Childhood friendships can be complicated, understanding them even more so.
Now research from the American Psychological Association has found even children can be biased against others when selecting friends, and it may all start with accents.
The findings, published in Developmental Psychology found that even when children grow up in a community of diverse accents, they still prefer to be friends with those who speak with the same accent as they do.
“There are a number of reasons why children may show preferences for people who speak with the same accent as they do. It may be a combination of familiarity as well as some of the properties of the accent itself. For example, we do see differences depending on the accent of the speaker. In this study, we have shown that children have greater biases against peers with Korean accents compared to peers with British accents. It could be that the Korean accents were less fluent or more difficult to understand than the British accents,” Melissa Paquette-Smith, PhD, lead author of the study, told Theravive.
“It is also possible that children’s ability to tell apart the two accents could play a role in these preferences. We found that when children listened to Canadian and British-accented peers they struggled to identify which peer sounded more like them. In contrast, children had no trouble identifying that Canadian peers sounded more like them than Korean-accented peers,” she said.
In undertaking the research, Paquette-Smith and colleagues enlisted 150 children aged five and six years of age in Toronto, an area known for its linguistic diversity. Over half of the residents in Toronto are born overseas and from birth nearly half of residents learn a language other than English.
The researchers conducted an experiment in which the children in the study were shown pairs of children on a screen, one with a local Canadian accent and one with a British accent. The children in the study were asked to pick which of the children on the screen they would want as a friend.
Despite the children in the study having moderate to very frequent exposure to non-local accents in their everyday lives, they preferred to have a friend who sounded like them. This was even more prevalent when children were shown a child with a Korean accent.
“Many people may find it surprising that, at least initially, children show stronger preferences for speakers who speak with a local accent. These preferences are so strong that they can even override preferences for people of the same racial group. For example, when given a choice between a child of a different race that speaks English with an American accent and a child of the same race that speaks English with a foreign accent, American children consistently choose to be friends with children who speak with the same accent,” Paquette-Smith said.
Although the study revealed children may have a preference towards certain accents when selecting their friends, this does not necessarily mean children were biased against those who don’t speak like them.
However, Paquette-Smith says given it is common for adults to have an unconscious bias against other people based on the way a person talks, understanding where such bias begins may be helpful.
“Adults discriminate on the basis of race and language. For example, the way you speak or the way you look can strongly impact whether you are hired for a job or rented an apartment. As developmental psychologists, we are interested in understanding how and why these biases develop. Understanding the roots of these biases may be a crucial step towards understanding and perhaps reducing these biases later in life,” she said.
Research into accent-based biases is still in its early stages. But Paquette-Smith says understanding the psychology behind such choices may be beneficial in developing appropriate interventions to mitigate such biases in the future.
“An understanding of what factors influence children’s accent-based preference may one day be able to help design interventions to reduce biases against accented speakers. Even though previous work shows that exposure can decrease prejudice in adults, here we find no evidence that exposure affects children’s friendship preferences. However, this does not mean that exposure has no effect on accent-based biases, it may simply be that preferences for speakers and biases against speakers are two different things,” she said.
“A preference to be friends with a child based on their accent may not necessarily translate into a bias against a child who speaks differently. Our study did not show that children had any ill will towards accented speakers. Children did not, for example, take a sticker from them or exclude them from an event. It may be that biases against accented speakers develop later. Although more work is needed, it is possible that the preferences seen in early childhood may be driven more by familiarity than a dislike for people who speak differently.”
Elizabeth Pratt is a medical journalist and producer. Her work has appeared on Healthline, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald, News.com.au, Escape, The Cusp and Skyscanner. You can read more of her articles here. Or learn more about Elizabeth and contact her via her LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.