Psycho Babble

The Accented Among Us

By Jessica Love | November 10, 2011


Consider the foreign instructor.

Getting past this thickly accented gatekeeper to a respectable grade in Chemistry 101 or Art History 312 is a collegiate rite of passage, much like purchasing twin XL sheets or deducing that the color you know as blue might actually be the same color your roommate calls green.

For said gatekeepers, however, the problem is more than a fleeting concern. Regardless of fluency, nearly all foreign instructors I know regularly receive complaints about their accents. Even native speakers of foreign dialects of English, whose crimes include calling rubber boots wellies and allowing the occasional to slip in at the end of a word like idea, are not above reproach.

I’ve long noticed that these complaints often round out a litany of other complaints: “You gave us too many articles to read, and the second article was confusing, and you didn’t tell us what would be on the exam, and I can’t understand anything you say anyhow.” In fact, not once have I heard of a student sweetly commenting that, although she was assigned the perfect number of articles (finding the second one particularly enjoyable), and though she felt thoroughly prepared for her exam, she did think, perhaps, that the instructor’s accent was at times hard to decipher.

This is not to say that foreign instructors are never difficult to understand. Obviously, such claims can be legitimate. And it makes sense for those who have the most trouble with an accent to be the same ones performing most poorly on an exam. But I’ve always suspected that there’s more to these complaints than understandability, and recent research by University of Chicago psychologist Katherine Kinzler and her Harvard colleagues suggests I could be right. The researchers presented American preschoolers with videotapes of two female English-Spanish bilingual speakers reading the first few lines of a Curious George bookBoth speakers read in English, but one read with an American accent and the other with a Spanish accent (this was counterbalanced so that some children heard Speaker A use an American accent and some heard her use a Spanish accent).

Then the children were shown an object unlike any they had seen before. They watched videotapes showing the two speakers silently playing with the novel object, one at a time. Both speakers had different “uses” for it; Speaker A, for instance, might roll the object on the ground, while Speaker B would rest it on her head like a hat. Finally, children were given a chance to play with the object themselves. Kinzler and her colleagues found that children were likelier to mimic the American-accented speaker’s use of the object.

In a second experiment, the researchers demonstrated that this preference for native-accented speakers occurs even when neither person’s speech makes any sense at all. Instead of reading from Curious George, the two bilingual speakers were videotaped speaking in ‘Jabberwocky’ (nonsensical, but English-like, sentences adapted from the Lewis Carroll poem that begins ’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe). Thus, whether innate or learned, a child’s bias against foreign-accented speech is not entirely limited to situations in which understandability is of concern.

Ohio State graduate student Kristin Rohrbeck, with her advisor Laura Wagner, have found this bias to be dishearteningly robust. In a recent paper, they present data that suggests children treat an uncertain native-accented speaker (one who hems and haws and onlythinks that the object should be rolled on the ground) as being just as “credible” as a certain foreign-accented speaker (one who knows the object should be placed on the head).

College students are a far cry from four-year-olds. But I do feel somewhat vindicated in my belief that, as much as the accent itself, the disgruntled whines my more comprehensible foreign-born colleagues hear every day may be about the idear of an accent.

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