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A Research of the Relationship between Cultural Identity and Accentedness of the

Non-native Speakers of American English

Introduction
English speakers with a foreign accent could not only affect the understandability of the
information conveyed orally, but could also influence the attitude of the addressees. According to
Le Page and Tabouret-Keller (1985), the extent to which a person receives feedback from the
society concerning their use of language determines the extent to which they are able to focus
their speech. For example, the extent to which they are able to control the production of their
own speech forms to match the speech norms of the group(s) to which that person wishes to
belong. Lack of English proficiency is believed to be an important marker of foreigner status,
particularly when English is spoken with a non-standard American accent (Rodriguez et al,
2002).
A qualitative study of Asian American adolescents conducted by Qin et al. (2008) reveals
that minority adolescents are harassed by peers at school due to their poor English skills and for
speaking English with a non-standard American accent. Similarly, Cargile (1997) finds that
people giving a speech with a Chinese accent are rated as less attractive than those with an
American accent. Mastering fluent and native-like English skills is essentially important for
people who live in English-speaking countries to manage school, work load, and daily life more
efficiently. For international students who speak different native languages, mastering English
especially reaching native-like levels can represent a great challenge. Even the highly advanced
level students may find it difficult to speak English like a native speaker and they will, very
likely, present accents that signal their immigrant status. Moreover, the international students
reporting stronger accents are more likely to feel that they are stereotyped as a perpetual

foreigner. That is to say, low English language proficiency may predict accentedness and a
perpetual foreigner stereotyping, which in turn may relate to a minority student perceiving
discrimination such as native speakers purposefully misunderstanding.
Literature review
For as long as human beings and culture have existed, there have been accents to
distinguish where an individual hails from. As the world continues to become more global,
countries are becoming more culturally and ethnically diverse. According to the 2010 Census
Report, 37.6% of the population in the United States identifies as a non-Caucasian minority.
Hispanic (16.3%), African-American/Black (14%), Asian (5.6%), and American Indian/Alaska
Native (1.7%), make up the largest portions of these minorities (2010 Census Briefs, 2011).
Moreover, according to the Open Doors (2011), an annual report published by the Institute of
International Education with support from the United States Department of States Bureau of
Educational and Cultural Affairs, the number of new international undergraduate students
enrolled in American colleges and universities in the academic year of 2010-2011 was 214,270;
Out of this number, 84,543 were undergraduates, 89,505 were graduates, and 40,422 were nondegree students. The total international student enrollment for that academic year was 723,277.
Thus, with a country such as U.S. becoming more diverse, the security of an individuals equality
is becoming a more pressing concern. If a person possesses appropriate skills, but not the
desirable accent, his or her chances of being treated equally may be reduced in comparison to
those who speak with a standard accent.
The current studies of the perception of foreign accent has traditionally referred to native
speakers listening to nonnative speakers speech and using a scale to report the degree of foreign
accent they hear. Only a handful of studies have included nonnative listeners among their

participants, and in most the listeners were either highly proficient L2 learners or ESL learners
who are living in the target language environment. A few studies have examined the perception
of less proficient L2 learners, though further research is necessary to confirm the effects of L2
learning experience and proficiency on nonnative ESL learners perception of the degree of
foreign accent. Although nonnative listeners have been mostly overlooked in the previous
studies, examining their perception is crucial because it can reveal perceptual tendencies that
teachers and students should be aware of. This is especially relevant for ESL teachers who are
nonnative speakers themselves because it may influence the perception of their students. If
teachers are made aware of these differences, it would help them understand what their students
hear, which will allow them to provide more effective instruction and feedback in their classes.
Several studies indicate that experience with the L2 affects listeners perception of
foreign accent. Flege (1998) investigated the effects of length of residence on the perception of
foreign accent by native English speakers and ESL learners. In this study, talkers were 27 native
speakers of Mandarin Chinese and Taiwanese learning English and 10 native speakers of
English. Listeners heard native and nonnative speech and were asked to estimate the degree of
foreign accent of each sentence by moving a level on a continuum that ranged from no foreign
accent to strong foreign accent. Results showed that the nonnative listener group that had
lived in the United States for five years or more distinguished more between native and
nonnative speech in their ratings than listeners who had lived in the United States for less than
one year.
In another study, Major (2007) measured the effects of target language familiarity on
foreign accent perception in Portuguese. In this study listeners were native speakers of
Portuguese and nonnative listeners with or without experience of studying Portuguese or

