Examining how accents affect people’s perceptions of others

By Melody Cui and Angela Zhang

Some turn bright-eyed while others pass looks – reactions that senior Niko Kocbayindiran has gotten accustomed to after speaking in front of someone for the first time. Having a Northwestern London and Californian mixed accent while being ethnically Indian, Kocbayindiran has observed that people don’t initially match his accent and physical appearance together.

“Britain itself is a very culturally diverse nation,” Kocbayindiran said. “But I think most Americans in our heads see the white Anglo-Saxon, as that sort of makes sense, ethnically – that’s what an English person would look like. But I’m not ethnically English, or Irish, or Scottish or Welsh. But I was born in Britain, and I was raised there. So they don’t expect my voice to come out of my face.”

With 1.5 billion speakers, English is the most widely spoken language in the world. Across the globe, there are over 160 different accents that people have while speaking English. According to Stanford linguistics assistant professor Nandi Sims, who specializes in language variation and sociolinguistics, a person’s accent can include more than just their pronunciation.

“[An] accent can mean a lot of different things,” Sims said. “I study accents in terms of both the sounds that differ between different kinds of people and also the way sentences are put together that might differ.”

Given the ethnic or geographical origins of an accent, Sims believes that people’s accents and their sense of identity are often closely tied together and can mutually reinforce each other.

“The way you speak can relate to your identity in a couple of different ways,” Sims said. “It could be that the way you speak is because of how you grew up [and] who your parents are. But a lot of times, your identity is what’s having an effect on your accent. So there’s a lot of research particularly with adolescents in middle school and high school on how they are using their speech to show what kind of person they are … Those are sort of subconscious decisions that people make to show what kind of person they are.”

In line with Sims’ observations, sophomore Samuel Teo, who moved to the United States from Singapore last summer, feels that his Singaporean accent is a part of his identity and allows him to feel unique among other MVHS students.

“It’s quite unique to have it because you rarely find people that are from Singapore here and then it gives me a sense of identity like who I am and where I’m from,” Teo said. “It definitely gives me this kind of feeling that I’m unique and [have an] identity that I can relate to.”

Sims believes that there are three broad categories accents fall into: unnoticeable, socially favored and socially unfavored.

“Some accents, people don’t notice,” Sims said. “So it really doesn’t have very much effect on them. Other accents people notice, and they like, or there’s something social about it that tells them they’re supposed to like that accent. And so then they might treat them better than they would any regular person or their accent might signal something that that person doesn’t like and so then they might treat them worse.”

Perceptions of these accents usually depend on social and historical context — a favorable accent is praised because of the positive social cues it spurs. On the other hand, unfavorable accents are usually disparaged because of the stereotypical unconventionality of the wording and phrases used.

“If the exact same person starts talking with either accent, they’ll hear the British [one] and say, ‘Oh, that person is very smart,'” Sims said. “And they will hear that I’m talking Southern, and say, ‘Oh, they don’t know anything. They’re backwards and silly.'”

Although Teo doesn’t feel that he has experienced particularly unfavorable perceptions of his accent, he recognizes that his accent causes people to immediately perceive him as a foreigner and sometimes creates a communication barrier.

“I think people just perceive me as someone that isn’t from here,” Teo said. “It’s hard to communicate – my accent is completely different from here, so I think it’s good that it’s changing.”

Kocbayindiran has found people’s reactions to his accent to be overall positive and joking, fielding many requests to pronounce mundane words such as water, but acknowledges how negative reactions are a lot more severe for those with unfavorable accents.

“[Accents] are used as an indicator of intelligence,” Kocbayindiran said. “So, you know, if you were to listen to my family, you [would] probably think they’re not too intelligible. But the truth is, you have to learn to look past the accent sometimes. Because, for example, if someone’s first language isn’t English, and they’re learning, they might be the smartest person in the world, but maybe they’re not as good at communicating what they’re thinking or [their] thoughts when they’re communicating with other people, who maybe don’t understand the hurdles that they’re trying to overcome with their dialect. You just have to be mindful of that.”

