According to a Canadian study, children under the age of 5 often prefer teachers with a local accent to teachers with a local or distinct accent.
It was an outcome that the researchers did not expect. Previous studies in the US and France have shown that children have accents, but the researchers believe that Canadian children who are exposed to a wider variety of accents are less likely to have accents.
In research published earlier this year in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, researchers asked 144 5- to 6-year-olds to rate whether they wanted to be their teacher after hearing the Different speakers with multiple voices read a brief sample passage.
The children showed a preference for teachers with Canadian accents, and rated French, Australian and Dutch speakers lower when asked how good a teacher they thought each speaker was. how good you can be.
Elizabeth Johnson, one of the study’s authors, said in an October press release: “The whole thing started with us trying to prove that Canadian children are more receptive than American children.
“That’s what really surprised me.”
The children are all from southern Ontario. Even children who are more exposed to a variety of accents in their lives at home and at school still choose speakers with Canadian accents more than once, the study found.
Johnson, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, Mississauga campus, says that the idea for the study came from reflecting on students’ evaluations of faculty in higher education.
There is often criticism directed at certain professors in these assessments that have nothing to do with their teaching style or competence and more with implicit biases, she explains. a student holds.
“The biases get stronger with age,” says Johnson. “We read [professor] judgment and they may be clearly gendered in some way, or they may clearly speak with a non-native accent. “
Often this bias is ignored, she points out, but it can have consequences for the teachers in question.
“We usually don’t pay attention to language problems of this kind when we look at how students rate their professors. And that’s a big deal because we have a lot of professors whose first language isn’t English,” Johnson said.
“We wanted to know, where did that come from?”
To find out how early this bias might appear, the researchers exposed children ages 5 to 6 with pairs of adult speakers they had to evaluate.
In each test, one of the speakers would have a Canadian accent, while the other would have a non-Canadian, Australian, Dutch, or French accent.
All speakers read the same short passage in English.
The children were then asked to choose which speaker they wanted to be their teacher, and also to rate “how good a teacher” they thought each speaker would be.
The kids consistently chose the speaker with a Canadian accent who they wanted to be their teacher.
They also showed a greater preference for Canadian accents when the alternative was French over Australian, although no difference in preference strength was noted when the other choice was British versus Dutch. .
On average, children chose Canadian accent speakers more than 60% of the time, but when the alternatives were French accents, children chose Canadian accent speakers more than 80% of the time.
The researchers also recorded each child’s exposure to different voices during their normal lives, but found no difference in the children’s scoring based on exposure to their voices.
Although children frequently rate speakers with Canadian accents higher when asked to rate the speaker’s “good level” as a teacher, they do not rate any speaker as a teacher. “bad” or “very bad” member.
Research also suggests that preference isn’t entirely a matter of comprehension – although it did play an important role.
Because paired speakers read the same thing aloud, the researchers hypothesized that non-dialect accents would be preferred more often if they spoke second, since the same passage already read by local speakers.
In testing, children showed a greater preference for Canadian dialect speakers if the non-native speaker spoke first, “further supporting the view that difficulty understanding non-native speakers locality may have played a part, for the children’s judgments in this task,” the study noted.
However, they still prefer a 66% Canadian accent even when a non-native speaker speaks second and has no problem understanding.
The consistency with which children chose Canadian accents compared to other children, the researchers said, suggests that students weren’t just choosing local accents because they had trouble understanding other accents.
“There is definitely a social bias going on there,” Johnson said. “You really have to worry about this much younger than you think.”
The study did not look at the cause of this, and the researchers acknowledge that there could be many factors at play when children choose a preferred teacher.
“Given the binary nature of choice data, we concede that this type of analysis may oversimplify the rich social decisions children are making while judging others,” the study said. save note.
The researchers also showed that children did not rate any speakers poorly on their ability to be teachers and that the children heard these speakers for the first time and might have made different judgments if they spent time with them. more time for the people behind the voice. .
Johnson said they hope to do more research to decipher some of these potential confounding factors.
“We are also interested in better understanding what types of experiences can mitigate the initial formation or perpetuation of negative language biases in young children,” she said.
She added that identifying the source of the stress deviation is “important to society and how we operate, how we make decisions about people’s competence, and how we choose to portray people in the media”.