Ep. 61: When Accents Speak Louder Than Words

Welcome to The Undark Podcast. In this episode, join Liz Landau and this month’s host Lacy Roberts as they discuss the biases that scientists with non-native accents face — and the efforts being made to increase acceptance and understanding.

Below is the full transcript of the podcast, lightly edited for clarity. You can also subscribe to The Undark Podcast at Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, or Spotify.

Hanna Terletska: I think accent … often can reveal very vulnerable parts of our identity … Like when you say “hi” or “hello,” right? Just few seconds. And you can reveal so many things about yourself.

Lacy Roberts: Hanna Terletska is an assistant professor of physics at Middle Tennessee State University, about 35 miles southeast of Nashville. She’s lived in the U.S. for almost 20 years. Still, locals only need to hear a single word from her to conclude that she comes from far, far away.

Hanna Terletska: First thing they ask you, “Oh, where you from?” Right. I’m like, oh, just from one word, you can determine that I’m from another country. And sometimes, you know, it can be, you know, I want to be American already. Right? It re-emphasizes that you are foreigner, you’re a stranger.

Lacy Roberts: This is the Undark Podcast. I’m your host, Lacy Roberts. Everybody has an accent, no matter where they’re born, where they traveled, or where they live now.

And for scientists who come from abroad to live and work in America, their accent can be a personal subject. The way someone speaks mediates so much of their daily life — whether they’re teaching, serving on academic committees, or just ordering a coffee. It’s discouraging to be misunderstood, even when they think they’re speaking clearly. Sometimes, it could even be a career liability.

But is the problem the accent, or those on the receiving end? Liz Landau has the story.

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Liz Landau: Hanna Terletska came to America from a small town in western Ukraine near Lviv almost 20 years ago. She’s a physicist, and when she was young, there weren’t opportunities in her home country to work in her field.

Hanna Terletska: And when I went to the Labor Department to find a job, they told me that I can be a waitress or some helper for some house builders. And so, I had an opportunity to go abroad. Nobody in my family has done this before.

So that was the first time in my family, and maybe even among the first time in my hometown, to go somewhere abroad. So that was scary. But that opened a lot of opportunities. Because back home, I would not be able to realize my professional development, neither my talent. So all this dream comes true in America actually.

Liz Landau: Her first stop was getting a master’s degree at Minnesota State University.

Hanna Terletska: That was a small town in Minnesota — Mankato.

Liz Landau: Hanna learned English in middle school in Ukraine, but moving to the States was the first time she spoke English full-time. On top of that, she had to teach physics to American undergrads.

Hanna Terletska: And I believe there were not that many student[s] familiar with foreigners, maybe, at that time. They didn’t have much experience learning from somebody who had an accent, and maybe my English at that time was not as good as I wish it was. So students in the beginning did complain about my English.

Liz Landau: Hanna isn’t the only one teaching science who has gotten negative feedback from students about her accent.

Chee Kiang (Ethan) Ewe: My name is Chee Kiang Ewe. My nickname is Ethan, everyone calls me Ethan.

Liz Landau: Ewe is a molecular biologist and post-doc researcher at Tel Aviv University in Israel. When we spoke, he had just received his Ph.D. at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He grew up in Malaysia speaking Mandarin and learned English as an undergrad student in New Zealand. In California, he had to teach for the first time.

Chee Kiang (Ethan) Ewe: Especially my first quarter teaching, my student evaluation was almost exclusively on my accent. Well … it was my first quarter teaching. I didn’t have a lot of experience teaching, so I was speaking really fast … and I don’t think … I spoke like, you know, in wrong grammar that it was confusing to people. But because my accent, on top of me speaking fast, it was really hard for student[s] to understand.

Liz Landau: Both Ewe and Terletska teach complicated scientific subjects that can be hard for students to grasp no matter how their teacher speaks. But when Hanna got those first negative evaluations, she felt embarrassed and, at some times, discouraged.

Hanna Terletska: And it would definitely affect my self-confidence for a while. But there are two routes from here. Either you do something about this or you just feel pity about yourself.

Liz Landau: There’s been a lot of research in recent years both on how accents develop and on how listeners perceive non-native accents. Melissa Baese-Berk is a linguist at the University of Oregon.