traveling to Brazil. Listeners heard native and nonnative Portuguese and rated the speech on a
nine-point scale of accentedness. The findings showed that native speakers of English who were
familiar with Portuguese distinguished more between the native and nonnative speech in their
ratings than those without any Portuguese language learning experience.
In both Flege and Majors studies mentioned above, the more experienced in nonnative
listeners ratings were also more native-like in their ratings than the less experienced listeners.
Taken together, these results suggest that ESL learners with more L2 experience and nonnative
listeners with higher L2 familiarity rate native speech as more authentic and nonnative speech as
more foreign accented than those with less experienced.
Other investigations of nonnative listeners suggest that nonnative listeners perception of
foreign accent varies with their L2 proficiency. Neufeld (1980) studied the accent detection
ability of English speakers with elementary and advanced oral skills in French. Listeners heard
recorded passages spoken by native and nonnative speakers of French and were asked to
determine whether the speaker was francophone or non-francophone. The results revealed that
the more proficient the nonnative listeners were, the more significantly better they were at
detecting nonnative accents than the less proficient listeners. Although these finding are limited
by the fact that oral proficiency was not assessed with any kind of objective test, these finding
indicate that nonnative listeners accent detection might vary as a result of L2 oral proficiency.
Scovel (1988) also investigated the effects of nonnative listeners proficiency on their
accent detection ability, using ESL learners listening and written test scores as a measure of
proficiency. Participants were native speakers of English as listeners and ESL students from a
variety of native language backgrounds, who were enrolled in the English classes in the United
States. Listeners heard sentences pronounced by both native and nonnative speakers of American

English and were asked the question Does the speaker sound like an American? Results
showed a correlation between nonnative listeners listening and written test scores and their
ability to detect native and nonnative American accents accurately. Although this study found
results similar to those that Neufeld found for the effects of oral proficiency, neither of them
examined the effects of grammatical proficiency on listeners ratings of foreign accent.
Although both previous studies found more proficient nonnative listeners to be better at
detecting the presence or absence of foreign accent, it is unclear whether more advanced learners
also assess degree of foreign accent differently form less proficient individuals. If this were the
case, then it would indicate perceptual differences that might arise from the lack of attention to
cues and awareness of cross-language differences that should be further explored. These
differences would also be especially relevant to pedagogy and how perception affects language
learners accent production.
The study conducted by Thomas and Reaser (2004) showed that listeners used past
associations between accented speech and ethnicity to make judgments about the accented
individual based on preconceived judgments about individuals with certain accent. By attaching
these preconceived judgments to the speaker, the listener begins to pre-judge the speaker without
knowing much about the speaker.
In the study by Foon (2001), standard-accented individuals were rated higher on the
status dimension but lower on the solidarity dimension, especially when information about social
class was given, the raters did not use accent to form a judgment about social class. Without the
need to use accent as a cue, the solidarity scores did not correspond to accent but to the given
social class. This study confirms accent prestige theory by showing that where more relevant
information such as social class is available, listeners will not use accent to form judgments.

