Americans Worry Most about their Accents

Study shows Americans are the nationality most concerned about perceptions of their accent and that accents are associated with traits from professionalism to passion!

Frustrated woman gesticulates with her hands over coffee with a man

The popular language-learning app Babbel commissioned Ipsos MORI to conduct the largest global study to date into perceptions of accents and “accent anxiety.”

The research, which was undertaken throughout November and December 2019, in collaboration with Dr Alex Baratta, lecturer in Language, Linguistics & Communications at the University of Manchester, UK, consisted of interviews with 7,500 respondents in the the U.S., UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Poland, and Canada (both English- and French-speaking).

Key findings include:

  • Americans are the most worried of any nation about the perception of their accent abroad, with 54% stating they feel anxious about their accent when speaking in a foreign language.
    • 34% of Americans express a desire to shed their accent when speaking a foreign language.

  • 38% of respondents globally state that they have felt anxious about their accent when speaking a foreign language. Conversely, Germans (23%) and French (24%) are the least anxious about their accent when speaking a foreign language.
  • When rated by other countries, American accents are most likely to be described as “friendly” (34%), “straight-forward” (27%) and “assertive” (20%). Canadians are most likely to find the American accent “assertive” (23%) and “straight-forward” (36%), while Italians are the most likely to find an American accent “funny” (25%).
    • In turn, Americans rate French accents as the “sexiest” (40%), although they feel that an Italian accent is the most “passionate” (40%). A Caribbean accent is regarded as the most “friendly” (37%) by Americans, and British accents are ranked as the most “sophisticated” (44%).
  • Female respondents (42%) and younger respondents (47%) are more likely to have experienced accent anxiety than the global average (38%). Men (34%) and older people (31%) still feel anxious, but to a lesser extent.
  • Americans and Britons are more likely than any other nationality to overcome anxiety about speaking in foreign languages by learning common phrases by heart.
  • British is the most likeable accent globally, with 45% of respondents stating they enjoy hearing their native language spoken with a British accent. By comparison, an American accent was liked by 34% of respondents.
    • Poland is the only country where a British accent isn’t the most popular accent - in Poland, the American accent is most popular.
  • Poles are most likely to feel that they hold back from speaking due to perceived negativity connected to their accent (73% of Polish people state that their accent holds them back from speaking).
    • This is compared with 69% of people globally.
  • According to the 7,500 people polled across eight different countries, the following attributes are most commonly associated with certain accents:
    • Most friendly - Spanish (39%)
    • Most unfriendly - Russian (18%)
    • Most straight-forward - German (29%)
    • Most assertive - German (33%)
    • Most uneducated - American (16%)
    • Most funny - American (14%)
    • Most professional - German (26%)
    • Most harsh - German and Russian (38%)
    • Most stylish - French and Italian (30%)
    • Most intelligent - Swedish (24%)
    • Most trustworthy - Swedish (15%)
    • Most passionate - Italian (42%)
    • Most intriguing - French (19%)
    • Most sexy - French (37%)
    • Most sophisticated - French (30%)

Baratta, an expert on linguistic prejudice and linguistic rights who hails from Los Angeles, commented: “Accents pertain to the use of specific sounds employed in specific contexts. That's it from a purely linguistic perspective. From a sociolinguistic perspective, however, we go beyond a mere descriptive account of sounds and discuss, for example, attitudes to accents. It is here that accent prejudice and preference comes into play, involving snap judgements made in terms of 'his accent sounds sexy', 'she sounds common', 'they sound working-class' and so on and so on. From a purely linguistic point of view, no accent is inherently one thing or another - neither good, nor bad. In terms of societal attitudes, however, such judgements, and stereotyping, persist. It's important to remember though that accent is a proxy for larger categories, such as race and class, and so to ascribe judgement to one's accent can mean ascribing judgement to race. The results of Babbel's study suggest that individuals, keen to fit in and/or avoid negative judgement from others, modify their accents to versions which might be seen as less 'broad', for example, and with this, reflective of potentially less negativity from the listener. This is nothing new perhaps and we could argue that we modify our accent as we modify our clothing - in order to fit a given context and this is simply an objective response. However, accent is more personal than clothing, as well as comparatively more fixed, and so an attack on our accent is an attack on more than just sounds.”

2 COMMENTS

  1. Other nations (non-English speakers) are also anxious about their English accent. But if the English and Americans don’t judge them, why should they?

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