By Sandra Dejeux
Recently, I attended an online seminar about implicit bias in court settings. Among other things, the presenter spoke about accent bias and how, in some cases, it can undermine the credibility of a witness. Later, I read an article that stated that sometimes juries give less credibility or stop paying attention to expert testimony when the expert has a strong accent. The idea that some juries, judges, and English speakers, in general, are more prone to distrust witnesses and defendants with heavy accents did not come as a surprise. I hear passive-aggressive comments or uncomfortable jokes about someone’s accent behind closed doors from time to time. However, knowing that interpreters can also have accents, I became increasingly intrigued about the possible effect of accent bias when assessing the credibility of a witness.
It seemed that more thorough research on the topic was in order, so I read as many studies and articles on it as I could. The literature on the subject confirmed that there is often distrust of people with certain regional or foreign accents. Several authors hypothesized that it was due to negative stereotypes. One study in particular caught my attention. Instead of focusing on socio-economic factors that contribute to accent bias, this study focused on the difficulty of understanding words pronounced by non-native speakers and the impact that this can have on the speaker’s credibility. Researchers designed an experiment where subjects listened to statements read by people with foreign accents and decided on the truthfulness of the information. During the first phase, they corroborated the hypothesis that people tend to distrust foreign accents and give less credibility to their statements. During the second phase, the researchers tried to counterbalance the negative impact of accent bias by telling the subjects of the study that the speakers were only reading the statements off a script. Participants were able to correct their behavior when the accent was subtle, yet, when the accent was heavy, statements were still perceived as less credible.
Again, I found myself wondering if an interpreter’s accent might also undermine the credibility of a non-English speaker for whom he or she is interpreting. I could not help but think how ironic it would be since individuals often choose to communicate through interpreters precisely so that their statements are received without any language barrier interference.
Now, the question was not if foreign accents could affect the credibility of a witness, as studies show that it does. Instead, the question is how to combat accent bias inside courtroom settings.
A look at solutions
During the online seminar I attended, one of the viable solutions offered was to have judges address the issue in the jury instructions. While jury instructions may be a good start, it seems unlikely that jurors will set aside their conscious or unconscious bias simply because a judge adds a couple of utterances on the subject. Besides, trials are not the only court setting where accent bias is present. Often judges, court staff, and attorneys must deal with people with a noticeable foreign accent, and often, accent bias is present during their interactions with limited English proficient (LEP) individuals. Mandatory courses with topics that include unconscious bias against foreigners are more likely to have a long-term positive effect, at least amongst stakeholders such as police officers, victims’ advocates, caseworkers, court staff, attorneys, and judges, often dealing with language access and LEP individuals. Juries need to understand that regionalisms and accents are irrelevant when deciding the veracity of a statement. Saying pee-can instead of puh-kahn is how someone learned how to say “pecan,” depending on where they learned English. It has nothing to do with the likelihood of a false statement.
Another solution would be to bring together different associations and government entities that often work with people of different ethnic backgrounds and having them put together an accent bias awareness campaign. These organizations could, for example, emphasize the advantages of diversity. Foreigners come to this country not only because they are looking for a better way of life, but also because they can contribute to this country’s growth by working in fields of specialization that need them.
As for the possibility of interpreters’ accents permeating the statements of those for whom they interpret, certainly campaigning against the bias would help. Still, in our case, there is more that we can do. If our pronunciation is strong enough to hurt our clients, we should consider enrolling in an accent reduction class. We must also help stakeholders understand that interpreter fatigue contributes to mispronouncing words or pronouncing words emphasizing the wrong syllables and thus, making our subtle accents more noticeable. Allowing interpreters to work in teams and to have breaks when fatigue becomes noticeable helps reduce any interference of accents with court procedures.
Fostering empathy towards persons that speak with an accent is also a good strategy. Many of the regional accents that are part of this country’s identity nowadays were once also considered foreign accents. The Bostonian, New Yorker, and Mid-western accents are vestiges of our Italian, Irish, and Spanish immigration to the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Mexican, Nigerian, Chinese, or Vietnamese accents are the product of new patterns of migration.
If all else fails, we must remind people that our accents are part of our identity and discriminating against a person because of the way they speak is as shameful as discriminating against someone for the color of their skin. Furthermore, it is a form of national origin discrimination, and it has no place in a courtroom. Many people did not learn English from birth. Perhaps they were not exposed to it until they were adolescents or adults and learning a language after childhood increases the chances of having difficulty speaking it without an accent.
For more information on the study mentioned in this article, read: Why don’t we believe non-native speakers? The influence of accent on credibility, by Shiri Lev-Ari & Boaz Keysar. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0022103110001459
Sandra Dejeux holds a BA in International Studies and an MA in Spanish Translation and Interpretation. She is a Georgia licensed court interpreter, a Texas Master Licensed Court Interpreter, and a Certified Healthcare Interpreter. Sandra is actively involved in the profession through her role as the NAJIT Bench and Bar Committee Chair. She was the Fort Bend Language Access Director and currently provides freelance interpreting and translation services for courts and law firms in the Houston metro area. She also offers online training for legal and medical interpreters. You can contact her through http://sdtranslations.org.
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