The field of developmental psychology is a complex one, where new and insightful breakthroughs are still being made today. It is no wonder that many have taken particular interest in the field and its inner workings.

One such individual includes Dr. Elizabeth Johnson, Associate Professor in UTM’s department Psychology and Canada Research Chair in Spoken Language Acquisition. Johnson directs a lab titled Child Language and Speech Studies (C.L.A.S.S) right in UTM’s own CCIT building.

Johnson recently published a study in collaboration with one of her former Ph.D. students, Melissa Paquette-Smith, concerning accent preference in certain areas of the Greater Toronto Area.  In an email to The Medium, Johnson explains a bit about the study. “Past studies have suggested that when given a choice, American 5 to 6-year-olds living in major cities like Boston and Chicago show a preference to associate with children who speak with a native American English accent over children who speak English with a foreign French accent.”

Elaborating further, she explains that the children participating in the study were exposed to pictures of two children, accompanied by recordings of native and foreign English accents.

Johnson and Paquette-Smith were curious as to whether similar results would surface in the Greater Toronto Area. They hypothesized, children would be more accepting of various accents due to the large amount of cultural and lingual diversity that exists in the GTA. Johnson states that “we were interested in whether the findings reported with American children would generalize to children living in the neighborhoods surrounding UTM.”

Recording of children with British and Korean accents were provided by Dr. Buckler, a faculty member of Nottingham University in the UK, and Dr. Choi, a professor of Social Psychology at Sookmyung Women’s University in South Korea, respectively. Buckler and Choi were additional associates to the study.

When asked about the experimental design of the study, Johnson elaborated, “We used a very similar procedure as previous studies with American children. We presented GTA 5 and 6-year-olds with images of two children, and then played recordings of two children’s voices and told them that one voice belonged to Child A, and the other voice belonged to Child B. In our first experiment, children completed eight trials—on each they heard the voice of one child speaking with a local Canadian English accent and one child speaking with a British accent. On every trial, the children had to choose who they would prefer to be friends with, and place a star sticker above that child’s picture.”

The subsequent results of the study may be somewhat surprising—comparing the local English accent to the British accent, children chose to be friends with the local speaker about 58 per cent of the time. When the experiment was repeated utilising the Korean accented speaker instead, children chose the local speaker about 85 per cent of the time.

Children subjected to the experiment were separated into three categories of daily exposure to different accents, high, medium, and low, to further test Johnson’s hypothesis. She notes that “Interestingly, however, we found no evidence that amount of accent exposure at home affected how much children preferred a speaker who spoke with a local Canadian accent. In other words, even children who had parents who spoke English with a non-local accent still preferred to be friends with kids who spoke English with a local Canadian accent over kids who spoke English with a British or Korean accent. This really surprised us.”

Although these results may be concerning to some, considering cultural diversity and acceptance is a highly quoted strength of the GTA, Johnson concludes by warning that “[…] these findings need to be taken with a grain of salt. The 5 to 6-year-olds we tested demonstrated a preference for peers who spoke in the locally dominant accent, but this does not mean that children this age feel any ill-will towards children who speak another variety of English, like Korean or British accented English. And in the real world, children have a lot more information to base their peer preferences on besides accent.”