Dateline: September, 2010, Issue 1

Do jurors perceive non-native speakers of English are as truthful as native speakers?

Accents often make it hard for jurors to understand what witnesses, attorneys, and judges are saying. Difficulty in understanding non-native speakers of English affects jurors' assessment of those speakers' credibility.

Lev-Ari and Keysar (2010) studied the impact of accent on speaker credibility in two experiments. In both experiments, native-English speaking Americans were asked to judge the truthfulness of statements such as "Ants don't sleep" and "A giraffe can go without water longer than a camel can." The statements were recited by speakers having no accent in English, a mild accent, or a heavy accent. The native tongues of the mildly accented speakers were Turkish, Polish and Austrian-German, and those of the heavily accented were Turkish, Korean and Italian. The listeners were told that all statements the speakers recited were prepared for the speakers.

In the first experiment, despite knowing that all speakers were reciting from a script, the listeners judged as less truthful the statements coming from the non-native speakers of English. The more severe a non-native speaker's accent, the greater the decline in the speaker's perceived truthfulness. The credibility of non-native speakers was impaired regardless of whether the content of the statements was familiar or unfamiliar to listeners, or factually true or false. Listeners misattributed their own difficulty in understanding the speech of non-native speakers to a reduced truthfulness of the speakers' statements.

In the second experiment, listeners judged their own difficulty in understanding the speech of each speaker in addition to their perception of the truthfulness of the recited statements. Having listeners consciously attend to the difficulty in understanding non-native speech partially corrected the biased judgments of the truthfulness of non-native speakers. Listeners judged the credibility of native and non-native speakers to be the same when non-native speakers' accents were mild, but not when they were heavy.

The researchers conclude that native speakers judge non-native speakers to be less truthful because non-native speakers are harder to understand, and not because those with accents are in fact speaking less truthfully. When listeners are aware that their own difficulty in processing accented speech can impact the judgment of non-native speaker credibility, listners attempt to avoid such misattributions and are successful in doing so for non-native speakers with a mild, but not a heavy, accent.

Source 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, 26.