Attitudes of German Non-Native Speakers of English Towards British Varieties

A Case Study on the Example of the TV-Series ‘Downton Abbey’

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2015

16 Pages, Grade: 2,7


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 A Case Study: Background and Conceptual Design

3 A Case Study: Data Collection, Analysis and Results

4 A Case Study: Discussion of Results and Future Prospects

5 References

1 Introduction

When it comes down to the way we speak, there can be plenty of variety in a dialect, yet also in a language. Living in Bavaria, one recognizes pretty quickly that there are – at least for most inhabitants - two styles you can choose to speak between. There is both the standard variety, so-called ‘Hochdeutsch’ and also various dialects, depending on where you live. But what influences this choice of style? Research of the past decades has shown that there are specific attitudes, even stereotypes towards both speakers of the standard and non-standard variety of a language. This phenomenon is in a way also present in Britain. Although, one has to say, McArthur (1979) showed that British speakers normally do not switch between two varieties, but rather change their style to adjust their language to a situation.[1] In fact, they stay with their variety, which is either regionally coloured or more or less the standard. This standard is often referred to as ‘Received Pronunciation’ (RP) or ‘BBC English’.[2]

Before previous research on this topic of attitudes towards varieties of English is presented here, there will be a short overview what this paper will aim at and how it is composed. A distinction between the key terms ‘attitude’, ‘stereotype’ and ‘prejudice’ as well as a definition of ‘accent’, ‘dialect’ and ‘variety’ will be given to clarify what is meant by each of them in the course of this paper. At the end of this introduction, the aims and hypotheses further investigated here will have been presented. The second chapter deals with the background of this study and the above mentioned previous research. As the speech samples of British varieties chosen here are taken from the popular tv-series ‘Downton Abbey’, this chapter provides further information on that area as well as on the questionnaires and techniques used. Moreover, another look is taken on reference studies and their link to this one and its hypotheses. In chapter three, the test procedure is laid down in detail with regard to its results. As there are two groups of informants, the results of each group will be looked at and compared with those of the other group. Chapter four gives a classification of the results obtained and shows whether expectations were fulfilled or previous studies challenged. Problems and difficulties during this research will be pointed out as well as remaining questions and options for further investigation of this topic.

The reason to conduct this study lies within the question of how German (and therefore non-native) speakers of English evaluate those different ways to speak the English language as was mentioned above. How do they judge its speakers to be as a person and is this dependent on the variety he or she speaks? It will be interesting to see whether what way of speech they personally prefer to speak or what kind of education they received takes account on their judgement of the speech samples presented to them. There has been done a lot of research of attitudes towards varieties for the educational sector, but the aim of this paper is rather to show whether this attitude is also influenced by visual stimuli and how non-natives in Germany evaluate the different ways of speaking English, to have an impression of how these attitudes in everyday encounters may look like. Consequently, there are several hypotheses which are to be tested by the two questionnaires. First of all, there is the question of whether the informants will judge RP speakers in general as more favourably in terms of character traits and competence as it is the case in previous research undertaken. In conclusion, speakers of non-standard varieties usually are judged more positively in terms of sympathy, humour and so on. Secondly, it will be tested whether the own way of speech influences this judgement. Moreover, as a third hypothesis, gender and age will be tested as an influence on an attitude. Previously, age only showed a slightly more balanced and reasonable view[3] and a female gender a slightly more overall positive judgement.[4] Furthermore, it will be interesting whether the type of education plays a role. Usually, the higher the education of an informant, the less extreme the judgement will be.[5] Lastly, the two groups come into play. Is the evaluation different when visual aids such as gesture, facial expression, clothing and other additional information is provided? In this case, the extended speech sample was shown to the group that already knew the tv-series ‘Downton Abbey’ and therefore knew the characters that were visible. Those who had not come in touch with it only received the audio track of the short clippings.

