Birmingham and Afro-Caribbean accents face worst bias in UK, study finds

Birmingham and Afro-Caribbean accents face worst bias in UK, study finds

Opinions found to be prevalent in research conducted 50 years ago still prevail today

Kate Ng
Wednesday 27 November 2019 12:07
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Working class Birmingham and Afro Caribbean accents sit at the bottom of an “enduring hierarchy of accents” in the UK, a study has found.

A new study led by Queen Mary University of London examined current attitudes to English regional, class, and ethnic accents.

According to the research, non-standard working-class and ethnic accents tend to be penalised, while middle-class “standard” speech was more highly rated and considered “prestigious”.

A study sample of over a thousand members of the public were asked to listen to and evaluate mock interview answers spoken in five different accents, including Received Pronunciation, Estuary English, Multicultural London English, General Northern English, and Urban West Yorkshire English.

The research was aimed at understanding the impact a person’s accent has on their work opportunities and life outcomes.

Researchers found some reduction in accent bias compared to earlier studies on the subject, but also that most of the same attitudes found 50 years ago prevail today.

The most biased demographic, according to the QMUL study, came from older people of higher social class living in south east England.

Multicultural London English, which is generally associated with young working-class people from ethnic minority backgrounds, received lower ratings than the other accents almost consistently among respondents.

“Accent bias exists,” said Erez Levon, Professor of Sociolinguistics and Principal Investigator on the project said.

“We all have automatic associations with particular voices. Bias becomes discrimination when we allow these associations to govern our judgement of unrelated traits such as intelligence or competence.”

But the report also found that lawyers and recruiters in the legal profession were more nuanced than the general public when it came to judging accents.

This group was found to be able to concentrate on the quality of the answer given rather than the accent it was given in.

Dr Dominic Watt, from the University of York’s Department of Language and Linguistic Science, said: “The results of the study give grounds for optimism, in that although accent-based prejudice seems to be all around us in this country, it seems to be possible for people in positions of power to put these biases to one side when it really counts.”

The issue of accent bias has been highlighted after US security adviser Fiona Hill, who was born in County Durham, gave evidence to the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump in Washington.

In her opening statement, she said: "I grew up poor with a very distinctive working-class accent. In England in the 1980s and 1990s, this would have impeded my professional advancement.

"This background has never set me back in America," she added.

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