Accent-Based Explicit and Implicit Biases

Accent-Based Explicit and Implicit Biases

By: Valeria Bogorevich

Where are you really from?

As a European immigrant who has been living in the United States for the past 10 years, I have been enjoying the white privilege but only up until the moment I open my mouth and start speaking. Once I do that, thanks to our powerful thinking machine, aka brain, biases jump at me in the form of “innocent” questions: “What’s that lovely accent?” or “Where are you from?” As a researcher, I understand why it happens. According to Flege (1984), it takes less than a second for people to classify speech as accented. As a human, I know that people with an accent are more than just where they are from, so, on the inside, I feel like the person in this video.

The “Where are you from?” question is even harder for my son. He was born in the Asian part of Russia and lived in the European one for three years. After that, he spent most of his life (nine years) in Arizona, before moving to Southern California. He speaks a mixture of English, Russian, and Spanish at home, but English is his dominant language and the only one he is truly fluent in. In terms of his genetics, he is 99% Eastern European with his biological parents’ ancestry in Ukraine and Russia. In terms of citizenship, he is Russian. However, due to the ongoing invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces, the Ukrainian ancestry plays a very important part. To make things even more complicated, his adoptive father is from Mexico. Because the adoption process happened in the US, my son actually does have a U.S. birth certificate but with a special “foreign born” mark on it. Whenever we fill out paperwork together, he asks me: “Should I mark Asian because that’s where I was born?” and “Should I mark Latino/Hispanic because that’s my dad’s ethnicity?” Of course, due to this loaded background, whenever he moves schools, he must be pulled out of classes to take a test for language learners even though he has never done schooling outside of the US. If you were him, how would you approach answering the “Where are you from?” question?

Besides, for some individuals responding to “Where are you from?” can be painful for other reasons. It might be a sensitive topic that involves a more personal or emotional story. Personally, I know several people who despise this question. One of them is a monolingual U.S. citizen whose biological parents from Vietnam died in a car accident. In fact, reading the comments under the “What Kind of Asian Are You?” video can be quite eye-opening.

Although our brain has an amazing sorting mechanism that is indispensable in our daily lives, it is also the source of our implicit biases. In addition, humans are very curious creatures, but focusing on one’s accent might have the cat-killing power because it makes me and other proficient language users repeatedly answer the same question inquiring about our origins. Sometimes I hear it more than five times per day, which makes it annoying and frustrating.

Accent-Based Discrimination

Having an accent can not only make you talk about your roots every other day. The impact of speaking with an accent goes much further. Accent-based discrimination has been very thoroughly described in English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States, by Lippi-Green (2012). There are examples of how accented speech can preclude people from getting a job, finding housing, or receiving higher education. Furthermore, the book describes examples of how the media can sustain negative impressions and stereotypes about people who speak with an accent. And probably you too can instantly come up with several movies in which villains speak with an accent.

One prominent example of accent-based discrimination comes from a study by Purnell et al. (1999). The authors conducted an experiment where the same person fluent in African American Vernacular English, Standard American English, and Chicano English left voicemail recordings for landlords regarding advertised housing. The results showed a specific pattern—the number of call-backs secured was the most when the speaker left messages using Standard American English.

"You lost me at hello."
Valeria Bogorevich
TT Author

Furthermore, accent-based discrimination is vivid in a study by Lev-Ari & Keysar (2010) where the same true and untrue trivia statements such as “A giraffe can go without water longer than a camel can” were presented to listeners in heavy, mild, and native-speaker accents. The results “showed that statements were rated as significantly less true when said with a heavy accent” (p. 1095). Another interesting angle on accent-based discrimination is illustrated in an article with a catchy name—“You Lost me at Hello”: How and When Accent-based Biases are Expressed and Suppressed. The results revealed that customer service representatives with an accent were given lower evaluations by clients who did not receive the outcome they desired.

