I notice that there is an interesting piece of work published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, which shows that speakers with a foreign accent are perceived as less believable than native speakers.
A study by Lev-Ari & J+Keysar (2010) shows this isn’t just because of prejudice towards ‘outsiders’. It also has to do with the fluency effect, one manifestation of which is our tendency to assume that how easily a message is processed is a mark of its truthfulness. The effort required to understand an accented utterance means that the same fact is judged as less credible when uttered by an accented speaker, compared with a native speaker. This remains true even if the accented speaker is merely passing on a message from a native speaker.
Three native English speakers, three with mild foreign accents and three with strong accents had to talk through 45 trivia factoids and were then rated for their perceived veracity.
Facts spoken by mild and heavily accented speakers were rated as less believable than facts uttered by native English speakers (the mean ratings were 6.95, 6.84 and 7.59, respectively – a statistically significant difference). A second study tested this very idea and participants were told the explicit aim of the study. This time, facts spoken by a speaker with a mild accent were judged to be just as credible as facts spoken by a native English speaker. However, facts spoken by a heavily accented speaker were still judged to be less true.
It seems we can override our bias for assuming easily processed utterances are more truthful – but only up to a point. Also, it’s worth remembering that in real life, prejudice towards foreign speakers is likely to augment the effects observed here.
This study mirrors work that was around in the 1980s which used telephone callers to book, or attempt to book hotels and flight tickets from travel agencies. Those with foreign names but good native English and those with heavily accented voices received similar levels of service, which fell far short of those with more common Anglophone names or clear native accents. It too showed that there is a resistance to those perceived to be foreign or non-native speakers.
What can we learn from these findings? Perhaps that businesses still need to do much more work on training staff on customer-facing skills and to challenge the off-hand or inconsiderate behaviour in such roles. More importantly, though, is that we need to realise that anybody who wants to sell or perform in an English-speaking environment needs to be good at English. Fluency is a must, so get some help with your English today! (HELLO English at http://www.hello-english.co.uk would be happy to help!)
Lev-Ari, S., and Keysar, B. (2010). Why don’t we believe non-native speakers? The influence of accent on credibility. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46 (6), 1093-1096 DOI:10.1016/j.jesp.2010.05.025