Does Britain still have a problem with accent bias?
The study in a sentence
The Accent Bias Britain project explored the phenomenon of accent bias, whereby a person may be treated differently due to their accent when speaking. The project found evidence that accent bias is persistent in the UK, but that untrained listeners can evaluate performance in a job interview setting independently of the speaker's accent. Professional recruiters were better still at separating the two, suggesting that although accent bias is pervasive, awareness of the bias can reduce its effects.
Is accent bias a new phenomenon, or something that is more persistent?
To investigate this question the Accent Bias Britain team carried out a series of investigations, including a study of the attitudes of people of different ages and accent backgrounds towards a range of British accents.
Similar studies have been carried out in the past, and by comparing the results of the new study with the older ones we can see whether accent bias is a persistent problem or not.
Age grading refers to the situation when a linguistic feature or an attitude is associated with speakers of a particular age. Different linguistic behaviours by speakers of different ages can also be evidence of language change (seen in apparent time). To tell the two apart we need to look at data that was collected at different times as well as from speakers of different ages in each study. If we see the same pattern (younger people do X and older people do Y) in both studies, then it is likely the pattern we can see is a case of age grading.
Is accent bias in Britain due to language change or is it an example of age grading?
The Accent Bias Britain team investigated accent bias in a series of four studies:
attitudes to accent labels (the words typically used to describe different accents)
rated by listeners for prestige and pleasantness
attitudes to real voices (in mock job interview answers)
Received Pronunciation (RP); Estuary English (EE); Multicultural London English (MLE); General Northern English (GNE); Urban West Yorkshire English (UWYE)
rated by listeners for hireability using a range of questions
attitudes to accents at work (in a mock hiring exercise )
potential interventions to combat bias
The results of the study of attitudes to real voices found that older speakers were more likely to rate accents more harshly than younger speakers. We can see this in the figure here which shows accent ratings on the vertical axis (from 1-7, where 7 is 'good') and age of the listeners on the horizontal axis.
People’s attitudes about accents tend to conform increasingly to established norms as they enter the workforce and get older. Coupland and Bishop (2007) investigated attitudes towards British accents and found a similar trend, which suggests that this pattern is an example of age grading.
Accent bias is a persistent feature of language attitudes in the UK.
The Accent Bias Britain project investigated potential interventions to combat bias and found that a simple awareness-raising task was the most effective. You can read about that part of the study, and take a 20 minute tutorial for students, on the Accent Bias Britain project website.
In more detail
A longer explanation of the research study
lead in tasks
Talk 1 (16 mins)
Talk 2 (16 mins)
Meet the author
Dom teaches modules on sociolinguistics and phonetics, including Language & Identity and Forensic Linguistics.
Thanks to Heather Turner for developing the teaching materials for this case study.
Read the report and paper
Sharma, D., Levon, E., Watt, D., Ye, Y., & Cardoso, A. (2019). Methods for the study of accent bias and access to elite professions. Journal of Language and Discrimination, 3(2), 150-172. pdf