However, without the more relevant information, listeners fall back to judgments based on
accent. These studies suggest that listeners use accent to form pre-judgments about the speakers
solidarity and status. They lead to the idea that being able to identify ethnicity by voice creates
opportunities for discrimination using preconceived judgments based on ethnicity as accent
prestige theory posits.
Another supporting research was done by Bayard et al. (2001) in Australia to measure the
perceptions of British English, American English, Australian English, and New Zealand English
accented speakers. The researchers discovered that the participants rated their native accent
below speakers of British English and American English, yet above New Zealand English
speakers. These results are consisted with accent prestige theory because the United Kingdom
and the United States could be considered more politically powerful than New Zealand. In other
words, accents of politically and historically stronger nations will rank higher than others.
Lima (2011) had 55 international students from 11 different native language backgrounds
rate a lecture and its speaker based on three guises of American teaching assistants, Egyptian
teaching assistants, and Brazilian teaching assistants. The eight variables analyzed were accent,
speed, comprehensibility, level of interest in the lecture, usefulness of the lecture, likeability of
the speaker, teaching ability of the speaker, and teaching style of the speaker. The results showed
that the attributed nationality of the speaker only influenced participants in regards to likeability.
The supposed Brazilian teaching assistants received more positive ratings than did the alleged
American and Egyptian teaching assistants. As for accents, results indicated that the actual
degree of accentedness that participants perceived in the speakers speech, not the nationality of
the teaching assistants, influenced their ratings.

Another source of variability in the comprehension of L2 speech is the listeners age.


Burda, Scherz, Hageman, and Edwards (2003) observed poorer comprehension by geriatric
listeners compared with younger adults. Although comprehension of accented speech by children
has received little attention from researchers, older children might be expected to have an
advantage over younger children because native language phonetic development is a matter of
language experience, and older children might process speech more efficiently, giving them
greater capacity to adjust to speech patterns with which they are not familiar.
In cases of stereotyping, accent alone may trigger very powerful social perceptions. The
previous findings from the studies that examined the effects of proficiency and L2 experience on
nonnative listeners accent perception suggest that nonnative listeners who are more proficient
are better at detecting foreign accents and that those with more L2 experience distinguish more
between native and nonnative speech in their ratings of foreign accent. The present study adds to
previous literature by investigating the effects of proficiency on learners perception of specific
degree of foreign accent and by examining the effects of two specific measures of experience on
foreign accent perception of studying abroad, and pronunciation instruction experience.
Research Question
As the literature review of previous research shows, there is still debate about how accent
affects cultural identity perceptions. Further research must be done to conclude what impact
accent has on perceptions because of the confusion in previous research. Moreover, the previous
research also lacks in investigations about what effect increased contact with other ethnicities
might have on perceptions resulting from accentedness. Unfortunately, little to no empirical
evidence exists to show how international students' perceptions of the relationships between their
own cultural identities and accentedness. Hence, I would like to extend these theories by

investigating the following questions: How do non-native speakers of American English view the
relationships between the degree of accentedness and their own cultural identities, as well as, the
importance of pronouncing like a native speaker?
Methodology
Participants
10 international students (5 female and 5 male participants, ages from 20 to 32) who are
studying in various departments at Colorado State University responded to the cultural identity
and pronunciation questionnaire (see Appendix A). Primarily first- and second- year
undergraduate students from CSU were recruited in this research project. 10 native speakers of
American English (4 female and 6 male participants, ages from 22 to 38) who are living in Fort
Collins, Colorado responded to the interview questions (see Appendix B).
International participants were a combination of 4 Chinese, 2 Libyans, 1 Iranian, 1
Spanish, 1 Japanese, and 1 Indian whose native languages are Mandarin, Hakka, Arabic, Persian,
Spanish, Japanese, and Punjabi respectively. Whilst all the native speaker participants first
language is American English, few of them admitted that they have southern, New Yorker, or
western accent.
Most of the international participants came to the U.S. in the years between 2013 and
2014, that is to say, their residence in a standard American English environment are about one to
two years while two of the participants have been living in the U.S. for more than five years. On
the other hand, native American English speakers who took part in this research consists of five
Colorado natives, and five from other states such as Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, California, and
New York.

