Children tend to choose friends who speak with their own local accent, even if they grow up in a diverse community and are regularly exposed to a variety of accents, according to a new study published in the journal Developmental Psychology.

“It’s common knowledge that adults unconsciously discriminate against others based on the way they speak, but we wanted to understand when, how and why these biases develop,” said lead author Dr. Melissa Paquette-Smith of the University of California, Los Angeles.

Previous studies have found that children as young as 5 years old prefer to be friends with peers who speak like they do, and these preferences are so strong they can override preferences for friends of the same race, says Paquette-Smith.

She and her co-authors wanted to add to these findings and investigate whether regular exposure to a wide variety of accents might change these preferences.

They conducted three experiments with nearly 150 English-speaking children, ages 5 and 6, living in the Greater Toronto Area, one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse metropolitan areas in the world. More than half of the residents in this community were born outside of Canada and close to 50 percent learned a language other than English from birth, according to the researchers.

In the first experiment, the young participants were shown pairs of children on a computer screen. One child in each pair spoke English with the local Canadian accent and the other spoke English with a British accent. After listening to both speakers, children were asked to pick which child they wanted as their friend.

The research team also looked at whether the amount of exposure children had to different accents in everyday life influenced these choices. Given the diversity in the area, most of the kids in the study had moderate to very frequent contact with non-local accents, whether it was because they lived with someone in their home or had a daycare provider or teacher with a different accent.

“Even though they were regularly exposed to a variety of accents, Canadian children still preferred to be friends with peers who spoke with a Canadian accent over peers who spoke with a British accent. The amount of exposure children had to other accents in everyday life did not seem to dampen these preferences,” said Paquette-Smith.

Next, the researchers wanted to find out how children’s friend preferences would be affected if they did the same task with children who were not native English speakers.

The second experiment used the same number of English-only speaking participants, and again, most of the children reported having medium or high exposure to non-local accents. The set-up was the same, except that instead of British children, the participants listened to voices of children who were born and raised in Korea and who had learned English as a second language.

Similar to the first experiment, the young participants showed a preference for their Canadian-accented peers, but the effect was even greater in the second experiment, according to Paquette-Smith.

“There are a number of reasons why this may have been the case,” said Paquette-Smith. “It could be that the Korean kids were less fluent in English or that the Canadian participants had a harder time understanding them, or that the British accents were simply harder to distinguish from the Canadian accents.”

For the third experiment, the researchers examined the possibility that children’s ability to tell the two accents apart could have played a role in these preferences. The team predicted that the kids would be better at identifying their Canadian variety of English when it was compared with a Korean accent and that they would have a harder time distinguishing between the Canadian and British varieties of English.

The children listened to the voices of the Canadian, British and Korean speakers from the first two experiments. After the voices were played, the researcher asked the child, “Who talks like you? Like they grew up here?” and then the children made their choices.

“Our predictions were right, children had an easier time differentiating between the Canadian and Korean and British and Korean speakers,” said Paquette-Smith. “The most difficult comparison for the children to make was between the Canadian and British speakers. We believe this is because children are better at distinguishing their local accent from a non-native accent compared with a regional accent.”

Paquette-Smith emphasized that a preference for friends with similar accents does not necessarily mean that the children were biased against those with non-native accents.

“It is possible that preferences seen in early childhood may be driven more by familiarity than a dislike for people who speak differently,” she said.

“This work is an important step towards understanding the complex relationships that exist between exposure and preference in early childhood and how these preferences might translate into biases in adulthood.”

Source: American Psychological Association