Four children talking to each other

Children show preference for their local accent; study

Ty Burke

In the sonic whirl of Toronto, where the sounds of city life are peppered with more than 200 languages and inclusivity is part of the curriculum at every stage of a child’s education, you might not expect that children would show a preference for one accent over another. But they do.

“Previous studies had examined more homogenous communities in suburban Boston and Chicago,” says the University of Toronto Mississauga’s Elizabeth Johnson.

“We wondered if those feelings about people who speak in different accents would be the same for children growing up in the Greater Toronto Area, where children are regularly exposed to a wide range of accents. We predicted – incorrectly, as it turns out – that children who had familiarity with many different accents would not show these biases in their friendship preferences.”

In collaboration with her former U of T Mississauga postdoctoral student Melissa Paquette-Smith, now an assistant professor at UCLA, Johnson published “The Effect of Accent Exposure on Children’s Sociolinguistic Evaluation of Peers” in the January issue of Developmental Psychology, a journal of the American Psychological Association.

The study showed five- and six-year-old children images of two children on a computer screen.  One child in each pair spoke English with a Canadian accent and the other spoke English with either a British or a Korean accent. The pairs of children were as indistinguishable from one another as possible, with their accent being the only major difference between them.

Overall, children showed a preference for the child who spoke with a local Canadian accent, although this preference was much stronger when the other child spoke with a Korean accent, rather than a British one. But Johnson cautions that this study deals in first impressions, and the results don’t mean that children who speak with non-local accents will necessarily face social isolation at school.

“Having a bias does not equate with ill-will or thinking badly of someone who has an accent. That is not something that we looked into. We only asked ‘who would you rather be friends with?’” says Johnson, an associate professor of psychology.

“Taking away all other information except accent allowed us to reveal that children were sensitive to accent, and it was playing into their friendship preferences. But that’s an artificial situation, and if we had given the children more information -- for example, a reason for the Korean accent speaker to be chosen over the Canadian accent speaker, like being nice or more social -- we might have seen very different results. Recent research suggests that you can actually overwhelm these biases, if you give children information that the native accent speaker is mean and the foreign accent speaker is nice.”

In recent years, people have grown far more attuned to discrimination based on appearance, but Johnson notes that we rely strongly on the way that people speak to form social judgments.

“That's true for adults, and also for really young kids. The seeds of these sorts of biases are present very early in development. People are aware of racial biases, but should also be aware of biases based on the way people speak. These biases emerge really early, and can be taken into account in the classroom and in social settings. Understanding why children develop biases against speakers who speak differently may help us to design interventions that can decrease or maybe even prevent these biases from developing in the first place.”

Helen Buckler of the University of Nottingham, Katherine S. White of the University of Waterloo, and Jiyoun Choi of Sookmyung Women’s University collaborated with Johnson and Paquette-Smith on this research.