Judging people by their accents is learned early in life

Valerie Chelangat

It’s not uncommon to speak English with a non-local Canadian accent, but people who come from other countries still face judgment for the way they speak.

That was the experience of Valerie Chelangat, a writer and owner of Tusome books in Winnipeg who is originally from Kenya. English is her first language, and she speaks with a Kenyan accent.

Chelangat said people would sometimes ask her to repeat herself, or laugh at something that wasn’t meant to be funny because they didn’t understand what she’d said. Being Black also affected people’s perception of her, she said, because they already had the impression that she was a foreigner.

As part of her master of fine arts in creative nonfiction at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Chelangat interviewed friends and acquaintances who were immigrants or had family that came to Canada from elsewhere.

“Some of their responses were that they’ve been impacted socially, they have a hard time making friends, some people have found when they are at work and if they want a promotion, they’ve been unable to get it,” she said. 

There were some people Chelangat spoke to who even took lessons to get rid of their accent, or spoke one way at work and another way at home — something known as code-switching — and she wondered how that affected them. 

“Is it healthy for you to do that for you to be able to be accepted? And also is it fair that these people have to shed a part of themselves to be able to get these opportunities?” 

Elizabeth Johnson

When Chelangat heard about a recent Canadian study suggesting accent bias starts very young, she was not surprised. 

Professor and psycholinguist Elizabeth Johnson at the University of Toronto set out to discover if Canadian children had the same biases as children in other countries. 

“I anticipated that our children would be rather accepting of foreign accented speakers, and I was really motivated to look at this because research coming out of Boston, Chicago, Paris, had suggested that children had very, very strong biases early on to speakers who had foreign accents, and I really didn’t think we would find that here in Toronto.”

But a study she ran with children from southern Ontario showed those same biases. 

In the experiment, children aged five and six were asked to rate teachers with either a British, Dutch, Australian, French or a local Canadian accent. 

“Children not only showed an overwhelming preference for teachers who spoke English in the local Canadian version of English, they also rated more highly those people who spoke with a local accent,” said Johnson. 

She also noted children don’t necessarily grow out of this, and it’s something she’s observed with young adults.  

Some factors though can make a person less likely to judge the way another person speaks, such as exposure to a diversity of accents. 

Kang Lee is a professor at the University of Toronto, and while he was not involved in Johnson’s study, he’s seen similar findings in his own research. 

He found that babies younger than three months show no preferences for their own race or gender, but that changes by about 12 months when then they tend to prefer people who look and sound like their primary caregivers. 

Studies of children in multi-racial households, however, have shown that a child’s environment can also make them more accepting of differences.

“If a baby is born into an interracial family, they don’t show biases to prefer their own race versus other race faces because they see the other race faces quite a bit,” Lee said. 

And the same goes for accents.  

“It’s purely the environment the child is in. It’s just experience and not the explicit teaching of the environment that makes them biased.”

That’s good news for parents and educators.

“You can create an environment in which the child is exposed to a diversity of experiences,” Lee said. 

“If the child is exposed to more people who speak with accents, then the bias will be much more reduced than if you leave the child in a more homogenous kind of environment.”