Instruments and procedure


Questionnaire
A questionnaire was designed and carried out to collect participants English proficiency
data, and the attitudes toward their own pronunciation of English. The first part of the
questionnaire was comprised of questions relating to participants demographic variables,
English language proficiency, accentedness, perpetual foreigner stereotype, and conversation
difficulties. The second part of the questionnaire, the pronunciation speaking tasks, aimed to
gather information of participants oral language skills. Data for the pronunciation variable were
gathered using two types of tasks: reading five short sentences that contains marked forms
such as //, /i/, and production of a free-response speech sample. Questionnaires were sent out
randomly on campus and were collected immediately after they were done.
Interview
A set of interview questions were used to gain a clear view of native speakers
understandings of the relationships between accentedness and perpetual stereotype. Interviewees
were also asked to do a rating task of the pronunciation speaking tasks conducted by the
international students. Interviews were conducted at Colorado State University in different
sessions according to each interviewees schedule.
Results and discussion
All of the international participants gave their TOEFL scores as the objective evaluation
of their English language proficiency. Scores range from 78 to 103 with a mean of 89. Six out of
ten participants rated their overall English skills as good, three rated themselves average and one
reckoned that his or her English skills are poor. As for the pronunciation of English, only the

Iranian participant rated himself as very good, one Chinese and one Libyan participant rated
themselves good, the rest of the participants all rated themselves poorly on their pronunciation of
English. Hence we could come to a conclusion that the participants performed better in other
English language skills other than oral language skills.
Those who were strongly affiliated with their culture as shown in their answers seem to
be less likely to value native-like pronunciation. These participants also tended to be recognized
to have an accent or assumed that they are from a foreign country more frequent than the other
participants who were not strongly affiliated with their home culture. This finding provides
evidence that the value placed on pronunciation of a foreign language is in fact related to
identification with their home culture. However, this value does not appear to have any effect on
actual pronunciation performance, since no relationship was found between pronunciation scores
(both objective and self-evaluation) and perceived importance of having native-like
pronunciation. It seems that a belief that native-like pronunciation ought to produce a higher
level of pronunciation accuracy, but this was not clearly demonstrated. There are two plausible
explanations for this. First, an abstract belief in the value of native-like pronunciation may not
motivate attainment of such pronunciation, which may be seen as unattainable. Or, the
motivation of individuals desiring to attain native-like pronunciation may not be powerful
enough to overcome other limitations such as age, native language, or lack or instruction or
exposure to native speakers.
On average, participants who had spent more than one and half years in an English
speaking countries received higher pronunciation scores (Average score of 4) given by the native
speaker participants, while those who had not spent a longer time in an English speaking country
received lower scores (Average score of 2.7). This difference was statistically significant and

supports the finding in theories in age of arrival that residence in an English speaking country
starting at an early age helps ESL speakers to acquire the target language better and accept new
identities quicker. Since the age of arrival and residence of more than one and a half years in and
English speaking country were found to be related to the variable of pronunciation, it implied
that the relationship between cultural identity and mean language proficiency scores may not be
significant.
No direct relationship between cultural identity and pronunciation scores was found. This
finding suggests that there is not a clear, direct relationship between cultural identity and the
pronunciation ability of non-native speakers of English. However, the relationship found
between cultural identity and the perceived importance of native-like pronunciation would seem
to indicate at least some degree of connection between identity and a learners pronunciation.
Given this direct indication of a relationship between cultural identity and pronunciation, more
research on this question is warranted.
An important limitation of this study came from the sensitive nature of the topic limited
the types of questions that could be asked, for fear of offending participants and sparking
conflict. This limitation on the questions permissible may well have resulted in a weaker
questionnaire, which was less effective at distinguishing between pronunciation and perpetual
foreigner identity stereotyping. Another limitation of this research was the small sample amount
collected from both groups. This most likely limited the range of responses to the questions. A
broader range of sample might well have to different results in the relationship between accented
English and biased perception.
The results of this research project revealed that many, though not all, ESL learners view
native-like pronunciation as the ideal, and that native-like pronunciation is not perceived by most

to be a threat to their identity. That being the case, learner goals for pronunciation should be
taken into consideration. ESL learners need to be made aware of the available options, such as
whether they wish to aim for native-like pronunciation or simply improved comprehensibility,
they ought to be encouraged in their goals and given the resources to attain them. In order to do
this, more research on pronunciation goals is needed, to inform pedagogical practices in the area
of pronunciation instruction for ESL settings.

