“Accent is the soul of language, it gives to it both feeling and truth.” – Jean Jacques Rousseau
Humans are visual creatures. Appearance has a deep impact on how we perceive others. It’s why we’re told to dress and groom for success. But, it turns out that people’s impressions of us also extend to the way we speak. The first thing most people notice about our speech is our accent.
An accent is the way you sound when you speak. It refers to the differences in pronunciation, the distinction of consonants, vowels, and quality of voice. Choice of words, grammar, and semantics encompass a broader type of linguistic differences called “dialect.”
There are two types of accents: one is the accent in which a person speaks their native language, which often determines which region, class, or social group they belong to. For instance, most people associate the British accent with the posh Queen’s English we often hear in movies, when, in fact, there are countless accents unique to each part of the U.K.
The other kind of accent is a foreign accent, that refers to how someone speaks a language using the sounds and pronunciations of another. This is common among speakers learning a second language, who substitute sounds of words based on what they use in their native tongue. Consequently, their speech sounds unfamiliar and “foreign” to native speakers. Some entertainers make a good living from mimicking and parodying foreign accents!
Picking on different accents in the spirit of good humor is one thing, but using it to mock and discriminate is another. Sadly, it is something we’re all prone to doing. Studies have shown that it takes as little as 30 milliseconds of speech for us to instantly form judgements about the speaker’s character, wealth, social status, intelligence, and education.
Accent bias, a term coined for this type of prejudice, targets those who speak a language with a foreign accent. It has become increasingly common as people move around the world in search of opportunity. A 2013 report estimated that 232 million people live outside their country of origin. Whether they migrate for employment or refuge, non-native speakers face the brunt of this discrimination.
Just like any other form of discrimination, the implications of accent bias are significant. It spirals into a serious form of systemic prejudice, where people with foreign accents feel disadvantaged when it comes to having access to education, jobs, and health care. They are incorrectly perceived as being inferior in intelligence and less competent than native speakers.
Studies have found a mental mechanism that causes us to be less trusting of those who sound different. Speaking with a non-native accent reduces “cognitive fluency,” the ease with which the brain processes stimuli. Because people prefer things that are easier to process, they tend to doubt the accuracy and legitimacy of what they hear in a different accent.
In the U.S., Latinos, Southerners, and African Americans feel the need to eliminate their accents and replace them with Standard American English – the standard used by those in groups with prestige. If they fail to do so, they become objects of stigmatization and ridicule. Even people in positions of power are devalued for diverging from the norm. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton was once asked by a reporter why he sounds “like a hillbilly” despite having been educated at Yale and Oxford Universities.
Unlike other kinds of discrimination like racism, ableism, and sexism, there are no legal constructs to protect those vulnerable to accent shaming. If non-native speakers want to be treated as equals, they must adapt their speech. That’s why accent reduction training and classes have become essential for those wanting to find employment and be taken seriously.
In certain cases, training to correct speech is necessary, especially when someone’s accent is so strong that others cannot understand them. But, if a non-native speaker feels obligated to change their speech just to gain social approval and to protect themselves against bias, it becomes a social justice issue.
As a child of immigrant parents who grew up in the melting pot of Dubai, how I speak has always been a complicated issue. Even though I am monolingual and a native English speaker, I can speak it in different accents. Becoming an accent chameleon allowed me to fit into multi-cultural groups, consisting of Europeans, Americans, Arabs, and Indians.
In school, it was clear that there was subtle discrimination against kids who didn’t adopt a British or American accent. Sounding “fresh off the boat” automatically placed you low on the popularity totem pole.
Recently, I was reminded of this early conditioning when a coworker from Panama asked me if I just got off the phone with my parents because my American twang was considerably watered down. I found myself triggered by her snide remark. It made me curious about what unresolved sentiments I might still harbor about my cultural identity. What did I still need to heal?
I had to remind myself that my value is not tied to my accent. As long as I am clear in my communication, it doesn’t matter what I sound like. Pointing out the subtle shift in my accent was a reflection of her insecurities, rather than a reflection of my worth.
If you ever have to deal with accent bias, I encourage you to take on the same mindset. Realize that the most important part of communication should be whether your message is being heard and understood by others. As speakers, we need to focus on substance instead of sound. Sensitivity instead of style. Compassion instead of cadence.
Whatever side of the accent shaming fence you find yourself on, keep these thoughts in mind:
1. Accent is not a reflection of intelligence: Just because someone doesn’t have perfect grammar and a “native” command of your language, doesn’t mean they are not intelligent. There are plenty of incredibly smart people who can’t speak perfect English, but who can express their smarts in their own language. You wouldn’t want to be judged and treated unfairly by natives of a country whose language you’re just learning, right?
2. Stereotypes dehumanize a person: There’s a heavy psychological component to accent shaming. Since language and accent are central to a person’s identity and their early upbringing, mocking someone’s accent can cause serious trauma. When you label another’s speech patterns based on stereotypes of people with that accent, you’re essentially saying that they are flawed, inferior, and that they don’t belong to your tribe.
3. Understand that it’s hard to lose an accent: We’re born capable of perceiving and producing all sounds in all languages. As babies, we learn the sounds specific to our language and ignore the rest. By the time we’re a year old, we ignore distinctions between sounds that are not relevant to our language. As you grow older, it becomes harder to learn sounds of different languages because the sounds we’re used to are so deeply ingrained.
4. Realize there is no “right” accent: Saying someone has an accent when they deviate from the “standard” way of speaking is ethnocentric and ego-driven. If you think about it, every single person has an accent. Even within the U.S., there are a variety of ways to speak: mid-west, southern, New Yorker, Bostonian etc. When you tell a person “You have an accent,” it is a subjective assessment based on social indoctrination.
5. Accent diversity is a product of globalization: We’re living in an age of globalization where migration is more common than ever. We’re increasingly meeting accented speakers in our neighborhoods and workplaces. Acclimating to new accents keeps us on-trend, and it makes us mindful of the importance of treating everyone as equal, no matter how they sound to us.
Normalizing accents is part of the broader vision to create a just society where everyone is deemed worthy, regardless of their origins. When we focus on embracing each other’s uniqueness, rather than fixating on our differences, we level the playing field. We create a world where everyone can prosper and live their best life.
All my best on your journey,
Question for you: How do you treat people who you perceive to have an accent? Is there something you would like to change about your approach?
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