Let’s talk about accents. Why do non-native speakers have an accent? Well, actually, everybody has an accent. It’s just that if someone’s accent is pretty similar to your own accent, you don’t really notice it. You only notice accents that are different from your own accent.
So a better way of asking this question would be why do L2 speakers have accents that are different from L1 speakers? We saw in the last unit that the mental grammar of an L2 speaker is influenced by their experience of their native language, their L1. So the accent of an L1 Mandarin speaker in English is going to be different from the accent of an L1 Dutch speaker.
Now the thing about having an accent that is noticeably different is that people will notice it because it’s different. When I moved to Chicago in 1998 after having lived in Ontario for 25 years, people said to me, “You sound weird. Are you Canadian?” My vowels were different from Chicago vowels, and people in Chicago noticed that difference. I didn’t really experience any negative consequences of sounding like a Canadian while living in the US, but if you have an accent that’s different from the people you spend time with, you might have experienced stigma. If an accent is stigmatized that doesn’t mean it’s bad or inferior in some way — remember that linguistics doesn’t rate or rank languages or accents. But if it’s stigmatized, that means people have negative attitudes and expectations about that accent. In places where the majority of people speak English, there’s often a stigma towards people who aren’t native speakers, who learned English as adults. But there are also some varieties of L1 English whose speakers experience stigma, such as African-American English, the varieties spoken in the southeastern United States, and in Canada, Newfoundland English.
For people whose accent is different from the mainstream, there can be many negative consequences. You’re less likely to get a job interview, and your boss might not recognize your skills. It’s harder to find a landlord who’s willing to rent you an apartment. If you have to go to court, what you say won’t be taken as seriously, and the court reporter is likelier to make mistakes in transcribing your testimony. Kids whose accents aren’t mainstream are disproportionately labelled with learning disabilities and streamed out of academic classrooms into special ed. And probably Alexa, Siri, and Google won’t understand your requests!
Why do these things happen? Well, in the case of Alexa, it’s because the training data doesn’t include enough variation in dialects and accents. But the rest of these situations arise from people’s expectations, and their expectations come from their experiences and their attitudes. Now, for issues of stigma, it’s hard to observe people’s attitudes directly, because by and large it’s not socially acceptable to express negative attitudes towards minority groups. So instead, researchers use a technique called a matched-guise study to try to draw conclusions about attitudes.
A matched-guise study works like this. The researchers present participants with some kind of stimulus. In the original 1950 experiment using this technique, the stimulus was yearbook pictures from a local university. They hold the stimulus constant, and change the guise that it appears in. So in 1950, the guise was the name that labelled the yearbook picture. One group saw the pictures with so-called American names, and another group saw the pictures with Italian or Irish names. Then the researchers asked their participants to rate the people in the pictures as to their Beauty, Intelligence, Ambition, and Entertainingness.
The core idea in a matched-guise study is that if you find a difference in your participants’ ratings, that difference can’t be because of the stimulus, because you’ve held the stimulus constant. Any difference in ratings must be because of the guise — the way you labelled your stimuli. I’ll leave you to guess how the ratings in that 1950 study differed with the different guises.
Molly Babel and Jamie Russell, two linguists at the University of British Columbia, conducted a matched-guise study with UBC students as listeners. They recorded the voices of several people who were native speakers of English, who had grown up in Canada. These recordings were the stimulus. Then when they played these recordings to the listeners, they presented them either as audio-only, with a picture of the face of a White Canadian person, or with a picture of a Chinese Canadian person. For any given voice, the listeners rated the talker as having a stronger accent when they saw a Chinese Canadian face than when they saw a White Canadian face, and they were also less accurate at writing down the sentences the talker said. Apparently the faces influenced how well the listeners understood the talkers.
Dr. Babel interprets their results as a mismatch of expectations. In Richmond, BC, where they conducted their study, more than 40% of the population speaks either Cantonese or Mandarin. If you live in Richmond, you have a greater chance of encountering L1 Chinese speakers in your daily life than L1 English speakers. So when you see a face that appears Chinese, you have an expectation, based on your daily experience, that that person’s accent is going to be Chinese. If the person’s accent turns out to be that of a native speaker of English, the mismatch with your expectations makes it harder to understand what they say.
So we’ve seen that people’s expectations, their experiences and their attitudes can lead to stigma for speakers with accents that are different from the mainstream. And that stigma can have serious, real-life consequences on people’s employment and housing and education. But there can be consequences for listeners too!
If you’re having a hard time understanding someone whose accent is different from yours, that could have serious consequences, for example if you’re getting medical advice or trying to learn something new. It’s pretty common for L1 English speakers to argue that L2 speakers should try to “reduce” their accents, but as linguists we know that that’s hard to do after childhood, because your L2 grammar is shaped by your L1 experience. Fortunately, linguistics research also tells us that even though it’s hard to change how you speak an L2, it’s relatively easy to change how you hear someone speaking an L2.
Just as our experience and our expectations can lead to stigma, our experience also influences our perception. The more experience we have listening to someone, the better we understand what they say: this is called perceptual adaptation. Perceptual adaptation was first shown for a single talker: the longer listeners had to listen to an unfamiliar talker, the more they understood of what the talker said. Extensions of that research have also shown that experience listening to several speakers with a particular accent makes it easier to understand a new speaker with that same accent. And it turns out that listening to a whole variety of different unfamiliar accents then makes it easier to understand a new talker with a completely different accent. In short, the more experience we have listening to someone, the more familiarity we have with their voice or their accent, and the more familiarity we have, the better we’ll understand what they’re saying.
So if you are listening to someone whose accent is different from yours the best way to understand them is to listen more. And if you’re talking to someone and they’re finding your accent unfamiliar, you can say to them, just listen more!