The present research provides evidence for children’s early and robust use of language and accent in guiding social preferences. In Experiment 1, children chose to be friends with speakers of their native language compared to speakers of a foreign language (Experiment 1a), or speakers with a foreign accent in the child’s native language (Experiment 1b). Preferences based on accent were as robust as those based on language, and did not stem from a preference for speakers who are comprehensible. Although the children in Experiment 2a said that they could understand the foreign-accented speakers compared to the foreign-language speakers, children in Experiment 2b did not choose these individuals as friends. Thus, friendship preference and comprehensibility can be distinct for young children, who do not grant favorable social status to non-native speakers of their language.
Experiment 3 compared children’s preferences for speakers with a native accent to preferences for individuals of their own race. Experiment 3a replicated extant literature showing that young White children raised in the U.S. display friendship preferences for other children of their own race. When race was pitted against accent, however, children expressed a social preference for Black children who spoke with a native accent, over White children whose accent was foreign. In Experiment 4, when accent was pitted against visual distortion of the target faces, children again chose to be friends with native speakers of their native language, thus providing evidence that children’s attention to accent over race in Experiment 3b was not guided by the relative familiarity of each dimension.
Unlike many social categories including race, the language someone speaks is not visually apparent in the face. A prior emphasis in the adult literature on the “big three” social categories has been attributed to each category’s visual salience (Fiske, 1998
): each of these categories is readily apparent at first view. Likewise, children’s social category formation has often been thought to rely on visual observations of properties that differ among individuals (Aboud, 1988
; Clark & Clark, 1940
; Goodman, 1970
; Holmes, 1995
). Consistent with this latter view, children in Experiment 3a and 4a chose other children of their own race, as well as children with typical faces, as friends on the basis of visual information alone.
Nevertheless, our findings suggest that children’s social preferences can surpass reliance on information that is visual. In the present experiments, the critical social information consisted of the accent with which a person had previously spoken. Children’s reliance on accent, over the visually and socially salient cue of race, is consistent with a tradition of research that roots the development of social categories in more abstract distinctions and predispositions (e.g., Diesendruck & haLevi, 2006
; Gelman, Collman, & Maccoby, 1986
; Hirshfeld, 1996). For example, gender is often communicated by perceptual cues, but young children prioritize category membership (e.g., labeling as a “boy” or “girl”) over conflicting visual information in reasoning about the characteristics of novel children (Gelman et al., 1986
). Moreover, when perceptually neutral pictures of children are labeled with different ethnic labels (e.g., “Arab” vs. “Jew”), children generalize novel properties along ethnic category lines, in the absence of visual cues to ethnicity (Diesendruck & haLevi, 2006
). Because our studies presented static photographs, visual information for the native language was not available to children, and auditory information was no longer present at the time of choosing. Nevertheless, children robustly used native accent, rather than race, to guide their social preferences. Children’s privileging of accent over race information is further consistent with evolutionary hypotheses concerning the origins of ingroup social preferences. Given that social groups in ancient times likely differed in accent, but not in race, children may be predisposed to rely primarily on accent to guide their social evaluations of novel individuals. Future research might address how children’s early attention to language and accent compare to the categories of gender and age, which also likely held social significance throughout human evolution.
Open questions concern the generality and malleability of children’s preferences for native speakers. Would children raised in multilingual environments show similar preferences for other people who speak with the accent of their primary language? Moreover, in many societies, one language or accent has higher status than others; though from infancy humans demonstrate social preferences for native speakers (Kinzler et al., 2007
), over development, children’s language-based social preference may become sensitive to the social status of different languages in their culture. Furthermore, a culture’s tendency to label linguistic or racial distinctions may influence children’s perception of these categories. Can children be led to overcome an initial disfavoring of foreign-accented individuals through cooperative experiences across languages and social groups? The present methods may help to address these questions.