"You don’t belong here."
Valeria Bogorevich
TT Author

Unfortunately, explicit accent-based discrimination occurs daily in our society. Wallace et al. (2016) overview different types of racial discrimination in the United Kingdom and its effects on mental health. Dovchin (2020) describes how various international students were traumatized by linguistic racism in Australia. She subdivides this phenomenon into two categories: linguistic bullying (laughing, joking, or commenting about how a person speaks) and linguistic stereotyping (overgeneralizing or ascribing typical negative traits). Dovchin states that linguistic racism has the power to “instigate inferiority complexes leading to social withdrawal, sense of non-belonging, low self-esteem, fear, and anxiety over speaking English” (p. 804).

Unfortunately, I can relate to this. Even though people do not purposefully mean any harm when saying: “Oh, your English is so good! You barely have an accent, but you are definitely Slavic. Russia? Ukraine? Belarus?” it brings to mind previous negative experiences and I hear it more as a cocktail of “I can hear that you are an outsider. You don’t belong here” mixed with “You still haven’t mastered the accent. How are you even allowed to teach English?” and, on my worst days, sprinkled with “Do you really drink vodka for breakfast and have a pet bear who can dance?”

Reverse Linguistic Stereotypes

You will be surprised to hear that sometimes our mind can not only identify accents but also create specific accents based on visual and written cues. It is called reverse linguistic stereotyping. This phenomenon happens when listeners are tricked into believing that the person they are listening to has some specific background, even though it is not true. For example, Kang and Rubin (2009) presented U.S. university students with two lectures by exactly the same native speaker of Standard American English with a distractor lecture by a heavily accented speaker in-between. Before one lecture, the researchers informed the students that the professor was born and educated in the Unites States and showed a picture of an American-looking person. Before the other lecture, using a fabricated dossier and picture but the same voice, the researchers manipulated the students into believing that the professor they were hearing was of Asian origin. In a random order, some groups of students heard the native speaker first or the “non-native” speaker first. Although the students heard the same speaker twice, they rated him as an accented person when he was presented as having an Asian background. It is crucial to note that students’ listening comprehension scores were significantly lower when they believed that the professor had an Asian origin.

In my TED Talk, I mention recent research on the topic of reverse linguistic stereotypes.[1] It shows that not only students born in the US, but also various international students exhibit reverse linguistic stereotyping (Ghanem & Kang, 2021). Moreover, research shows that people are more prone to reverse linguistic stereotypes when they “hold negatively stereotyped expectations” about accents and “find accented speech less superior and less socially attractive” (Kang & Yaw, 2021, p. 1). In other words, those participants who had preconstructed negative beliefs about accented people and rated accented speech as less superior (e.g., unintelligent, uneducated, lower class) and less socially attractive (e.g., unlikable, cold, unattractive) were more likely to be affected by reverse linguistic stereotypes.

[1] (Editor’s note: We strongly suggest you watch it. Lots of good stuff in there.)

Accent (Un)Familiarity and Biases

In our profession too, we must be on guard against accent bias. English teachers, as well as raters scoring spoken performances on high-stakes tests, such as TOEFL, can be affected by implicit accent-based biases. These biases can stem from evaluators’ familiarity or unfamiliarity with specific accents or occur due to the match between the first language (L1) of the rater and the student.

Examiners of speech may exhibit greater leniency in evaluations because they had a lot of communication with speakers of that L1 (Carey et al., 2010), share students’ L1 (Bogorevich, 2018), or if they studied students’ L1 (Winke et al., 2013). In these cases, evaluators can have a heightened understanding of the produced speech that allows them to comprehend some nuances better than other raters. As a result, they could unconsciously rate speakers with familiar accents higher than the ones with unfamiliar accents. However, being conscious of this leniency might backfire, as raters’ attempts to counteract the bias could lead to unfairly stricter grading patterns.

