What is it about?

For a long time, speaking in a foreign accent has always been thought to carry many disadvantages in life. For example, people with foreign accents are, in general, thought to sound more vague, are less likely to be hired, are considered less trustworthy, and are less likeable. However, previous studies have rarely looked at people’s attitudes in context (e.g., what are your attitudes towards foreigners vs. native speakers in a particular situation). We need a more nuanced picture of how different contexts in everyday communication can play a role. Here, we show a context in which people with foreign accents are actually considered more trustworthy and likable compared to people without a foreign accent. In our study, more than 500 participants from all over the United States watched a short video containing a story. In the story, participants saw a foreign-accented or a native speaker entering a ransacked mansion and called the owner to tell her that there had been a robbery in the house. In the very last scene, the speaker entered the kitchen, stood in front of a crate of apples and a large pile of cash, and either said “Oh, they [the thieves] left some apples and money” (being informative), or “Oh, they left some apples” (not mentioning the money, thereby being uninformative). When we later asked participants to rate the speaker, participants rated the uninformative speaker as less dishonest and less unlikable when she spoke with a foreign accent compared to when she spoke without a foreign accent. These findings demonstrate a case where speaking with a foreign accent can provide unexpected social advantages.

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Why is it important?

In the past, studies on people’s attitudes toward different social groups have always occur in experiments that are devoid of any context (e.g., asking people to rate a particular person in paper without getting to know the person, seeing the person’s actions, or hearing the person speak). Here, we demonstrate that contexts, along with a person’s speech – whether they speak with an accent or not – play a crucial role in our social evaluations of other people.


In a world of increased immigration and interconnectedness, we are constantly meeting not only people from different ethnic backgrounds, but also people who speak in foreign accents that we may find unfamiliar. Just how we form attitudes of other people who speak in a different accent is important to help us further understand how we form attitudes towards different social groups. We need a more enhanced knowledge of ways in which we can be aware of our underlying biases and attitudes when we interact with different people. And looking at a person's speech is one way we can do this.

Martin Ip
University of Pennsylvania

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: The pragmatics of foreign accents: The social costs and benefits of being a non-native speaker., Journal of Experimental Psychology Learning Memory and Cognition, April 2023, American Psychological Association (APA), DOI: 10.1037/xlm0001197.
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