Unless you speak flawless Italian, on your next business trip to Rome don’t attempt to speak the local language if you want to achieve your communications goals. New research suggests non-native accents are less credible.

University of Chicago psychologists Shiri Lev-Ari and Boaz Keysar explore the consequences of speaking a language with a foreign accent in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/00221031

They conclude that non-native accents make speech more difficult for native speakers to process, which they found made people doubt the accuracy of what is said. Lev-Ari and Keysar hypothesized that the difficulty of understanding accented speech has a unique effect on a speaker’s credibility that cannot be attributed to stereotypes about foreigners.

Lev-Ari and Keysar tested the idea in a simple experiment. They asked people to judge the truthfulness of trivia statements recited by native and non-native English speakers. For example: a giraffe can go without water longer than a camel can. The non-native speakers had mild or heavy Asian, European, or Middle-Eastern accents. The audience was told that all the statements had been written by the researchers but, still, it tended to doubt the speakers when they spoke with an accent.

These findings have important implications for how people perceive non-native speakers of a language. Instead of perceiving their speech as harder to understand, natives are liable to perceive their statements as less truthful. Your accent might reduce your credibility.

So what should you do when in Rome? Personally, I normally speak Italian. With a funny accent? Apparently: the Romans think I come somewhere from the north of Italy. But is that a bad thing? What’s worse: speaking in Italian like someone from the north of Italy, making yourself absolutely clear but not being 100% credible, or speaking English like someone from the north of England, being 100% credible but running the risk of being misunderstood by the listener?

The pros and cons of each situation need weighing carefully. In principle people appreciate the fact that you speak their language, but on the other hand you want to present yourself in the best possible light. Perhaps the most important thing is self-awareness: know how you come across. Second, ask your conversation partner which language he or she prefers. Thirdly, while confidence is crucial, making obvious mistakes with excessive confidence can appear ridiculous. I remember a beautiful Roman restaurant waitress who wanted to show off her English and strode arrogantly towards us before asking with a heavily accented voice: “Have you fixed your mind yet?” We burst out laughing, which did not go down well!

–          Emma Robson

For information on Media Wise’s language and intercultural communications training courses, please contact Carine Middeldorp: carine@mediawise.nl