Melissa Baese-Berk: I work on how people understand unfamiliar accents and how they can get better at understanding them.

Your accent is formed by the input that you have around you — so the people that you hear, the people that you are interacting with. And the sound systems of language are sort of both the earliest acquired and the earliest to sort of like settle down compared to, you know, vocabulary, for example, which we learn throughout our entire life.

Liz Landau: The fact that we acquire our native language’s sounds so early in life makes it really hard to incorporate new sounds later on, especially in adulthood.

For example, native English speakers use words beginning in “T-H” — “th” — like it’s no big deal, like in words like “thanks” or “thrive.” But those are really challenging for native speakers of languages where that sound doesn’t exist.

We also distinguish “L” from “R” all the time in English, but this can be difficult for native Japanese speakers, for example.

Melissa Baese-Berk: And so we have this sort of two-sided, two-pronged problem, right, where it might be hard to hear the differences between those sounds and other sounds, and it’s probably hard to produce them because we don’t have this sort of articulatory practice.

Liz Landau: The result is that many people with foreign accents may not actually hear a difference between their own speech and native speakers around them.

Johana Goyes Vallejos: So funny enough, I actually think that I don’t have an accent. But I do know that I have an accent, I am cognizant that I have an accent.

Liz Landau: Johana Goyes Vallejos is a postdoctoral fellow in biological sciences at the University of Missouri. She’s originally from Colombia.

Johana Goyes Vallejos: Sometimes I do this thing, in which, you know, somebody is watching a movie, and there is a Hispanic character. And I say, “I don’t sound like that, do I?”

Liz Landau: So we’ve talked a little about how accents develop, and what it can be like for scientists studying and teaching in the U.S. when English is their second language. But what’s going on in the heads of native English speakers when they hear accented English? Shiri Lev-Ari, a lecturer at Royal Holloway University of London, has been investigating this question. As an Israeli living in the U.K., she’s had a lot of experience navigating life with a non-native accent in Britain. In one of her studies co-authored with Boaz Keysar at the University of Chicago, she asked participants who were native speakers of American English to judge whether a bunch of facts were true or false.

Shiri Lev-Ari: We had several mildly accented speakers. And they were of a German accent, a Polish accent, and a Turkish accent. And we had several heavily accented speakers, Korean, Italian, again, Turkish. So we had a range of accents. And participants just listened to the different trivia facts and they needed to say, is this true or not. And basically, what we found is that, well, participants believed more the facts that were read by native speakers, compared to those that were read by non-native speakers.

Liz Landau: So listeners may actually doubt what people with foreign accents say more than if they’re hearing native speakers. That’s a huge problem, especially for a scientist trying to teach and research facts for a living.

Liz Landau: Such preferences and inclinations seem to begin very early in life, too. Some research has found that babies prefer people who speak their native language in their native accent, compared to speakers with an unfamiliar accent, and that children place more trust in speakers with their native accents than with foreign accents.

The scientific literature also seems to indicate that listeners feel like they’re working harder when they’re listening to someone speak with a non-native accent. Here’s Melissa Baese-Burke, the linguist, again.

Melissa Baese-Berk: We found that people’s attitudes correspond not with how well they understood, like how well they’re able to actually write down the things they hear, but how easy they think the task is. So they think the task is harder if they have more negative attitudes toward non-native speakers, which is, I think, probably sort of frustrating, although not surprising, to a lot of people who speak English with a non-native accent. I think a lot of people have had experiences where they feel like they’re being very clear, and the listener isn’t able to understand them for some reason or feels like it’s hard to understand them.

Liz Landau: This goes along with what Lev-Ari found as well: That there’s something unconscious going on when people distrust facts said in foreign accents.

Shiri Lev-Ari: What I find interesting is that even people that have no prejudice at all would still believe less things when they’re said in a foreign accent, just because of the way they process the accent.

Liz Landau: So to some extent, a listener’s reaction to a foreign accent may have to do with the way the brain perceives speech … But in other cases, could accent bias just be a veiled form of racism or bias against particular nationalities? It’s something Rahul Chakraborty thinks about. He is an associate professor at California State University, Fullerton, in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders.