Another fascinating fact is that in some cases a shared L1 can result in negative bias. It can arise when non-native raters assess some challenging aspects of examinees’ language skills, such as politeness in Japanese (Brown, 1995). The researcher suggested a possible explanation: Because polite expressions are so important yet difficult to acquire, the non-native raters who went through the hard process of learning this linguistic feature became less tolerant of mistakes and, thus, assigned lower scores.

Is It Curable? What Should I Do?

First of all, it is important to start with general stereotypes and biases. If your institution offers a bias training, you should definitely sign up for one. Usually, the participants at such events take the implicit bias test and work on bias-revealing activities. At the same time, it might not be enough. Harvard Business Review claims that such trainings can be compared to “a weight-loss program that told participants to step on the scale and left it at that.” Yes, it is not enough to be aware of our biases—we also must do something to fight them daily.

In terms of accent-specific biases, the strategies are similar. Overall, it can be helpful to self-monitor, practice compassion, promote conversations with colleagues, and speak out against bias. More specifically, frequent communication with people from diverse backgrounds, amount of travelling, experience living abroad, ability to speak languages, and knowledge about various cultures are usually associated with decreased accent-based biases.

Finally, if you are mingling with new people and looking for some good conversation starters, “Where are you from?” might not be the best choice. Of course, only you can find the best alternative for each social situation, but you might consider options such as, “Tell me more about yourself” or “Have you ever lived outside of XYZ city/state?” And always remember the possible ramifications of asking this question and never push for more specific answers.


  • Bogorevich, V. (2018). Native and Non-Native Raters of L2 Speaking Performance: Accent Familiarity and Cognitive Processes [Unpublished doctoral dissertation]. Northern Arizona University.

  • Brown, A. (1995). The effect of rater variables in the development of an occupation-specific language performance test. Language Testing, 12(1), 1–15.

  • Carey, M. D., Mannell, R. H., & Dunn, P. K. (2011). Does a rater’s familiarity with a candidate’s pronunciation affect the rating in oral proficiency interviews? Language Testing, 28(2), 201–219.

  • Dovchin, S. (2020). The psychological damages of linguistic racism and international students in Australia. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 23(7), 804–818.

  • Flege, J. E. (1984). The detection of French accent by American listeners. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 76(3), 692-707.

  • Ghanem, R. & Kang, O. (2021). ESL students’ reverse linguistic stereotyping of English teachers. ELT Journal, 75(3), 330–340.

  • Kang, O., & Rubin, D. L. (2009). Reverse linguistic stereotyping: Measuring the effect of listener expectations on speech evaluation. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 28(4), 441–456.

  • Kang, & Yaw, K. (2021). Social judgement of L2 accented speech stereotyping and its influential factors. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 1–16.

  • Lev-Ari, S., & Keysar, B. (2010). Why don’t we believe non-native speakers? The influence of accent on credibility. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46(6), 1093–1096.

  • Lippi-Green, R. (2012). English with an accent: Language, ideology, and discrimination in the United States (3rd ed.). Routledge.

  • Purnell, T., Idsardi, W., & Baugh, J. (1999). Perceptual and phonetic experiments on American English dialect identification. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 18(1), 10–30.

  • Wallace, S., Nazroo, J., & Becares, L. (2016). Cumulative effect of racial discrimination on the mental health of ethnic minorities in the United Kingdom. American Journal of Public Health, 106(7), 1294–1300.

  • Wang, Z., Arndt, A. D., Singh, S. N., Biernat, M., & Liu, F. (2013). “You lost me at hello”: How and when accent-based biases are expressed and suppressed. International Journal of Research in Marketing, 30(2), 185–196.

  • Winke, P., Gass, S., & Myford, C. (2013). Raters’ L2 background as a potential source of bias in rating oral performance. Language Testing, 30(2), 231–252.

Valeria Bogorevich (PhD) is an Assistant Professor at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. She holds a Ph.D. degree in Applied Linguistics from Northern Arizona University. Her research focuses on second-language assessment, listening, speaking, and pronunciation.

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