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updated 3/16/2010 2:35:42 PM ET 2010-03-16T18:35:42

Children choose friends based more on whether they speak alike rather than look alike, according to a Harvard University study.

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Social psychologists have long recognized that both kids and adults form and organize relationship networks largely based on the race, gender and age of others.

While previous research has shown that white children in the United States tend to pick same-race friends, new findings published in the journal Social Cognition suggest that race takes a back seat when foreign or non-native accents come into play.

"I find that (verbal accent) is something we attend to incredibly early in development," said Katherine Kinzler, lead researcher in the Harvard study and developmental psychologist at the University of Chicago. "Other research shows even newborn babies like the sound of the language they heard in the womb."

Offered the choice between making friends with either a white or black child who spoke French, English with a French accent or native English, the group of white, 5-year-old study participants overwhelmingly opted for the native speakers, regardless of their race.

Kinzler's related research has found that 5-month-old infants also exhibit similar inclinations toward a native accent, which emphasizes its powerful role as a critical marker of social identity and group membership.

"Given how difficult languages are to learn into adulthood, how someone speaks is a really good marker of where someone's from, who they are and where they've been," Kinzler told Discovery News.

From an evolutionary standpoint, Kinlzer thinks this seemingly inborn accent preference allowed early humans to distinguish between social groups before long-distance migration spurred interracial encounters.

But in today's society, it can often have negative impacts on the non-native speaker.

"Fluent speakers who have non-native accents often experience discrimination in housing, the courts, schools and employment," said Agata Gluszek, a doctoral student at Yale University who has studied accent-based stigmatization.

While non-native accents can make speech harder to understand, native listeners also tend to perceive communication problems even when hearing accented language spoken fluently.

Since people immediately associate an accent with outsider status, Gluszek says foreigners who speak English very well still expect to be stigmatized and misunderstood by American listeners.

Kinzler's study, however, controlled for language comprehension issues, and she's now looking more deeply into which specific social cues children inherently detect in accents and how that instinct evolves over time.

"Young children might have a theory of language that seems to be somewhat different from adults, in that they think you get your native language at birth and that it stays stable over your lifespan," Kinzler said. "We're testing now whether they might see language as being biological and inherited, rather than environmental."

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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