Now, there will be a short differentiation of the key terms used in this and various other studies. When the term ‘attitude’ is mentioned, it refers to a “Settled behaviour or manner of acting, as representative of feeling or opinion”.[6]

‘Settled’ in this context is to be understood as previous experience with a subject in the past and with it comes an established way of thinking about a specific topic that influences the behaviour in similar situations or encounters. The difference to a ‘stereotype’ is that attitudes of a person can change over time and are less general, whereas stereotypes usually are fixed mental images that generalize and are applied to a whole group of similar individuals or situations.[7] Stereotypes are reduced concepts applied on e.g. people that belong to one ethnic group and are therefore attributed with generally the same character traits. The term ‘prejudice’ is even stronger negatively connoted. Prejudices are most often based on unrealistic and unreal beliefs without having experienced the concrete situation on one´s own.[8] They most likely result in unfair behaviour towards the affected e.g. nation, ethnic group and so on. In this paper, attitude is used as a point of reference towards the informants´ true view of a variety and its speakers, which is based on previous encounters with the variety itself as well as the above mentioned personal factors involved. Furthermore, a distinction between ‘accent’, ‘variety’ and ‘dialect’ has to be made. While ‘variety’ seems to be the most neutral term for a version of a language, be it standard or not, ‘accent’ always refers to a deviation of the standard, as well as of course ‘dialect’ does. Due to different concepts of the terms in Germany, the term ‘variety’ will be used throughout this study to refer to the way the English language is spoken, regardless of whether it refers to the standard or non-standard way of speaking English, which will in each case be made quite clear.

2 A Case Study: Background and Conceptual Design

Before going into the details of the present study, a short overview of the milestones of previous research undertaken in the field of attitudes towards varieties of English is given. In 1970, William Cheyne[9] undertook a survey with informants from Scotland and England to evaluate both varieties. Results showed that male guises answered more extremely than did the females. Also, speakers from England were looked at more positively with regard to qualities such as ‘prestige’ or ‘status’, while Scottish speakers were thought to be rather friendly and more humorous. Curiously, Scottish informants rated their own variety not as positive as the standard variety. When Giles ranked the varieties of English in the same year[10], the most liked variety appeared to be ‘RP’ with urban and foreign varieties liked least. However, the answers differed significantly depending on how old the informants were. Giles (1971) also showed that in comparison to the Somerset-variety and the Welsh variety ‘RP’ was still most positively judged in terms of perceived ‘intelligence’, ‘honesty’ and ‘appearance’[11] Again, the local varieties were judged better with regard to ‘humour’. Bourhis and Giles (1976) found out that it is more effective to teach and motivate a class when using the standard variety instead of a regional variety.[12] Interestingly, a research from 1984 (Elwell et al.)[13] proved that visual aids during a job interview result in an overall more positive assessment in comparison to the previous surveys. A British citizen of Indian origin was recorded twice, speaking with accent and without. All recordings showed the upper part of the person, dressed favourably when speaking the standard variety and less neatly when speaking a non-standard variety. Still, the non-standard recording was not assessed as badly as expected although the accent was the main factor in the evaluation. This opinion is supported by Giles and Sasson (1983). Even if there is additional information with a speech sample, the evaluation of a speaker´s character is mainly based on his or her accent.[14] When Giles et al. (1992) asked informants how they perceived the Lancashire variety in comparison to RP (both spoken at a different speech rate), the informants from a British university again evaluated the standard variety better as far as ‘competence’ and ‘solidarity’ is concerned. Guises of the standard variety who sounded older where judged even more competent whereas younger guises speaking the non-standard variety were assessed less competent. The most negative judgement was made about young and fast speaking guises, the best judgement was achieved for older sounding guises speaking fast.[15] Nine years ago, previous studies were challenged (Fabricius 2006). Instead of taking older speech samples of RP speakers like previous research has done, guises born in the 1970s and 14 year old informants were used. Interestingly, results turned out to be different from those obtained in the past, as attitudes towards varieties seem to be in a flux. Informants judged male speakers with a perceived elite social status less favourably than they did for female speakers of the same social status. A possible explanation is that a social change has taken place which changed the view on RP, correlating with an aversion towards the typical speech male students of public schools tend to have.[16] This tendency among the younger generation was affirmed in a study by Coupland and Bishop (2007). An investigation among British citizens showed, that although the conservative attitudes towards the overall ranking of the various British accents are still present, informants of a younger age have less negative attitudes towards a non-standard variety. Urban varieties from Birmingham, Glasgow or Liverpool and ethnically coloured accents were not evaluated as negatively in terms of ‘prestige’ and ‘attractiveness’ by the younger participants as they used to be in previous studies. The varieties most popular in Britain are spoken in Scotland and in the Republic of Ireland.[17]