Rahul Chakraborty: Some non-native accents are respected, they enjoy a very prestigious state and some non-native accent[s] of English, they do not enjoy that. And it has got something to do with the so-called political relationship between the native country and that particular country, the perception of people coming from that country, economic status, and so on.

Liz Landau: Having grown up in Calcutta — now known as Kolkata — in a region of India where Bengali is the primary language spoken, Chakraborty had a particular Bengali accent when he spoke English. It was something that made him stand out within his own country, when he moved to a different part of India.

Rahul Chakraborty: Even as a student, people used to tease me, and that’s a very inoculate kind of fun quite often. But the border between inoculate fun, unharmful fun, and something that might really damage somebody’s psyche, we do not know that — how to walk through that Twilight Zone.

Liz Landau: It’s not easy being on the receiving end of negative assumptions based on your accent, while also trying to develop a scientific career and a social life in a brand-new place.

With a foreign accent and a name that’s uncommon in a certain place, something as simple as ordering a coffee can be an uncomfortable ordeal. Here’s Johana Goyes Vallejos again.

Johana Goyes Vallejos: Just kind of like an informal experiment that I do sometimes, is that I go to a Starbucks, and I say, you know, “I want this coffee.” And then they ask me for my name, and I say, “Johana,” and they are — they say, “What? I’m sorry, what was that?” And I’m like, “Johana,” and it takes a while. But then if I say, “Oh, my name is Joanna.” It’s a very slight change in the tone of how I pronounce the second “A” in my name, yet, they get it right away. And I don’t understand — to this day, I wish I knew what is it? Because you guys have words that sound exactly the same in any context. And, and you get the difference. But then it’s just a very slight inflection and it just throws them off completely. And sometimes that really makes me angry. Because it doesn’t make sense. And, it just makes me feel like I have to change a part of me just so you can understand.

Liz Landau: To make these kinds of interactions go more smoothly, some people choose new names that are easier for native English speakers in their adopted country. Ethan Ewe chose his English name when he was in an English class in school, in honor of Tom Cruise’s character in “Mission Impossible.” As for Hanna Terletska, that’s not quite the name she grew up with, either.

Hanna Terletska: In fact, back home I am Anna. Here I became Hannah, then Hanna, and my last name they always have troubles with.

But in the beginning … when I just moved to United States, I wouldn’t react to my name and then I — oh, they call me. This is “Hanna.” This is me now. And my mom, I had to tell my mom that my name is different. Yeah, because translation we have the sound “hoo,” which got translated my name into Hanna.

Liz Landau: After her grad program in Minnesota, Terletska got her Ph.D. at Florida State University, and then did several postdoctoral fellowships around the country before landing a faculty position at Middle Tennessee State University. In almost two decades of living in the U.S., Terletska feels like, in a sense, she’s developed multiple identities, and her accent plays into each one differently.

Hanna Terletska: First of all, I am a researcher and a scholar. And when you are a researcher, you travel to many conferences, and there you have such a diversity of scholars. And so, you don’t really feel that you are someone different. You feel like, well, everybody has an accent. If not everybody, like majority of people do have an accent. So there is a huge representation of scholars in physics, so, in STEM in particular, who are international. So that doesn’t affect … my self-confidence or doesn’t affect my sense of belonging. So I feel very comfortable in the research arena. But as a professor, I also have to teach. So there is another part of accents that can affect me.

Liz Landau: Remember those complaints she used to get about her accent in student evaluations? In time, Terletska realized that a lot of them would come from students who were doing poorly in her courses.

Liz Landau: These days, whenever she gives a lecture, Terletska writes out a script and practices it — a lot. It’s extra work that her students and colleagues probably don’t realize is happening behind the scenes.

Hanna Terletska: Even up to now … I prepare much more to my teaching because, before I go in and teach, I prepare the script what I’m going to say, how I’m going to say. If I use slides, I prepare how I transition from one slide to another. So you put so much effort into teaching, right? And you still get negative kind of reviews. So of course, it feels bad. But it also, it can be motivational. Because, you know, work more and improve on this.

Liz Landau: But even though Terletska has come a long way from her graduate school teaching days, she sometimes contemplates doing some kind of accent coaching or modification.

Hanna Terletska: I do find that maybe I do need to talk a little bit, have some accent coach, or teacher, because I find that accent is getting on my way in some part of my career, especially when I’m on a board meeting, you know, and again, I’m often the only female and the only accent person.

