30. (UN)INTELLIGENT, (UN)FRIENDLY AND (UN)TRUSTWORTHY: ACCENT AND COGNITIVE BIAS
Have you ever judged somebody by their accent? I won't take no for an answer: studies have repeatedly shown that certain accents tend to be rated as less intelligent, friendly and trustworthy than others, even by their own speakers. While these same studies show that most of us are able to moderate our prejudices when there are potential repercussions for the speaker (such as in a job interview), immediate judgements based on accent seem to be a fairly universal human trait.
Accent and identity
That's not to say that people don't favour their own accent when it comes to personal relationships. According to Katherine Kinzler of Cornell University, "accent can be a more powerful indicator of group identity than race" for children, who don't yet have the motivation to control prejudice. When five-year-olds are shown pictures of either black or white children, they tend to prefer those of the same race. When voices are brought into the mix, they mostly prefer those who share their accent regardless of race.
Why then do many individuals rate their own accent negatively? "It makes sense that we trust somebody who speaks like us," says Kinzler. "They are likely to know more information about your own community [...] An accent represents part of your identity. But as you get older, this might clash with an accent you aspire to sound more like, say one that is deemed more prestigious or less stuck-up." Of course, there may be other factors at play:
In the UK at least, bias against regional accents seems to have become weaker since the 1960s, when the BBC relaxed its condition that newscasters speak Received Pronunciation - an essentially non-geographical accent developed at high-end boarding schools in the 1800s to convey zero information about the speaker's region of origin. However, the situation becomes a lot stickier when foreign accents enter the picture. In June, the BBC ran an article on linguistic racism, which it notes "can involve deliberate belittling or shaming, such as 'ethnic-accent bullying' that occurs despite someone's actual English proficiency, or it can be more covert, like the unwitting social exclusion of people with foreign-accented English."
As mentioned earlier, many people can keep a handle on their prejudices - if they're conscious of potential repercussions. But most are competing with their unconscious cognitive biases, such as racial stereotypes that cause them to hear 'foreign' accents on the lips of those born locally. As the article also points out, some Americans find a native English speaker's voice harder to understand when attached to an Asian face versus a white face. Similar mechanisms occur even when comprehension is impossible: when I worked as an English teacher in China, many parents - the majority of whom spoke no English - were convinced that my black American colleague would give their children an 'African' accent.
Overall, this seems to paint a rather depressing picture. However, there is cause for optimism: the same studies into the perceived intelligence, friendliness and trustworthiness of accents find that our biases are reduced by contact with individuals, including losing respect for prestigious accents if their speakers fail to live up to positive stereotypes. As businesses become increasingly global, levels of contact between speakers of all sorts of accents are surely set to increase. Those who are adept at communicating with clients or partners outside of their cultural bubble will be more likely to succeed, as will those who don't overlook highly-qualified candidates just because of their traditionally unadmired speech patterns.
Assuming that these patterns continue to exist, of course:
While one new accent is expected to emerge by 2030, three will have disappeared.