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Why Foreign Accents Make Speakers Seem Less Honest
email this pageprint this pageemail usDaily Mail UK
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July 22, 2010

A foreign accent makes a person seem less honest, researchers have found.

Listeners are less likely to regard what the speaker says as truthful, and the problem increases with the strength of the accent, according to a study from the University of Chicago.

To test the impact of accent on a person's perceived credibility, 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 researchers tried to minimise the effect of prejudice by telling participants the statements were prepared for the speakers, and were not based on their own knowledge.

But despite knowing they were simply 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, they gave native speakers a score of 7.5, those with mild accents 6.95 and those with heavy accents 6.84.

Professor Boaz Keysar, of the University of Chicago, said: 'The results have important implications for how people perceive non-native speakers of a language, particularly as mobility increases in the modern world, leading millions of people to be non-native speakers of the language they use daily.'

'The accent makes it harder for people to understand what the non-native speaker is saying,' Prof Keysar added.

'They misattribute the difficulty of understanding the speech to the truthfulness of the statements.'

'Accent might reduce the credibility of non-native job seekers, eyewitnesses, reporters or people taking calls in foreign call centres, said Shiri Lev-Ari, lead author of Why Don't We Believe Non-native Speakers? The Influence Of Accent On Credibility,' written with Prof Keysar and published in the current issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

In a second experiment, researchers tested whether awareness reduces the impact of accent on perceived truthfulness.

Researchers told participants that they were being tested to see if accents undermine credibility.

That experiment was conducted with identical recorded statements, but with different results.

While participants rated statements with mild accent just as truthful as statements by native speakers, they rated heavily accented statements as less truthful, Lev-Ari said.

Accent is one of the factors that influences people's perception of foreigners in a society, Prof Keysar pointed out.

But its insidious impact on credibility is something researchers had not previously known, he added.

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