I want to learn how to express myself better … And I think this is not just about accent, it is really about communication skills.

Liz Landau: The issue of accent modification or coaching can be really controversial among linguists. Here’s Shiri Lev-Ari again.

Shiri Lev-Ari: People for some reason think you can change your accent, so it’s okay for me to be prejudiced against you because of your accent. But it’s actually not true. It’s really difficult to change your accent and practically impossible to sound native-like.

Liz Landau: For Rahul Chakraborty, the linguist in California, your accent is intrinsic to who you are. In an ideal world, no one should have to change their accent. He’s against the idea that anyone should approach an accent modification specialist for help.

Rahul Chakraborty: Tell me when somebody should approach for their skin color change? … I don’t think anybody should even think along those lines.

Liz Landau: Still, even Chakraborty agrees that there are circumstances where accent modification is beneficial.

Rahul Chakraborty: Let me give you one example: Imagine I am working in a customer service area, and I have three more people that I have to feed. And all my customers, they’re not familiar with my accent. And because of that, my company is repeatedly losing business, or there is [an] economic consequence of that.

And if I realize that, and my supervisor, very respectfully, is saying that your English is … perfectly intelligible, comprehensible … However, in this particular job, this is what is required. Is it possible for you, the way people learn another language without feeling bad … can you pick up another accent, so that it helps our customer, it helps you?

Liz Landau: Hanna Terletska also thinks about this from a practical perspective.

Hanna Terletska: So when you try to change your accent so you kind of try to change yourself a little bit, right? And I think, in my opinion, if accent is something that prevents other people to understand you, right, to do your job, that’s probably the time to work on it, definitely.

Liz Landau: Non-native speakers may struggle to be perfectly understood and socially accepted, while also trying to hold on to the part of their speech that makes them who they are. It’s an elusive balance, but there are plenty of professional accent coaches out there promising to help achieve it.

Claudette Roche: An accent coach helps modify sounds. So I will take your particular accent, the way you use the letter “N,” the way you use the letter “E,” and I will modify it however you want. So, for example, let’s say you are an American, and you would actually prefer to sound like you’re from England, I teach you how to change “or” — like “north” [in an American accent] — to “north” [in a British accent].

Liz Landau: Claudette Roche is an accent coach. And if by the sound of her accent, you thought that she grew up in the U.S., think again.

Claudette Roche: Well, I was born in England. I’m English … And then my family moved to Canada, and we moved to Montreal. So I remember being there and thinking, “These” — I was young, but I thinking — “These people they can’t speak English. What’s wrong with them? That’s all wrong, isn’t it?” But then I adapted my accent somewhat to that — to their accent.

Liz Landau: Roche says for some of her clients, the first clue they may benefit from accent modification is they’re having trouble being understood. In each hour-long session, Roche typically works with clients on a new sound.

Claudette Roche: I give them homework and — of that particular sound — and they record and then send me the recording. Sometimes I’ll ask for video as well, because I want to make sure that they’re using their tongue for certain, you know, the “TH” sound, or I need to see that they’re making “L” properly. And I then give them notes, feedback.

Liz Landau: Roche’s goal is to get her clients to be completely understood by listeners. But some of Roche’s clients don’t want to stop modifying their accent until they sound 100 percent American. It’s a very difficult thing to do, but Claudette does see it happen.

Claudette Roche: I have an Indian person right now, who is so close to sounding — to getting himself to 100 percent … And it’s really, it’s, it’s quite amazing. But again, he wants that. So he’s pushing himself really hard.

Liz Landau: I asked Terletska whether, in an ideal world where everyone is included, if she would still think about seeking out accent coaching.

Hanna Terletska: Probably no. I want people — I want to live to some time when people would like to hear what I say and not how I say it.

Liz Landau: And there is hope for this more accent-inclusive future. Some of the same researchers who investigate accent bias have been testing interventions to reduce that bias, including the unconscious kind.

Liz Landau: Linguist Melissa Baese-Berk has been looking at how exposure to different accents may help listeners get accustomed to them.