Most of the research mentioned above used questionnaires containing the ‘matched guise technique’. This technique allows comparisons of attitudes towards two or more varieties, the key feature being the unconscious responses concerning the attitude of the informants. They are not aware that the speech samples they are presented are most often spoken by the same person and the context of the situation does not allow the conclusion that one is being asked on one´s attitude towards a variety. The answers obtained are therefore independent of prevailing social expectations the informants might feel to act accordingly on. In the present study, the technique used is not quite the same, but similar in the way that informants also are presented speech samples of different varieties. Only they are not spoken by the same speaker but are taken from the tv-series ‘Downton Abbey’, providing a natural speech situation instead of the same text read out twice. As noted above, there are two groups of informants: group ‘A’ has not heard of the series before, while group ‘B’ has. Both questionnaires had the same speech samples, with the only difference being the added visual information for those in group B. Group A only heard the audio track. Dialogue 1 involved Mr Carson, the butler (speaking nearly RP) and Mrs Hughes, the housekeeper (speaking Scottish English), Dialogue 2 contained Lady Mary (speaking RP) and her maid Anna Smith (speaking a Yorkshire variety) and in Dialogue 3, Lady Sybil (speaking RP) and Mr Branson, the chauffeur (speaking Irish English) were talking. After each of the three dialogues informants were asked to assess both persons heard in the speech sample on a five point bipolar scale of adjectives. Scales of this type have been introduced by Osgood et al. (1957), who first used adjectives on a six point scale called the “semantic differential”[18].For the purpose of this study, adjectives were chosen similar to those presented by Lees (2000)[19] and Bellamy (2010)[20]. Attributes were grouped into ‘appearance’ (Aussehen) and ‘character traits’ (Eigenschaften). Evaluations on estimated professions were not considered as relevant to the aim of this study. Finally, informants were asked to indicate their age group, what type of education they have, their gender, their personal way to speak German (‘Dialekt’ vs. ‘Hochdeutsch’). It was also taken into consideration if they think the standard variety in Germany (‘Hochdeutsch’) should mainly be used in professional contexts to find out if their view of varieties in Germany reflected to attitudes on British varieties. Also, their proficiency in English was asked and if it is easier for them to understand spoken English without accent. Lastly, they had to indicate whether in international professional context Standard English should be spoken or not.

The study is mainly based on three previously undertaken studies not mentioned so far. In 1995, Chiba et al.[21] looked into attitudes of Japanese university students towards English accents.[22] In general, American English is the preferred variety in Japan, at least after the Second World War. Interestingly, they found out that the higher the awareness that English is an instrument in international communication, the more favourably was the evaluation of non-native accents of English (Asian accents). The proved hypothesis is that the more you are either aware of the instrumental factor of English or the more you are in touch with non-standard accents, the better you think of varieties that differ from the standard. These two statements are also key features in this survey, only that here it is based on the kind of German variety informants tend to speak. McKenzie (2008) also did a survey among Japanese university students, exposing them to six different varieties of English. The quintessence of the findings is that in general, informants tend to judge standard varieties of British and American English more favourably in terms of ‘status’ and ‘competence’. However, guises speaking a non-standard variety[23] were judged better in terms of solidarity. Attitudes were influenced by self-perceived proficiency in English and the informants´ exposure to it.[24] In this survey, the informants´ self-perceived proficiency is taken into consideration as well. In his doctoral thesis, John Bellamy (2010)[25] compared attitudes of Austrian and English citizens towards the varieties of their language. Looking at the results from the Manchester survey, he found out that in general informants evaluated both appearance traits and status traits more positively for guises speaking a high prestige variety than speakers of non-standard varieties. In terms of education, intelligence, dress and profession, the gaps between the two groups were most prominent. Also, the responses were not influenced by the informants´ gender but by their regional origin. The set of data obtained in Manchester – and also in the Vienna results - showed that varieties with a high prestige, i.e. the standard variety, were in both countries judged better not only for education, intelligence and profession, but also more dependable and honest as speakers of non-standard varieties with a low prestige. Those however, speaking a non-standard variety, were seen to be more sociable, humorous and entertaining. When comparing the results from England and Austria, it is clear that in Austria one´s variety is not as important in regard to the speaker´s social status as it is in England. This might be attributed to the fact that Austrians usually switch between a ‘dialect’ and the standard language depending on the context, while in England, people mostly switch styles accordingly.[26]

3 A Case Study: Data Collection, Analysis and Results

In order to obtain a significant result for this study, it was necessary to have 20 informants for each group. Therefore the study was posted on Facebook and also sent to informants via Email, while some of the questionnaires were also printed out and filled out by hand. Participants of both genders were university students, people who work in the industrial-, trade- and craft sector and pensioners in order to obtain a broad impression of attitudes of Germans towards British accents. The aim was to approach reality as close as possible, and in reality all sorts of people get confronted with English and its varieties nowadays. The questionnaires were printed out and evaluated anonymously afterwards. The audio and video samples could be listened to as often as participants wanted, but always one at a time in order not to mix impressions. The 20 participants in each group were composed of a complex mixture which can be identified in table 1 and 2. In both groups there were more female than male participants.


