Attitudes of the English accents among native-speakers towards non-native speakers: A critical review
An article written by Harbi Barkad Aden (University of Djibouti)
English speakers present plenty of different accents in the world. Many authors have subsequently studied the attitudes of the English accent that native-speakers express towards the non-native ones.
In many situations like job application, voluminous studies have constantly shown that non-native speakers were downgraded because of their accents. Particular communities like Asian, Black and Hispanics were the most rated ones in the US for the last couple of decades.
The evaluation of the attitudes of native-speakers was generally based on social factors and not on linguistic factors. This short study is a critical review of previous literature about the English accents and attitudes that native people show towards non-natives speakers.
Keywords: native-speakers, non-native speakers, attitudes, accents, social factors, linguistic factors
The spread of the English language in today’s world has led the rapid emergence of many concepts in which English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) and English as an International Language (EIL) are subsumed, and these have brought the dramatic change in the roles and functions of English in many parts of the world in recent times (Jenkins, 2007; Kirkpatrick, 2007).
As it is, we may need to bear in our mind, the various varieties of Englishes around the world are the main sources of various accents among non-native speakers. However, it is important to note that accent or the way a person sounds, “is difficult to standardize since it is closely related and linked to the speaker’s personal and group identityˮ (Kaur, 2014: 4).
Non-native English speakers have numerous accents which are the obvious manifestation of the diversity of the English. Tremendous research has demonstrated the role of the accents in today’s world Englishes. Current studies confirm the consistent ranking of the native-speakers accent higher than non-native accents (Kaur & Raman, 2014).
In this perspective, having his/her own accent suggests being less credible compared to native-speakers (Lev-Ari & Keysar, 2010). Due to stereotypes of prejudice against foreigners, such reduction in credibility may have an insidious impact on million of people, who regularly communicate in a language which is not their native language.
Even though accent attitudes among native and non-native English speakers have been the central focus for the past couple of years, non-native accents are rarely recognized as legitimate ones. Therefore, few studies have recently discussed accent attitudes in another perspective which is; how non-native English speakers view non-native speakers accent.
Non-native accents and attitudes
As we may perceive, nowadays, it is irrefutable that language is intertwined with society. From that perspective, language is shaped by many social factors (Senefonte, 2016).
The way one speaks can obviously tell us his/her age, gender, nationality, profession, sex orientation, religion and so on. Recent sociolinguistic studies report that the way a group of people speaks is often assessed by others (Bauman, 2013; Jaber & Hussein, 2011).
Native speakers’ attitudes towards non-native speakers have been examined prevalently over the last decade. However, among the studies reviewed, such non-native accents evaluation was generally based on social factors. That is to say, as (Senefonte, 2016: 100) mentions “evaluation can be based on either linguistic or social factorsˮ.
Will (2010) states also concerning the foreign accent, the evaluation is based on some linguistic factors (the level of intelligibility / communicability) and majorly on social factors (the speaker’s country, race and others). If the speaker’s country has a high status in the world, his/her accent tends to be better rated. It is therefore interesting to notice that, in many countries like US, UK, and Australia where English is their native language, foreigners may face discrimination because of their accents.
It is evident to consider that the higher the speaker’s social status is the higher his/her language variety will be rated, but making attempts on the social perspective could not provide suitable root of solution or concrete answers why non-native accents are downgraded.
In their studies (Bauman, 2013; Reddington, 2013; Jaber & Hussein, 2011; Will, 2010; Said 2006) these researchers scrutinized how foreign accent has been evaluated in the US over the last decade, which speaker has been more downgraded and which race has received more stigma.
In the same context, one of our reviewed papers highlights the perceptions of native-speakers towards foreign accents. By and large, results show that the majority of the studies analysed reveal a negative attitude of native speaker towards the non-native accent (Gluszek & Dovidio, 2010). The findings also display that the Asian, Black and Hispanic accents are the lowest rated ones.
Thus, it is possible to notice that social factors were taken as parameters for such evaluation. The question one’s should ask is; do results drawn from social factors justify the linguistic factors too?
While the examination of the foreign accents discrimination from social perspectives has received the focus of important researchers, linguistic factors are not studied popularly. The latter may be included when non-native speakers’ speech contains major problems with respect to intelligibility or comprehensibility (Senefonte, 2016).
