Speaking in Tongues: Accents, Cognitive Fluency & Prejudice

It was Mark Twain who noted: “I have travelled more than anyone else, and I have noticed that even the angels speak English with an accent.” An assuring insight when your accent may be considered wildly out of place! I have lost count of the number of times people comment (in their own accent) on a lack of understanding of what was said or being said because of the speaker’s “heavy accent”.  Of course, an accent is a way of pronouncing a language. It is therefore impossible to speak without an accent. Yet, one cannot help but consider whether there is some form of bias (knowingly or unknowingly) when it comes to the comment about not understanding someone because of their accent!

Is there a bias against particular accents and especially foreign ones or that which marks you out as different? Can this be considered a form of prejudice? How often in a conversation and especially if you look visibly different, you are asked where you are from? There is, of course, no reason why someone cannot ask that as a reasonably way of showing interest in you. It becomes uncomfortable, however, when you are the only one being asked while the others in your group are clearly not local and like everyone else speaks with an accent.

In the context of the vocation of ministry it is not uncommon in training, formation or being interviewed to work in the British context, for the matter of accents of overseas (meaning especially African, Indian, Korean and Caribbean) to become one of the most critical issue around which many are discerned as not having the calling to work in British Churches. Candidates, however, who are native speakers, are not considered or evaluated for their accent, even though churches may have a problem in understanding some of the regional accents. This is beside the point that some of us do need coaching to use our voices to maximum effect in the context of a gathering. In a work in which communication skills are essential, it seems as if the yardstick is often only applied to those who are considered non-native English speakers and foreigners.

Prejudice, according to some recent research, is only part of the problem. There is also the matter of class and snobbery. Moreover, it has been discovered that non-native accents is much demanding for those who are native speakers to parse and thus affects their ‘cognitive fluency’, pushing them into uncomfortable zones, experiencing a sort of displacement resulting in fear and insecurity! Because the brain is challenged to process what it hears as a result of the accent, it quickly doubts the accuracy of what is said, if it is not the familiar accent. I wonder if this is why at meetings my contributions are often neglected until someone makes the very contribution and all “ears” are then tuned towards that person!

In our world where data is now processed in small and imaged bites it is not surprising that more and more prefer to work with that which is easy and simple on their thinking. Research has shown that in judging a statement’s accuracy, amendments, corrections or manipulations that make the statement easier to mentally process can alter people’s judgment of its truth, along with their evaluation of the intelligence of the author/presenter and their confidence in their own judgments and abilities. This may be a clue for all those church resolutions, how they are crafted and who present them! It may be that the difficulty in understanding accented speech lies in the complex relationship between prejudice and cognitive fluency associated with processing speech.

The implications for all native speakers are large and demanding. They need to look self critically as to why they find the heavy, different or foreign accent to understand, while doing some serious intensive work on their verbal reasoning skills. After all Mark Twain may just be right: “even the angels speak English with an accent” and it would be wise to question the veracity of their instructions!!!


© copyright  January 2, 2012

2 Comments Add yours

  1. creolita says:

    great post! Didn’t know that – about non-native accents affecting cognitive fluency!

  2. Liana Simkins says:

    After all, what a great site and informative posts, I will upload inbound link – bookmark this web site? Regards, Reader.

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