• A new study says that our biases toward non-native speakers as adults are influenced by our preferences as children to befriend those who talk like us.
  • The researchers sought to better understand when, how, and why we develop these biases toward people who speak differently than us.
  • To do so, they conducted a series of experiments that involved 150 children in the greater Toronto area: one of the most diverse locations in the world.
  • Each experiment exposed the children to other kids with different accents and then asked them to choose which kid they’d like to befriend.
  • In summary, kids preferred to befriend kids who spoke like them; this likely wasn’t because they disliked the others, but because they appreciated the familiarity.
  • These findings suggest that the biases we have as adults toward non-native speakers stem from our inclinations in childhood.

Quick Summary

A new study “The effect of accent exposure on children’s sociolinguistic evaluation of peers” from the American Psychological Association and published in Developmental Psychology says that kids tend to befriend other kids who speak like them. This proved true even in diverse communities. The researchers say this shows that our tendency to discriminate based on the way others talk is rooted in the preferences we have as children.


While researchers know that adults discriminate (often automatically or unconsciously) against other people based on how they speak, the researchers from this study wanted to explore when this happens, as well as why and how. Additionally, they wanted to expand upon existing research that shows kids as young as 5 tend to befriend other kids who speak like them, by exposing their study participants to different accents and observing whether or not this makes a difference.


The researchers held a series of experiments, with approximately 150 English-speaking children, of whom fell between the ages of 5 and 6 years old and resided in Toronto: one of the most diverse places—both culturally and linguistically—in the world. In the first experiment, the kids were shown a video of two children on a computer, one of whom spoke English with a Canadian accent and the other of whom spoke English with a British accent. They simply listened to the children speak and then chose which kid they’d want to befriend.

In the second experiment, the researchers tested the same amount of English-speaking children. This time, however, the kids were shown a video of two children, one of whom again spoke English with a Canadian accent—but the second child was raised in Korea and spoke English as a second language. Again, they were told to choose which child they’d want to befriend.

In the third and final experiment, the kids listened to the Canadian, British, and Korean voices used in the previous experiments. After, the researchers asked them a couple of simple questions, such as, “Who talks like you?” The children then identified the kid who talked like them and sounded like they grew up in Toronto.


Each portion of the study yielded interesting results. Here’s a comprehensive list of what the researchers observed:

  • In the first experiment, the researchers found that the kids preferred to befriend the kid who had a similar accent to their own—even despite having been exposed to many different accents throughout their lifetime.
  • In the second experiment, the researchers again found that the kids preferred the kid who had a Canadian accent, but even more intensely.
  • In the third and final experiment, the researchers observed that the children could easily differentiate between the Canadian and Korean speakers, as well as the British and Korean speakers. However, they had a more difficult time differentiating between the Canadian and British accents.

The researchers concluded that children are better at differentiating local accents from nonnative accents than they are with regional accents. And while they might prefer to befriend those who speak similarly, it doesn’t mean that they are biased against those who spoke differently—rather than being driven by a dislike for these individuals, their desire to befriend those with similar accents was likely driven by a sense of familiarity. That said, these findings do shine an important light on where are biases in adulthood stem from.


  • The study participants were all from Toronto—while this is known to be a diverse area, it could benefit the researchers to conduct the same experiments with kids from a different location.
  • The study participants were also all about the same age (5-6 years); the researchers could widen the scope of the experiment and include kids of different ages to see if/how their preferences change as they get older.


Paquette-Smith, M., Buckler, H., White, K. S., Choi, J., & Johnson, E. K. (2019, January 24). The Effect of Accent Exposure on Children’s Sociolinguistic Evaluation of Peers. Developmental Psychology. Retrieved February 7, 2019 from https://www.apa.org/images/dev-dev0000659_tcm7-250789.pdf