Indeed, linguistic factors that affect predominantly the foreign accents should be carefully scrutinized in such a way. Authors have greatly stressed on the attitudes through social perspectives, yet most of the results may not be applicable to linguistic factor.
As most of our reviewed articles express, it is still needed to re-shape how native-speakers see non-native ones in terms of some linguistic criteria which subsume; correctness, acceptability, Pleasantness and intelligibility of speech (Kaur & Raman, 2014). The examination in the roles and functions of the English language either as Lingua Franca or as an International language has made different standpoints among the researchers, how accents resulted from different background should be evaluated and regarded.
Generally, this short critical review paper has the intention to mention “the linguistic factorsˮ should be regarded as an important dimension as the social factors. This is the weaknesses of many more studies failed to work on the linguistic factors.
The influence of the accent on the credibility
Study by Lev-Ari & Keysar (2010) has examined how native-speakers see non-native speakers’ speech in terms of credibility and reliability of their speech production. However, it is ineluctable to take into account, that great stereotypes prejudice against foreigners should be expected in such a study.
The second point that this short article review underlines is the weaknesses that some papers possess due to some reasons. Many attempts were made to scrutinize the perceptions of native speakers towards non-native accents, but few studies have recently turn to the examination how non-native English speakers view non-native speakers accents, (Kaur & Raman, 2014).
Dealing with native English speakers’ perceptions could not provide useful solutions for the ongoing stereotypes prejudice that million of non-native speakers face nowadays. As it is, non-native speakers should get some focus and test them how they view their accents whether accents are harmful or harmless in terms of their speech credibility (Kaur, 2009).
Besides, when conducting studies, it is worth noting that authors would carefully be clear. Biased confirmation is something that could affect the credibility of a work.
One of our reviewed articles was found to be biased in their results. That is to say, authors were having the tendency to mention early what kind of results will be drawn. It is obvious that native-speakers will probably react negatively by downgrading the foreign accents, but authors may need to re-shape their objectives by looking patterns in other ways. Jenkins, (2006) has studied the point of views of native-speakers towards foreign accents in terms of intelligibility and credibility, but the study in somehow was biased for two reasons, 1) results were already known, 2) he was like favoring one group over another. Concurring with Shuck (2006), Flege (1984: 74) further remarks that “foreign accents are often associated with low intelligibility and negative personal evaluations of non-native speakers”.
Although credibility of speech is important thing to study, by the different linguistic background that foreigners hold, there could be much influence from their accents on their speech credibility. But, what is needed in some studies is that, do not make biased confirmation and avoid much stereotypes prejudice.
Non-native English accents: EIL result?
Among the papers reviewed, researchers have numerous standpoints in which some of them consider that the various foreign accents in recent times are the result of the emergence of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) and English as International Language (EIL).
According to them, accents are related with the rapid spread of the English in every part of the world (Jenkins, 2009; Jenkins 2007; Holliday, 2005; Jenkins 2000). This could be alienating and disregarding by many other researchers because of some reasons; 1) accent is a natural way by which a particular group of people has commonly. However, it is intertwined by their background either their L1, belief, political organisation as well as educational system. In this context, accents have mutual and gradual relation with their L1s.
All in all, the extensive studies on the foreign accents have revealed that native-speakers have negative point of views either on the non-speakers ’speech credibility or by their background. Some studies display that in the US, black and Asian foreigners were the most downgraded races by their respective accents compared to European such as French and German.
So, under the assumptions of the Accent Prestige Theory (Giles, 1970), the more distant one is from the standard the more stigmatized and marginalized they will be. That is why not all the foreign accents receive the same evaluation. Under this tenet, listeners will judge skin color, economic class or geographical origins before reacting to the message of a communication.
Further investigations are needed to explore the linguistic factors of the non-native accents rather the social factors that have been studied popularly over the past decades. Researchers may need also to shift their inquiries from native-speakers towards non-native speakers. Attempts are excepted to clarify more how non-native themselves perceive their accents. Lastly, in terms of researching accents and attitudes, it will be useful in the future to lend credence to the voices and insights of the respondents rather than merely decoding their responses from questionnaires.
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Harbi Barkad Aden holds a master’s degree in English Language Studies from the department of the English language and literature of International Islamic University Malaysia. He is currently an English (linguistics) lecturer in the University of Djibouti. His areas of interest include English language acquisition, cross-linguistic influence and language and society. Email: email@example.com