[1] Aitken, J. Scottish speech. A historical view with special reference to the Standard English of Scotland. In: John Aitken and Tom McArthur (eds.) Languages of Scotland. Edinburgh: W. and R. Chambers: 1979. 85-118, here: 85-86. Style drifters adjust their variety to the context of a given situation and do not switch between a variety and the standard.

[2] RP is only spoken by about 2% of the population and is situated in the upper social classes.

[3] Giles, H. Evaluative reactions to accents. Educational Review 22/1970. 211-227. Here: 217.

[4] Hundt, M. Einstellungen gegenüber dialektal gefärbter Standardsprache. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1992. Here: 60.

[5] Flaitz, J. The Ideology of English: French Perceptions of English as a World Language. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1988.




[9] Cheyne, W. Stereotyped reactions to speakers with Scottish and English regional accents. The British Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 9/1970. 280-1.

[10] Giles, H. Evaluative reactions to accents. Educational Review 22/1970. 211-227.

[11] Giles, H. Patterns of evaluation to R.P., South Welsh and Somerset accented speech. The British Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 10/1972. 280-1.

[12] Giles, H. and Bourhis, R. Methodological Issues in Dialect Perception. Anthropological Linguistics 18/1976. 294-304.

[13] Elwell, C. et al. Effects of accent and visual information on impression formation. Journal of Language and Social Psychology 3/1984. 297-299.

[14] Giles, H. and Sassoon, C. The effect of speaker's accent, social class background and message style on British listeners' social judgements. Language and Communication 3/1983. 305-313.

[15] Giles, H. et al. Language attitudes and cognitive mediation. Human Communication Research 18/1992. 500-527.

[16] Fabricius, A. The 'vivid sociolinguistic profiling' of Received Pronunciation. Responses to gendered dialect-in-discourse. Journal of Sociolinguistics 10/2006. 111-122.

[17] Coupland, N. and Bishop, H. Ideologised values for British accents. Journal of Sociolinguistics 11/2007. 74-93.

[18] Osgood, C. et al. The Measurement of Meaning. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1957.

[19] Lees, E. Dialect or Disadvantage. Unpublished BA dissertation, University of Manchester, 2000. (Cited in John Bellamy).

[20] Bellamy, J. Language Attitudes in England and Austria A Sociolinguistic Investigation into Perceptions of High and Low-Prestige Varieties in Manchester and Vienna. Stuttgart: Steiner, 2012.

[21] Chiba, R. Japanese Attitudes Toward English Accents. World Englishes. 14, no. 1/1995. 77-86.

[22] Subject of this evaluation were six Asian accents and one American accent.

[23] Especially towards a Japanese speaker with a heavy accent.

[24] The higher these factors, the more favourably informants´ judged the guises in terms competence.

[25] Bellamy, J. Language Attitudes in England and Austria A Sociolinguistic Investigation into Perceptions of High and Low-Prestige Varieties in Manchester and Vienna. Stuttgart: Steiner, 2012.

[26] Bellamy, J. Language Attitudes in England and Austria A Sociolinguistic Investigation into Perceptions of High and Low-Prestige Varieties in Manchester and Vienna. Stuttgart: Steiner, 2012. 257.

Excerpt out of 16 pages


Attitudes of German Non-Native Speakers of English Towards British Varieties
A Case Study on the Example of the TV-Series ‘Downton Abbey’
LMU Munich  (Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Accents of English
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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847 KB
Sprachwissenschaft, Anglistik, L2, attitudes, Received Pronunciation, Downton Abbey, German speakers of English, Accents, Dialects, questionnaires, Bellamy, Chiba, English, stereotype
Quote paper
Marlene Weber (Author), 2015, Attitudes of German Non-Native Speakers of English Towards British Varieties, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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