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.

The question

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.

Key concept

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:

Accent evaluations of audio stimuli in relation to the listeners' age.Levon, Erez; Devyani Sharma; Dominic Watt & Christina Perry. 2020. Accent Bias: Implications for Professional Recruiting. Report Figure 2

The answer

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.

Classroom activities

Lead in tasks

Thinking about accent bias in the media 

Extension tasks

Is accent bias something new or a long-term problem?

In more detail

A longer explanation of the research study

Recommended order:
DW CPD 2020 Part 2 slides.pdf
Talk 2 slides

Meet the author

Dom Watt

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. 
screen short of the title page of the Accent Bias report with link to the report
screenshot of the title page of 'Methods for the study of accent bias' with link to the paper

Read the report and paper

Levon, Erez; Devyani Sharma; Dominic Watt & Christina Perry. 2020. Accent Bias: Implications for Professional Recruiting. download report
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