References
Bayard, D., Gallois, C., Pittam, J., and Weatherall, A. (2001). Pax Americana accent attitudinal
evaluations in New Zealand, Australia and America. Journal of Sociolinguistics. 5(1), 2249.h
Burda, A. N., Scherz, J. A., Hageman, C. F., and Edwards, H. T. (2003). Age and understanding
of speakers with Spanish or Taiwanese accents. Perceptual and Motor Skills. 97. 11-20.
Cargile, A. C. (1997). Attitudes toward Chinese-accented speech: An investigation in two
contexts. Journal of Language and Social Psychology.
Census Briefs. (2011). http://www.census.gov/2010census/data/2010-census-briefs.php
Flex, J. E. (1988). Factors affecting degree of perceived foreign accent in English sentences.
Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. 84, 70-79.
Foon, A. E. (2001). A social strucrual approach to speech evaluation. The Journal of Social
Psychology. 123(4), 521-530.
Fuertes, J. (2000). Hispanic counselors race and accent and Euro-Americans universal diverse
orientation: A study of initial perceptions. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority
Psychology. 6(2), 211-219.

Le Page, R. B., and Tabouret-Keller, A. (1985). Acts of Identity. Cambridge University Press.
Lima, E. F. (2011). Language and nonlanguage factors affecting nonnative undergraduate
students reactions to ITAs. Proceedings of the 2nd Pronunciation in Second Language
Learning and Teaching Conference. 43-55.
Major, R. (2007). Identifying a foreign accent in an unfamiliar language. Studies in Second
Language Acquisition. 29, 539-556.
Neufeld, G. G. (1980). On the adults ability to acquire phonology. TESOL Quarterly. 14, 285298.
Open Doors. (2011). Institute of International Education. http://www.iie.org.
Qin, D. B., Way, N., and Mukherjee, P. (2008). The other side of the model minority story: The
familial and peer challenges faced by Chinese American adolescents. Youth and Society.
Rodriguez, N., Myers, H. F., Mira, C. B., Flores, T., and Garcia-Hermandez, L. (2002).
Development of the multidimensional Acculturative Stress Inventory for adults of
Mexican origin. Psychological Assessment.
Scovel, T. (1988). A time to speak: A psycholinguistic inquiry into the critical period for human
speech. Newbury House.
Thomas, E. R., and Reaser, J. (2004). An Experiment on Cues Used for Identification of Voices
as African American or European American. University of Alabama Press. 1037-71.

Appendix A Questionnaires

Cultural Identity and Pronunciation Questionnaire


This questionnaire is part of a research being done on the relationship between cultural
identity and pronunciation. There are two sections in this questionnaire. The purpose of the first
section is to collect information of your background and language proficiency. The second
section contains two pronunciation speaking tasks. Your responses will be remained confidential,
and are of great value to this research project.
Informed Consent: I understand that I am answering this questionnaire voluntarily, and
that my answers and the information provided may appear anonymously in a research project. I
understand that by completing this questionnaire I am giving my permission for my responses to
be used in this way.
Participant signature: _________________________________

Date:

___________________

Name (Please print): ________________________


Gender:

Male

Female

Age: ___________________

Section I
1
2
3

Which country are you from? ______________________


What is your native language? ______________________
When did you come to the U.S.? ______________________

4
5
6

How long have you been living in the U.S.? ______________________


What is your TOEFL/IELTS score? ______________________
How would you rate your overall English skills? Please circle a number.
1. Very poor

