Tuesday 8 July 2014

Accent on accent

image of Language Diversity from Tobias Mikkelson

"It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him" wrote George Bernard Shaw in his preface to Pygmalion. He was, of course, referring to the way people evaluate accents and make (usually negative) judgements about speakers.

When we talk about accent, it is important to remember that this relates only to pronunciation and intonation rather than grammar or vocabulary. Thus, two people speaking the same language, who use the same grammar and word choices will give different cues about their social and regional origins, ethnic group membership or class. While we, as listeners, naturally pick up these cues about people’s ethnic, socioeconomic and geographical background, experimental research has shown that listeners can also make judgements on others’ intelligence, warmth and even height just by listening to recorded accented speech.

Although Shaw was referring primarily to British English accents in a class-oriented society, many studies from the UK, USA and Australia from the past six decades all show that foreign accented speech is negatively evaluated by native speakers of a language. People who view their own group or culture as the centre of everything, and who scale and rate all other groups with reference to it, can be said to be ethnocentric. Ethnocentric people tend to strongly identify with people in their own group and are biased against outsiders.

James Neuliep and Kendall Speten-Hansen hypothesised that there would be significant negative correlations between ethnocentrism and the way speakers with non-native accents are socially perceived. To test this, they recruited 93 male and female undergraduate students and randomly assigned 46 of them to an experimental group and 47 to a control group. All participants were native speakers of English.

In the experiment, participants in both groups completed a Generalized Ethnocentrism scale test to see how ethnocentric they were. This included rating on a 5-point scale items such as ‘‘My culture should be the role model for the world’’ and ‘‘I have little respect for the values and customs of other cultures’’.

Then, both groups watched a video of the same male speaker talking for 12 minutes about a non-controversial topic – the benefits of exercise. The videos were identical in every way except for the accent of the speaker. In the film viewed by the experimental group, the speaker had a non-native accent, and in order to try and reduce stereotypical judgments, this accent was left ambiguous, with no detectable regional, ethnic, or national associations. The speaker viewed by the control group spoke with a standard American accent. In both videos, the speaker wore the same clothes, spoke in the same location, at the same pace, and used the same number of gestures.

After viewing the video, participants were asked to complete tasks designed to assess their perception of how attractive the speaker was, and how credible and like themselves he was.
To rate speaker credibility, participants used 7-point semantic scales including scales asking about expertise (for example, a scale between “Qualified” and “Unqualified”) and character (for example, scales such as ‘‘Reliable-Unreliable’’ and ‘‘Honest-Dishonest’’).

Speaker attractiveness was assessed using 7-point scales testing for social, physical, and task attraction. The latter refers to the perception that someone is competent, trained, and qualified to perform a job. To assess attractiveness, participants had to rate items such as ‘‘I think he could be a friend of mine’’, ‘‘I find him physically attractive’’ and ‘‘I have confidence in his ability to get the job done’’.

Perceived homophily (how like the participant the speaker was judged to be) was also assessed by a 7-point semantic scale, where participants were asked to rate items such as ‘‘The Speaker is: Like me-Unlike me’’ and ‘‘The Speaker is: Of similar status to me-of different status to me’’.

As predicted, for the experimental group ethnocentrism was negatively and significantly correlated with perceptions of the speaker’s physical, social, and task attractiveness, his credibility, and perceived homophily. Moreover, this bias is not binary but continuous; the more ethnocentric a participant was, the lower their ratings of the non-native accented speaker’s attractiveness, credibility, and homophily. However, when presented with a speaker with a standard American accent, ethnocentrism played little to no role in the way that the speaker was socially perceived.

The findings are important because previous research has shown that credibility, attractiveness and homophily are three of the most significant social perceptions we make about others, affecting the interpretation of what a person says.  What a non-native speaker is interpreted as saying, then, can depend on the ethnocentricity of their interlocutor.
Neuliep, James W. & Kendall M. Speten-Hansen (2013) The influence of ethnocentrism on social perceptions of nonnative accents. Language & Communication 33:167–176

This summary was written by Danniella Samos

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