Overcoming Accent Bias in the Courtroom

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 following was originally published on the blog of ATA’s Interpreters Division, www.ata-divisions.org/ID/blog.

The idea that some juries, judges, and English speakers, in general, are more prone to distrust witnesses and defendants with heavy accents didn’t come as a surprise. I occasionally hear passive-aggressive comments or uncomfortable jokes about someone’s accent behind closed doors. 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 statements were still perceived as less credible when the accent was heavy.

Again, I found myself wondering if an interpreter’s accent might also undermine the credibility of a non-English speaker for whom they are interpreting. I couldn’t help but think how ironic it would be if this was the case, especially since individuals often choose to communicate through interpreters so their statements will be received without any language barrier interference.

After reading studies indicating that foreign accents could affect the credibility of a witness, my question now was how to combat accent bias inside courtroom settings.

Looking for 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 remarks 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 accent bias is often 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, who often deal 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 have 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’re 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 bias would help. Still, in our case, there’s more 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, which makes 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 toward persons that speak with an accent is also a good strategy. Many of the regional accents that are part of this country’s identity now were once also considered foreign accents. The Bostonian, New Yorker, and Midwestern accents are vestiges of our Irish, Italian, and Spanish immigration to the U.S. in the 19th and 20th centuries. 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. Discriminating against a person because of the way they speak is as shameful as discriminating against someone for the color of their skin. Furthermore, accent bias is a form of national origin discrimination, which has no place in a courtroom. Many people didn’t 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.

Other Articles and Studies of Interest

Abrams, Joel. “Here’s How Your Foreign Accent Can Unfairly Destroy Your Credibility,” The Conversation (October 29, 2019), http://bit.ly/Abrams-credibility.

Cantone, Jason A., Leslie N. Martinez, Cynthia Willis-Esqueda, and Taija Miller. “Sounding Guilty: How Accent Bias Affects Juror Judgments of Culpability,” Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice (June 2019), http://bit.ly/Cantone-sounding-guilty.

Gonzales Rose, Jasmine. “Color-Blind But Not Color-Deaf: Accent Discrimination in Jury Selection,” N.Y.U. Review of Law & Social Change (Volume 4, Issue 3), https://bit.ly/Gonzales-discrimination.

Maeder, Evelyn M., and Logan Ewanation. “What Makes Race Salient? Juror Decision-Making in Same-Race versus Cross-Race Identification Scenarios and the Influence of Expert Testimony,” Sage Journals (June 19, 2018), http://bit.ly/Maeder-race.

Richardson, John G., “Bias in the Court! Focusing on the Behavior of Judges, Lawyers, and Court Staff in Court Interactions,” (National Center for State Courts, 1997). https://bit.ly/Richardson-court-bias.

For more information on the study mentioned here, read “Why Don’t We Believe Non-Native Speakers? The Influence of Accent on Credibility,” by Shiri Lev-Ari and Boaz Keysar, which was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (November 2010). http://bit.ly/accent-credibility.

Sandra Dejeux has a BA in international studies and an MA in Spanish translation and interpreting. She is licensed as a court interpreter in Georgia, a Texas master licensed court interpreter, and a certified health care interpreter. She is actively involved in the profession through her role as chair of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators’ Bench and Bar Committee. The former director of Fort Bend Language Access, she 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. translations@sdtranslations.org

Interpreters are a vital part of ATA. This column is designed to offer insights and perspectives from professional interpreters.

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