THE ACCENT EFFECT | In a city of accents, what’s considered ‘cute’ versus ‘foreign’ reveals a hierarchy

January 28, 2018

By Lakshine Sathiyanathan, Lisa Xing, CBC News |

At the end of the semester, Yunxiang Gao is rated by her students in an anonymous evaluation. They mention the course load, her lecture style and at times — her accent.

They write that they never got “used to it.”

For much of her adult life, Gao lived in North America. First to pursue a PhD at the University of Iowa and later, living and teaching in Toronto. But like nearly 23 per cent of Canadians, as data from the 2016 Census shows, English is not her mother tongue.

Gao was born in Inner Mongolia, China, and her speech bears traces of that region.

Accents can conjure up a variety of assumptions about a speaker, said University of Alberta professor emeritus Tracey Derwing, who has researched accents for more than 20 years. And people who harbour negative prejudices about a certain group may attribute those biases to a person with that accent — a tendency that Murray Munro, a linguistics professor at Simon Fraser University, characterizes as “accent stereotyping.”

Similarly, a review of social psychology research published in the Personality and Social Psychology Review in 2010 reported that, over and over again, researchers found that listeners make value judgments about a speaker — whether they are friendly or lazy or intelligent — based on their accent.

By all accounts, Gao is a well-educated, qualified professor and her credentials and accolades speak volumes, yet some students fixate on her accent.

“They don’t say it to my face, of course. Just end of the term, you would read, ‘Professor Gao is good professor but she has an accent,'” she told CBC Toronto.

Reviews on Rate My Professors, a website that solicits anonymous student feedback, discourage taking her Chinese history courses at Ryerson University, citing her accent. One review called it “molasses-thick,” but Gao is not ruffled by it or similar remarks.

“I do have an accent,” she said. “Over time, they are going to get used to it. They do learn, so I have no problem.”

“I think, if [students] have less experience in listening to different styles of talking, they tend to probably notice it more and comment more.”

Train listeners, linguistics prof says

Part of the issue is just that: a lack of exposure to speakers with accents, said Derwing.

“It’s always easier to process speech that is quite similar to our own. But in fact, the more familiar you become with accented speech, the easier it is to process that speech as well,” she told CBC Toronto.

There are factors — improper grammar or limited vocabulary, for instance — that may make a speaker hard to understand, but the listener is likely to blame an accent, Derwing said.

“There are people who just shut down as soon as they hear an accent. And that’s just wrong.”

“If people have a preconceived notion that they’re not going to understand someone who has accented speech, then it’s quite likely that they’re not going to.”

In her research, Derwing says a so-called heavy accent is easily understood and intelligible but listeners may equate that with not having a grasp of English. And those who speak English with a “foreign” accent are judged more harshly.

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