How Accents Work

How Accent Affects Perception
Mickey Rooney played the Japanese Mr. Yunioshi in 1961's 'Breakfast at Tiffany's.' His portrayal is now considered very offensive. Bettmann / Contributor/Getty Images

Most of us are raised not to judge a book by its cover. So why do we make snap judgements about others based on how they sound? Indeed, a person's accent can certainly affect how she is perceived, even when she is fluent in the non-native language.

The disparity in accent perception is hardly one-size-fits-all, however, with some accents seen as more favorable — or sexier — than others. Babbel, the language-learning app, surveyed users of its app to find out which language and accent was the sexiest. Results showed that French was the most attractive, with German the least.

"There seems to be in the American mind a ranking of accents that are acceptable and accents that are not," says Regina Rodríguez-Martin, an American culture coach who has worked with many international clients to help them better assimilate in America, professionally and personally. "There's a different level of patience for someone with an Indian accent versus a French accent," she adds. "We call them harder to understand, but I'm not sure that they're harder or that we don't value them as much."

Rodriguez-Martin also notes that Asian clients report frustration with social acceptance compared to those of European origin. Indeed, Asian accents have been persistently mocked in television, film and general society for decades, as seen in films like "Breakfast at Tiffany's," "Sixteen Candles" and "A Christmas Story," which has bled into society at large.

Pre-existing cultural bias can affect a person's opinion of a speaker. However, if the context is considered acceptable (albeit stereotypical), such as an Italian fashion expert or a Japanese businessman, people see them as more credible and competent. This perception of expertise doesn't always totally mitigate the foreign accent stigma, though. Using an accent can cause a person to stand out, and not necessarily in a good way. This phenomenon can cause others to underestimate the abilities of the person with the accent, leading people to reduce their communication with and trust in her.

This could be due to the trouble that the brain has processing accented information. Researchers from the University of Chicago found that people were more likely to question the validity of a statement if the person making it had a foreign accent. Even when the participants were told what the study was about, the researchers found they could correct their perceptions when someone's accent was mild but not when it was heavy. The reason might be that the effort of deciphering an accent can lower cognitive fluency, or our understanding of given details. This can cause the listener to doubt the accuracy of what the person has said [source: McGlone and Breckinridge].

Although discrimination on many other grounds is now widely forbidden, accent discrimination is murkier water because it's more subjective territory. The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) says that there's no legal violation if an employee is terminated due to their accent, provided that their ability to speak and communicate interferes with their ability to perform vital functions. Think, for instance, someone who is working as a customer service representative.

"Generally, an employer may only base an employment decision on accent if effective oral communication in English is required to perform job duties and the individual's foreign accent materially interferes with his or her ability to communicate orally in English," states the EEOC site. "If a person has an accent but is able to communicate effectively and be understood in English, he or she cannot be discriminated against."