It’s Not What You Say…

Category: Translation Services

3542912269_37b66456d1_z…but how you say it, apparently. If you have a foreign accent, it is harder for native speakers to understand what you are saying and they are less likely to find what the person says as truthful, researchers found in a study (pdf) conducted by the University of Chicago last month, with funding from the National Science Foundation.

“They misattribute the difficulty of understanding the speech to the truthfulness of the statements,” explained Boaz Keysar, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago and an expert on communication.

How did they find this out?

American participants were asked to judge the truthfulness of trivia statements by native or non-native speakers of English, such as, “A giraffe can go without water longer than a camel can.” The purpose was to test the impact of accent on credibility.

To minimize the effect on simply prejudice, researchers told listeners that the information in the statements was prepared for the speakers, and was not based on the speakers’ own knowledge. Despite knowing the speakers were reciting from a script, the participants judged as less truthful the statements coming from people with foreign accents.

On a truthfulness scale prepared for the experiment, the participants gave native speakers a score of 7.5, people with mild accents a score of 6.95 and people with heavy accents a score of 6.84. The severity of a person’s accent also affected the score; statements made by speakers with heavier accents were rated as less truthful than those with milder accents.

In another experiment, researchers told the subjects about the study to see if awareness reduces the impact. It did have some effect: participants rated statements with mild accent just as truthful as statements by native speakers, but they still rated heavily accented statements as less truthful.

We always knew that accent is a big factor that influences people’s perception of foreigners in a society, but its insidious impact on credibility is a new finding, a researcher noted.

Non-native job seekers, eyewitnesses, reporters or people taking calls in foreign call centers are some of the people to which this new insight might apply. If they have a moderate to heavy accent, they’ll have a harder time being perceived as truthful, concluded Shiri Lev-Ari, lead author of “Why Don’t We Believe Non-native Speakers? The Influence of Accent on Credibility.”


photo credit: timparkinson