2. Poor

3. Average

4. Good

5. Very good

7. How would you rate your pronunciation of English?


1. Very poor

2. Poor

3. Average

4. Good

5. Very good

8. How important is it to you to pronounce English like a native speaker?


1. Completely unimportant
4. Fairly important

2. Mostly unimportant 3. Somewhat important

5. Extremely important

9. How often do people notice you speak English with accent?


1. Never

2. Occasionally

3. Often

4. Very often

10. How often do people assume that you are from another country?
1. Never

2. Occasionally

3. Often

4. Very often

11. How often do you feel treated with less courtesy than others due to misunderstandings
caused by mispronounced English?
1. Never

2. Occasionally

3. Often

4. Very often

12. Does it matter to you how your peers perceive your pronunciation of English? Why or
why not? Please explain:
___________________________________________________________________________
13. Do you feel that your cultural identity affect your pronunciation of English? Why or why
not? Please explain:
___________________________________________________________________________

Section II

Task 1
Please read through the following list of sentences aloud at a comfortable and natural
pace. Note that your response will be recorded.
1
2
3
4
5

Arthur will finish his thesis within three weeks.


My sister Jane prefers coffee to tea.
Matthews performance was absolutely fantastic.
Youd better look it up in a cookbook.
The keys are in the drawer.

Task 2
Please respond to ONE of the following questions using 7-10 sentences. Note that your
response will be recorded.
1

Describe your weekend or daily routine: what do you normally do, when, with whom,

where, for how long, etc.


Describe an experience you had which was meaningful in your life: when did it

happen? Who was involved? How did this influence you?


Describe a person in your life who means a lot to you: how do you know this person?

Why is he or she significant in your life?


Describe a problem or challenge you recently faced and how you dealt with it: what

steps did you take to solve it? What was the outcome?
Discuss an issue or subject you are vitally interested in: why is it important for your
life? What has shaped your views and knowledge of this subject?

Appendix B Interview questions

Section I
Rating task
Listen to the records of 5 international students. On a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5
(strongly agree), I think this person sounds
Record 1
Uneducated
Friendly
Well-articulated
Pleasant

Record 2
Uneducated
Friendly
Well-articulated
Pleasant

Record 3
Uneducated
Friendly
Well-articulated
Pleasant

Record 4
Uneducated
Friendly
Well-articulated
Pleasant

Record 5
Uneducated
Friendly

Well-articulated
Pleasant

Section II
Pronunciation and Accent Stereotyping Questionnaire
This questionnaire is part of a research being done on the relationship between
pronunciation and accent stereotyping. There are two sections in this questionnaire. The first
section contains a rating task of accents. The second section aims to collect your background
information and opinions on the relationship between accent and perception. Your responses will
be remained confidential, and are of great value to this research project.
Informed Consent: I understand that I am answering this questionnaire voluntarily, and
that my answers and the information provided may appear anonymously in a research project. I
understand that by completing this questionnaire I am giving my permission for my responses to
be used in this way.
Participant signature: _________________________________

Date:

___________________

Name (Please print): ________________________


Gender:

Male

Female

Section I
1
2
3

Which state were you born in? ______________________


Which state were you raised in? ______________________
What is your ethnicity? ______________________

Age: ___________________

Do you think you have an accent? If so, which one? ______________________

5. How important is it to you for international students to pronounce English like a native
speaker?
1. Completely unimportant
4. Fairly important

2. Mostly unimportant 3. Somewhat important

5. Extremely important

6. How often do you notice people speak English with accent?


1. Never

2. Occasionally

3. Often

4. Very often

7. How often do you assume an accented person is from another country?


1. Never

2. Occasionally

3. Often

4. Very often

8. How often do you feel accented person are treated with less courtesy than others due to
misunderstandings caused by mispronounced English?
1. Never

2. Occasionally

3. Often

4. Very often

9. Does it matter to you how people perceive international students pronunciation of


English? Why or why not? Please explain:
___________________________________________________________________________
10. Do you feel that accented English may affect your perception of a person? Why or why
not? Please explain:
___________________________________________________________________________