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Tomayto, Tomahto – How Not to Call the Whole Thing Off

By Elisabeth Levi, Ph.D

Released on 16 October 2019

Everyone has an accent. Some people are treated unfairly because of differences in pronunciation. Can a test help decrease bias against people with different accents? At SPEAK, we help people to make fair choices about others’ speech. Here’s how.

The Effects of Accent: It is not new that people judge others by their accents. Some of the more recent research, which made it to the Harvard Business Review  and into Forbes Magazine, shows that people with nonnative accents in English are more likely to be judged as lacking in political skills. They are more likely to be rejected for management positions. According to another study, people are less likely to believe something said with a nonnative accent. These judgments about accent are made within the first 30 seconds and do not relate to how proficient a speaker is in other aspects of spoken English. If nonnative speakers of English may be judged based on their accent, how can a test of spoken English rate pronunciation objectively and fairly?

Transparent Standards: One part of fair assessment of pronunciation is the standard used to measure it. Many grading scales compare the pronunciation of nonnative speakers to that of native speakers and grade people according to how “native” they sound. The CEFR, the Council of Europe’s Framework of Reference for Language (a widely used scale of English proficiency), updated their scales for rating “phonological control” in 2016. These standards rate the speaker’s skills in relation only to the level of clarity and not in comparison to a native speakers. This type of rating attempts to minimize the role of accent in judging a speaker’s language. It is an important step in ethical evaluation of spoken English. SPEAK has adopted the most current scales for rating pronunciation to make sure that our test takers are rated on a scale of clarity, not on the variety of English they speak.

Degree of Focus: Even when using a standard that emphasizes clarity, there is still a question of the influence of assigning a score for pronunciation. If we know that potential employers are influenced by accent, is it better to provide a separate score for pronunciation or to include it as a part of other measures?  What do we do when employers specifically request an evaluation of the candidate’s pronunciation?

Despite the potential for discrimination based on accent, there are benefits to presenting a separate score for pronunciation.

Providing Context: First, if the pronunciation is at a lower level than the rest of the English skills, a separate score provides a context for the pronunciation. Presenting the score separately allows the evaluator to avoid being disproportionally influenced by the pronunciation. If there is a tendency to judge overall English proficiency by the accent, a separate score allows an employer to see that the weak pronunciation is only a small part of the larger picture and may benefit the candidate. On the other hand, when someone has strong pronunciation skills, a separate score prevents employers from thinking that his English skills are better than they are. A separate score gives a more complete picture of the candidate’s language abilities.

Increasing Awareness: Managers are becoming more aware of discrimination against people with nonnative pronunciation. A separate score of pronunciation allows hiring teams to be more aware of their biases and to place the pronunciation in its appropriate context.

The Speak Solution: At SPEAK, we are committed to providing a fair testing solution for businesses and universities. We understand the need for a tool that encourages selecting the people with the necessary skills to succeed. In a few cases, someone may need to have a specific accent. Most of the time, though, what is important is that the person can speak clearly. SPEAK provides a pronunciation score alongside many other measures of language proficiency. Having complete and detailed information about language proficiency helps people who make decisions based on language proficiency to understand pronunciation in its proper context.

Do you want to understand your candidates’ pronunciation skills and how they relate to the rest of their English abilities? Let SPEAK help you to get the precise insights that meet your organizational needs.