Sims refers to Kocbayindiran’s observations as experiencing snap judgments from other people, where people use their biases to make assumptions about others.

“People are always making snap judgments of their surroundings,” Sims said. “It could be based on the way somebody looks or … the way that they dress, or the way that they speak. I’m sure people have had the experience where they see someone, and they have these ideas about them. And then when that person starts talking, they’re like, ‘Oh, whoa, I wasn’t expecting you to talk like that.’ Because they were making assumptions based on the [person’s] looks and then they had to make new assumptions based on how they spoke. Whether or not any of those assumptions aren’t correct – probably most of them aren’t.”

An accent can provoke snap judgments that lead to assumptions about intellect and behavior, which Sims believes are different ideas but inherently overlap due to the stereotypes that connect the two traits together.

“Usually, if you think of a middle-class person, you’re not just thinking about how much money they make, you’re thinking they are likely to dress this way,” Sims said. “They are likely to be educated with at least an undergraduate education; they are likely to look this certain way or live in these certain places. So all of those things are integrated into your idea of what kind of a certain type of person is.”

Sims sees snap judgments as partially an evolutionary necessity, although they can lead to more severe biases and discriminations that impact apartment leases or court decisions.

“If I’m looking for an apartment,” Sims said. “And I call for the apartment, the person who has power in that situation is the person who wants to rent out this apartment. If they hear my accent, and they think something negative about me [like], ‘Oh, this person is not going to pay their rent on time because they sound like this kind of person,’ then I might not get that apartment. Whereas if I call and I sound very standard, very proper, they’re not going to make that snap judgment and then I’ll be able to get the apartment that I’m looking for. It can even have bigger impacts where let’s say you’re in the courtroom and the jury is making judgments about how you speak. They might think, ‘Oh, you’re guilty,’ whether or not the evidence is clear enough that you are [not].”

In addition to apartment leases or court decisions, accent discrimination can also have significant effects in the workplace. Paul Graham, the founder of startup accelerator Y Combinator, admitted to his discrimination against foreign accents, saying in an interview that “it could be that anyone with half a brain would realize you’re going to be more successful if you speak idiomatic English, so they must just be clueless if they haven’t gotten rid of their strong accent.” As the founder of a prominent startup accelerator, Graham’s bias could prevent startup CEOs with foreign accents from receiving the necessary funding to succeed. Sims adds that after a while, those with accents can internalize others’ judgments which invariably affects their social and academic performance, leading to long-term consequences.

“You see this a lot in children in school, for example,” Sims said. “Teachers are not immune to the social pressures and the snap judgments that they can make. And a lot of times they’re not aware of those judgments that they’re making. If you speak a non-standard variety, you might often get bad grades on an assignment or your teacher will correct you every time you tried to raise your hand in class because of the way you said something. And then gradually, that student stops liking school, they stop caring about school because they’ve had all of these negative experiences and that has long term repercussions. Imagine starting off in kindergarten, where your teacher is making these judgments about you. So you start to care less and then at first grade, the same thing happens so you start to care less, and by the time you’re in high school, you don’t care at all.”

Sims emphasizes how spreading awareness is the best way to reduce accent bias, since it is one of the more prevailing forms of discrimination still present in society. Sims believes disparaging one’s speech is seen as more acceptable than other forms of discrimination and  can be used as a front for the underlying prejudice present. However, as a linguistics professor, Sims says that speech should be talked about in a neutral way.

“All accents are the same,” Sims said. “By that they mean, there’s nothing good or bad about any accent. Differences between languages and varieties are not necessarily right or wrong. It would be wrong if I was trying to speak standard English and then I didn’t have that agreement. But people who are speaking varieties are not always trying to speak the standard. So for someone to come and say, ‘Oh, that’s wrong or dumb’ – they’re just not understanding that other varieties work differently.”

This story was originally published on El Estoque on April 14, 2023.