Melissa Baese-Berk: The sort of best news that we found is that people can get better at understanding unfamiliar speech, quite a lot better really, really quickly. So we’re talking, you know, 30 to 60 minutes of exposure, people make huge gains at understanding unfamiliar accents, even when those accents are … what I think an average person would think of as pretty strong accents. People can get better at understanding them really, really quickly.

Liz Landau: Shiri Lev-Ari, who did that study about facts read in different accents … she did a follow-up study that also used exposure techniques. This study involved people in the United Kingdom with native British accents and Polish accents. This time, one group of participants listened to Polish-accented speakers tell stories before the statements that were judged as true or false. That extra time hearing the accent appeared to help reduce bias.

Shiri Lev-Ari: So they still showed bias, everyone showed bias. But we did manage to minimize the bias, with just 10, 15 minutes of training. So that’s quite promising, that there’s a way to get over it.

Liz Landau: Hanna thinks leaders of academic departments should be more aware of the bias and make an effort to include more people with accents in high positions. Just like in other diversity efforts, representation matters. It matters to expose native speakers to non-native accents, and it matters to make people with accents feel more welcome. This is even more relevant now, with millions of refugees fleeing Ukraine and other war-torn areas for countries with languages that are not their own, navigating an uncertain future with accents that mark them as outsiders.

Liz Landau: Hanna left Ukraine by choice years ago. Today, she has an 8-year-old son named Andrew, and she’s thought a lot about the way he navigates the world in two languages. He has Ukrainian parents, but goes to school with native English speakers.

Hanna Terletska: At some point, I did have to switch to English at home, just with me. My husband continued speaking in Ukrainian with him because there is — there was some speech delay because he’s bilingual to some extent. So there was some speech delay and we were worried about that, and I didn’t want him to be different. So I did speak English with him at home. But still, I do notice a difference. I don’t know how to speak this easy, everyday English, so when he say some chit-chatting, it doesn’t sound like American chit-chatting. I hope it will change one day.

Liz Landau: As much as she sees accent intertwined with identity, Hanna’s hope is that Andrew will speak exactly like other Americans.

Hanna Terletska: I want him to sound American, I don’t want him to be different. Different is not easy. And I think life is challenging enough.

Hanna Terletska: But he tells me that I don’t speak proper English. So he tells me that. Well, I tell him, “I’m so sorry. But that’s only what I can do. I just don’t hear the difference.” He says, “It’s okay. I will teach you.”

Lacy Roberts: Thank you so much for being here, Liz. I really enjoyed your piece.

Liz Landau: Oh, my pleasure. I really enjoyed working on it.

Lacy Roberts: So thinking about the way people speak and how it mediates their daily lives is such rich subject matter, what drew you to specifically looking at scientists coming to work in the United States?

Liz Landau: Yeah. You know, I was really thinking about how, when I was an undergraduate student, I frequently had graduate student teaching assistants from all around the world. And honestly, my classmates, I would hear them complain about, “Oh, this teaching assistant of mine has a very thick accent. It’s very hard.” And I even had the experience of being in a multi-variable calculus class, where the teacher had a thick accent, but I was honestly never really sure if it was that I wasn’t understanding him, or if I wasn’t understanding the material or what, cause, guess what? It’s multi-variable calculus.

But you know, now that I’m older and reflecting on things, you know, I was really thinking about what it would be like for those people who come to America. You know, they have to negotiate so many different things, including just being understood. So that was kind of one inspiration. But the other thing is that right now, we are in a time, which is really a wonderful thing, that there’s a huge emphasis on diversity and inclusion in our culture. But the truth is that I have not really heard a lot of discussion about accent as something that should be included. You know, we talk a lot about gender equity and race equity and, and other aspects of people’s identities, but it’s something that is really fundamental to people’s identities that is not often acknowledged and is not often acknowledged in a way that that should be, in the sense that, you know, people come to the table with this huge rainbow of accents, and they are speaking completely coherently. But, as I’ve learned in this podcast, there are some situations where, either unconsciously or consciously, people who are listening to them actually do have a bias against them. And it’s really something that should be acknowledged and should be thought about. And, you know, people should be more inclusive of it.

Lacy Roberts: Your piece really did make me think about that. I don’t think that I had thought too much before about the amount of privilege that comes along with having my very, you know, living in the United States and having a very, like, straightforward, easy to understand middle America accent. Has working on this piece made you think differently about your own accent?

