Op-ed: Debunking the common prejudices against accents

The first thing most people say upon meeting me is, “I hear an accent. Where are you from?” Seemingly, there is nothing wrong with this question, but upon further inspection, accents can play a more significant role in society than we may think.

The English Language Learners Seminar in Pronunciation Basics, Basic Public Speaking and American Culture is a one-credit, non-tuition class at Emerson which helps international students improve their English and pronunciation. While I initially signed up for it due to the extra credit, I also hoped it might teach me ways to disguise and lessen my accent so I wouldn’t stand out to others. I didn’t want conversations to revolve around my origin, my life story, or my reason for being at Emerson.

However, the seminar opened my eyes to the reality behind accents and how they may trick us to make hasty assumptions about others.

Many foreigners in the U.S. are set apart by their accents, but, when the roles are reversed, an American in Europe would also have an accent. This begs the question: Are accents even real? Or are they a social construct?

The science behind the way humans speak is complex. Most people develop their capacity to speak around their first birthday. Patricia Kuhl, professor of speech and hearing sciences at the University of Washington, found that a baby’s brain begins internalizing the basics of speech patterns at only six months old. This is when accents will be determined. If their mom pronounces water as “watah,” the baby will pick up on it.

The ELL Seminar does a great job at explaining the science behind human speech patterns and phonetics. It mentions how talking is like going up and down a ladder—the higher note being the most important syllable, and how the sound of the letter ‘R’ changes between cultures.

I’m not saying that having the ability to switch accents is a bad thing—this ability takes skill and is also a good way to be incognito. We applaud actors for their ability to change accents, but for the ordinary person, changing one’s accent “can be tiring and unnatural,” as BBC Award-winning multimedia science journalist Melissa Hogenboom puts it. In her article “How Hard Is It to Fake an Accent?,” she said our accent is part of our identity, and “to change it is to lose an aspect of ourselves.” If I had to think about the delivery of every word I was about to say, I wouldn’t be able to spontaneously be myself—I’d constantly fret over the right pronunciation.

It’s also worth noting that the seminar doesn’t want or intend to rid students of their accent. They want to help students speak clearer English and learn American slang, social cues, and business etiquette, and thus get a deeper understanding of American culture.

But a person’s accent may change throughout their life for social and political reasons. Accents can cause prejudice and encourage stereotyping against someone. This discrimination of someone’s speech is what Dr. Alexander Baratta from Manchester University defines as “accentism.”

Linguistics expert Chi Luu explains that listeners can attribute all kinds of unrelated personal traits to a speaker––like height, physical attractiveness, social status, intelligence, education, good character, sociability, and even criminality. It’s no wonder so many of us are concerned about having an accent.

This would mean that a job interview, an internship post, or any hiring opportunity may be determined not just by qualification and capability, but by the way someone speaks.

Prior to coming to college, my assumption was that people would treat me differently because I was not a native speaker, and I would be left out of some things because I could never relate to them. But it has been quite the opposite here at Emerson. Within the community, there is a sense of acceptance.

“Accentism” applies equally to both foreigners and native speakers because of an embedded stereotype behind every accent that deviates from standard dialect. Chi Luu defines standard dialect as the dialect spoken by most of the population and “accepted by social institutions such as the media, the law, and government.”

Measured by the standard dialect, it is easy to create stereotypes—British and French accents can seem attractive to some, New Yorkers’ accents can come off as rude, and Southern accents make some seem uneducated. In some cases, Hispanic accents can get you berated.

Accents are fun until they become a means for discrimination. It takes 30 milliseconds for a person to be linguistically profiled and have their class, gender, ethnicity, background, or criminal record determined based off their accent.

I’m inclined to never again tell anyone they have an accent. It is common to start the conversation with, “I hear an accent,” since it’s easy to point out the obvious. Omitting that initial thought is equally as easy.

I’m thankful for the revelation and preparation the ELL Seminar gave me. It is something we should all be aware of, and it is a class that should be open to both domestic and international students alike.

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