysar had subjects listen to spoken trivia statements (e.g.: A giraffe can go without water longer than a camel can) and then judge their truthfulness. Those speaking the statements were native-English speakers and non-native speakers with mild to heavy accents. In order to eliminate the effects of possible prejudice, the experimenters made it clear that the statements were not original to the speakers but that the speakers were simply reading out loud what had been given to them. As the researchers had predicted, the participants rated the statements spoken with an accent as less truthful, with the native speech producing the most credibility, and the heavily accented the least.
The second experiment furthered the results by testing whether the outcome would be affected if the participants were told up front that the exercise was studying the impact of accent on credibility. (In the first experiment, the subjects had been told that they were helping in the evaluation of “intuition in knowledge assessment.”) With this understanding, the participants tried to overcome the effects of processing difficulty, resulting in nearly identical rates of perceived truthfulness for statements spoken with native and mild accents. But when it came to heavily accented statements, even these enlightened participants rated them significantly less truthful.
So what does this tell us about communication between native and non-native speakers? First, difficulties in understanding play a major role in perceived credibility, even in the absence of prejudice. Second, even when we completely understand what is being said, an unnoticed difficulty in processing can impact our judgments of truthfulness. And third, a heavy accent can overcome even our best efforts at being fair and impartial.
This means that having no cultural prejudices (if that’s even possible) is not enough to eliminate unfair judgments. Maybe knowing this will give us a reason to show extra grace to the non-native speakers we encounter. And it can also help us better understand the inherent difficulties we face when attempting to communicate in another language: It’s just simply harder for our listeners to believe what we say when we say it with an accent. But we can take heart in this fact: It’s probably nothing personal.
(Shiri Lev-Ari and Boaz Keysar, “Why Don’t We Believe Non-Native Speakers? The Influence of Accent on Credibility,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, June 25, 2010)
[photo: “Incredulous Me,” by Toby Keller, used under a Creative Commons license]