Liz Landau: Absolutely. For one thing, even though I am a native U.S. English speaker, at the same time, everybody has an accent, even regional, local accent. And there are a lot of biases associated with that also. And, you know, I come with some accent baggage from the Philadelphia area, but also, I’ve lived in a lot of other places — Atlanta, Los Angeles. I’ve also thought a lot about how I do speak Spanish because I studied abroad in Spain and I’ve really tried to keep it up, but I know that I’ll always have a little bit of an American English accent when I speak Spanish. And, you know, when I am in a situation where I’m in a Spanish speaking country, or even speaking Spanish in the U.S., everybody knows that I’m a little bit of an outsider. And while I have the privilege of still communicating in English in the U.S. natively, it does give me a little bit of a window into, wow, it can be a little bit uncomfortable. I can detect that if people know that I’m not a hundred percent like them. And it’s just a tiny bit of a flavor of what other people experience when they have non-native accents in this country.

Lacy Roberts: Absolutely. So I’m going to turn to the science a little bit. One of the things that I found most interesting in your piece was the fact that people seem to distrust facts more when they’re said in non-native accents. And that tendency seems to start in early childhood.

Liz Landau: Yeah, for me, that was really surprising that even in early childhood, people would have this preference for accents just like their own. It speaks to this sort of unconscious familiarity bias that we are inclined towards what we know and what we are exposed to. I didn’t know before I did this podcast about really the extent to which people have these unconscious biases, especially about distrusting information. And it was very discouraging. Also going back to the example of math teaching assistants, you know, a lot of the science and technology workforce in the U.S., a lot of people are from other countries and it’s very disheartening if that’s true, that just because they have a foreign accent, other people might not believe them as much. The other thing that came out of this podcast is that people have a harder time processing information that comes to them in a different accent. And I think that also contributes to this bias that, “Oh, well, I don’t quite understand this a hundred percent as well, or as easy as if somebody with native accent had said it, therefore I’m not going to trust it quite as much.” And again, I don’t think that most people go through this thought train consciously, but it does seem to happen. And I was very encouraged about the research at the end of the podcast where, when people have this exposure training to foreign accents, they do seem to get rid of this bias a little bit.

Lacy Roberts: Right. And I wanted to ask you about that. So, so based on what you learned about, you know, some of these possible interventions to reduce bias, what might a person who wants to decrease their unconscious accent bias do?

Liz Landau: Yeah, it’s a really great question. And it also kind of highlights that, you know, there are places in the U.S., like New York City, San Francisco, big cities, where there are just naturally a lot of people with a lot of different accents, and I did wonder if living in a place like that, where every day you’re just exposed to so many different accents all day long. And maybe that kind of primes you to reduce your bias towards people with foreign accents. I think that if you want to reduce your accent bias, I mean, one thing you can do is talk to people with foreign accents and fortunately we have the internet to do that. You can watch movies, videos … I think it’s a beautiful thing, honestly, to watch media that comes from other countries, even if it’s translated into English, people speaking different accents. Just to expose yourself to the way that different people sound. And honestly, that is a thing that I really liked about working on this podcast also is that it is just like a beautiful kaleidoscope of accents. I love that different people sound differently depending on where they’re from. I think that it is a beautiful diversity and I hope that, as a culture, we can really appreciate it. Another thing is that, you know, even Hanna Terletska, was talking about, you know, elevating people into leadership positions or, you know, highlighting them in meetings, when they have accents, you know, making sure everybody has equal opportunities. I think that’s a very powerful thing too, you know, to have somebody who has an accent, giving important talks or giving advice or things like that, that can also help reduce bias.

Lacy Roberts: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for your reporting on this stuff. And thanks for being here.

Liz Landau: Absolutely. Thank you so much.

Lacy Roberts: Liz Landau is a writer, podcast producer, and science communicator living in Washington, D.C. She is the co-host of “Pod Paper Scissors,” a podcast about game theory. Check out more of her work at lizlandau.com and follow her on Twitter at @lizlandau. Our theme music was produced by the Undark Team with additional music in today’s episode from Kevin McLeod, Podington Bear, and Blue Dot Sessions. I’m Lacy Roberts. See you next time.