Accents and the judgments that come with them

Warda Neijjari, teacher of IBC-courses and researcher at Radboud University, shows why language has an influence in every aspect of life and, more importantly, that it is worth studying the role it plays.

“You have an accent!” A phrase many would not take as a compliment. This is because it is used to state that someone’s pronunciation deviates to some degree from a language variety that is considered the standard or even the correct variety of a language. Linguistically speaking, however, things are a little different: we all speak with an accent. When we speak, we produce sound patterns that together make up words and sentences, and these tend to have characteristics that can be attributed to the country, region, and social class someone grew up in. We are also pretty good at learning multiple languages and adapting ourselves to new language and accent varieties. Socially speaking, though, the idea of (non-)standard languages and accents show how we use language as a tool to create norms and hierarchies to establish order in our environment.

What I study is how people evaluate one another’s character and competencies on the basis of their accents. I also research what listening to different accents does to our perceived and actual abilities to understand each other. What we have already established is that non-native and non-standard accents can lead to harsh judgements of people in terms of their intelligence, employability, and even credibility. On the other hand, we can also feel sympathy towards speakers who deviate from the norm. What is important to keep in mind is that research shows that in general a non-native or non-standard accent do not necessarily lead to lower understanding of speech. So, in general, we are capable of understanding different accent varieties, the problem is that we do not always want to.

So, you see, understanding responses to accents can teach us a lot about our language, our norms, our prejudices, and how they compare to our natural abilities to learn multiple languages and adapt to new linguistic circumstances, also as adults.

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