New research by University of Chicago psychologists Shiri Lev-Ari and Boaz Keysar shows that non-native accents make speech more difficult for native speakers to break down, thereby reduces “cognitive fluency” (the ease with which the brain processes stimuli). The study found that this slowed down processing causes native speakers to doubt the accuracy of what is being said by non-native speakers.
In the experiment Lev-Ari and Keysar asked people to judge the truthfulness of trivia statements were recited by either native or non-native English speakers. The non-native speakers had mild or heavy Asian, European, or Middle Eastern accents. The listeners tended to doubt the phrases more when recited with an accent, even when they were told that the statements had been written by the researchers.
It was hypothesized that the difficulty of understanding accented speech has a unique effect on a speaker’s credibility that cannot be attributed to stereotypes about foreigners. These findings have important implications on how people perceive non-native speakers of a language. Instead of perceiving speech as harder to understand, natives are prone to perceive statements as less truthful. Consequently accent might reduce the credibility of non-native job seekers, court eyewitnesses, or college instructors for reasons that have nothing to do with xenophobia.
To read more about this study, as well as other examples visit the article in the Scientific American.