Accents and Education


Throughout our lives we engage in social interactions regularly and frequently (Clark et al. 1998:ix) language is the key and education is certainly no exception. But language and in particular accents serve so much more than to transfer information back and fourth. They are a form of social identity and set us as belonging to a certain community.

Having established the multiple interconnections of social situations and language choices, we now come on to consider how such choices are socially meaningful to others. In fact, even a single vowel or consonant sound, contrasting with others or with our expectations, can have evaluative repercussions for its utterer. (Giles & Coupland 1991:32). Surveys and investigations, Illustrate that prejudiced towards particular dialects is common (Giles and Coupland 1991:32-33).

But do students in a class form associations with teachers depending on their accents and if so does this effect their attitudes and thereby learning?

Sahlström (2005) carried out a study on Upper Secondary Students’ Assessment of Four Women Speaking Four Different Varieties of English namely Scottish, American English, Australian English, RP (received pronunciation) ie. ‘proper’ English. RP is the variety of English taught in schools and abroad when English is taught as a second language, seen in previous years as being associated with those who are well educated its popularity is decreasing most likely as it has negative connotation linked to it of being superior, posh (Trudgill 2000:194-195) and snobbish (Sharwood-Smith 1999:59-60) and (Sahlstrom, 2005).

Scottish on the other hand has positive connotations with Scottish people being viewed as friendly, hospitable and warm people (Edwards 1982:23).

Sahlström (2005) discovered that American speaker scored highest, in comparison to the other accents, on traits like ‘ambitious, articulate, benevolent, educated, friendly, organized and trustworthy’. But the Scottish accent was rated the lowest on traits such as ‘arrogant, condescending, funny, generous, sociable and wealthy’ (Sahlström, 2005).

The Australian Speaker was rated the lowest on traits such as arrogant and shy and yet she was rated the highest on traits such as Arrogant Articulate, Benevolent, confident and educated (Sahlström, 2005)

The Scottish speaker, was noted as the most experienced (Sahlström, 2005). With participants rating her as ‘confident, experienced and relaxed’ (Sahlström, 2005). But she was rated as less educated in comparison to the other speakers (Sahlström, 2005).

So it is clear from the research outlined above that there are stereotypes and prejudices against particular accents. But going back to the question that I asked previously do different accents affect the student’s learning?

 Gill (1994) examined accent and stereotypes and their effect on perceptions of teachers and lecture comprehension. Gill discovered that students administered more positive ratings to teachers with standard North American accents (Gill, 1994). Interestingly accent variety also influenced comprehension (Gill, 1994). It was found that participants recalled more information from North American teachers in comparison to British or Malaysian teachers (Gill, 1994). Also stereotyping had no impact on impression formation or comprehension (Gill, 1994).

Additionally Kelly (1970)  carried out research on students attitudes to regional Irish accents that indicated that there exists regional differences between teachers and pupils class- room interaction depending on their accent. So potentially pupils attend less well to teachers whose accents they perceive unfavourably on certain dimensions as supported in research by (Edwards, 1977).


5 responses »

  1. I definitely would worry that there is discrimination based on accent or dialect, and certainly this has not been more evident than within the African American Population. For years, the African American population has faced widespread educational discrimination. This author ( found that teachers had lower educational expectations for speakers of the ‘Venacular Black English’ dialect, leading to pupils being conditioned for failure. Given that we all have popular perceptions of what different accents in the UK translate to, I wonder if there is this same problem of conditioned failure of pupils based on Teacher discrimination within the UK. How much of the educational failure within large city schools is a result of teacher discrimination, I wonder?

  2. I think that accents have more influence on our opinions of teachers rather than any difference in performance. This notion has also been tested by Butler (2007) who examined the effects of accents on Korean students. Students were taught English by teachers who spoke English with an American accent, and English teachers with a Korean accent. Results indicated that students formed significantly different attitudes towards teachers based on accents, with more preference towards the American accent, but there was no difference in the amount of information recall and comprehension. This supports that accents are presumably liked to certain characteristics, some which are more favourable than others.

    • Yes without a doubt accents also have an effect on impression formation for teachers but in my opinion this in tern effects their performance.

      Although Mehrabian and Ferris (1967) found that first impression attitudes are formed ‘7% from speech content, 38% from vocal qualities and 55% from facial information’.
      Therefore in order to fully examined the factors at play towards student impression formation of their teachers and how this potentially effects their academic performance more research is required.

      Also it was disovered that in a study of University students in Hong Kongs attitudes towards non native English teachers that there attitudes towards their non native accents became increasingly more positive as they went through University as supported in research by Moussu and Braine (2006). So potentially the length of time that the students are exposed to the teacher, the accent in question and also the facial information will have an influence on student impression formation and possibly on their academic performance as mentioned by (Gill, 1994).

      Moussu, L., and G. Braine
      2006 ‘The Attitudes of ESL Students towards Nonnative English Language
      Teachers’, TESL Reporter 39: 33-47.

      Mehrabian, A. And Ferris, S., 1967. Inference of attitudes from nonverbal communication in two channels. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 31, 248-252.

      Mehrabian, A. and Weiner, M., 1967. Decoding of inconsistent communications. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 6, 109-114.

  3. I purposefully got rid of my Dutch accent when I was younger. Before that, native English speakers would always smile at me like I was someone who was going to have a very rough time in life and could do with some charity. It’d be interesting to see what would happen if Gill’s (1994) experiment was done using British participants, rather than American participants.

    Eisenstein (1983) found that speakers were assessed more negatively if their speaking contained non-native aspects (such as intonation). In line with Lucy’s research, Granger, Mathews, Quay and Verner (1977) found that (American) teachers payed less attention to what black students said. This can be extremely problematic, as Gill (1994) mentions that Edwards (1982) found that accents were used as the mayor cues for teachers in their evaluation of students.

    Eisenstein (1983):

    Granger, Mathews, Quay & Verner (1977):

  4. Hi Eliza!

    I found your blog a really interesting read this week as I am interested in this area of psychology (i.e. accent perception and its effects).

    I found an interesting study that I thought I would share with you. Adank, Noordzij, and Hagoort (2011) used an fMRI design to examine the influence of non-native accents. They found that activations in areas associated with emotion/understanding were stronger for native accents. This could indicate an underlying neural explanation for accent bias. Could biases actually be caused by neural problems of comprehension?

    Research has suggested that students be made familiar with a wider variety of accents from a younger age – this could allow neural adaptation to non-native phonemes (Coupland & Bishop, 2007). Subsequently, this could remove accent comprehension problems/biases found in higher education systems…

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