By: Wesley Cheung
Department of Modern Languages and Literature, The University of Texas at San Antonio
Accent discrimination is a universal yet socially accepted form of prejudice. When directed towards people of colour (POC), these attitudes may also represent subtle forms of racism. Previous research on accent discrimination towards non-native (NN) English-speaking POC was able to unravel patterns of accent discrimination, including mocking and stereotyping, and the effect that these negative attitudes have towards NN POC speakers as individuals and as part of society. This article explores these topics with examples from the classroom, the judicial system and offshore call centres, and advocates for increasing our exposure to NN POC accents to build trust and reduce listeners’ accent biases.
Our accents are unique, and they act as an advertisement for our social identity, even without face-to-face interaction. Within seconds of speaking with someone on the phone, we may build assumptions on the speaker’s age, ethnic background and social class based on stereotypes associated with the accent we hear (Flege, 1984; Thamer Ahmed et al., 2013). Additionally, we are more likely to be biased against speakers who have accents that differ to ours (Lippi-Green, 2012). We then form a hierarchical view of accents depending on societal and cultural biases, and assign values such as pleasantness, prestige and intelligence to accents we find valuable, while stigmatising the ones that we find less desirable.
We often encounter a range of English accents in everyday interactions, and we can regularly differentiate between native and non-native accents by recognising variations in pronunciation and sentence structure. Non-native or foreign accents are influenced by phonological characteristics that belong to the speaker’s native language, which results in foreign-accented speech that may be more difficult to process for unexperienced listeners. This leads to a common notion that it is a nuisance to interact with people with non-native accents. These negative attitudes are often seen as deeper forms of discrimination, even if listeners are unaware of them. As Hosoda & Stone‐Romero (2010) explained, irrational or other forms of prejudices may surface when listeners are interacting with non-native English-speaking (NN) people of colour (POC). In turn, the perpetual negative bias towards NN POC speakers may lead to an unfair loss in opportunities, and make them a victim of linguistic racism, isolation and psychological damages (Dovchin, 2020). Faced with continual discrimination, many NN speakers strive to attain a native-like accent, with promises of larger returns if they are willing to adopt a ‘superior’ standardised English accent.
When listeners are trying to understand NN speakers, they seldom question their responsibility as a listener in the communication process. It has been proposed that in many situations, miscommunication is not due to the presence of a foreign accent, but to the negative social evaluation of that accent and subsequent rejection of the communicative burden (Lippi-Green, 2012). This triggers assumptions and attitudes in the listener’s mind about the speaker’s other traits, regardless of whether these are correct or relevant. Additionally, it seems that the context surrounding the conversation also affects how tolerant listeners are.
In a world that firmly believes that achieving a ‘native-like’ accent will open doors and create opportunities, those that cannot acquire a ‘desirable’ accent are bullied and stereotyped. Meanwhile, there is little consideration of the effort NN POC speakers put into the conversation or how proficient their English actually is. As the communicative process involves both a speaker and a listener, this present paper will examine both the listener’s attitudes towards NN POC accents and the effect this has on the NN speaker. Additionally, this paper contends that accent discrimination is a widely acknowledged form of discrimination and appears to be more socially acceptable compared to religious, gender or racial discrimination. This will be demonstrated by a review of the literature on accent discrimination throughout society, including specific examples in education, the court system and the overseas customer service industry.
Listener Perceptions of NN POC Accents
As the expansion of intercontinental trade and relations results in a rapid increase in globalisation and cultural diversity, we are increasingly exposed to a variety of NN POC accents. These speakers are faced with two external pressures during conversation: How others understand their speech, and more subconsciously, how others will judge them as social beings (Moyer, 2013). In these conversations, listeners use these social judgements to form attitudes and assumptions towards NN POC speakers. These are coloured by individual preferences, notions of prestige, and demographic factors, such as race, class and gender (Moyer, 2013). Even people who are generally accepting of diversity may still subconsciously hold these reactions to accented speech.
Non-native accents are often criticized and ridiculed as a sign of ignorance or lack of sophistication (Munro et al., 2006). These views are also reinforced by television and movies that regularly associate certain speech varieties with negative stereotypes (Lippi-Green, 2012). However, not all NN accents hold the same level of prestige. Giles (1970) set out to map British listeners’ evaluations of different accents, including Received Pronunciation (RP; considered the standard form of British English pronunciation), regional British accents (e.g. Liverpool), NN European accents (e.g. French, German) and NN POC accents (e.g. Indian). Respondents were asked to rate each accent for ‘prestige’ and ‘pleasantness’. The results showed a very clear pattern: RP accents ranked the highest, while NN POC accents such as Chinese and Arabic were all poorly ranked, faring worse than NN European accents such as German or French. More interestingly, replications of this study over the past fifty years have shown that these rankings have remained largely unchanged during this time (Coupland & Bishop, 2007; Levon et al., 2020).
Similar surveys have been conducted in the United States, which showed that speakers with an RP or French accent were perceived as being ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘well-educated’, whereas Asian-accented English speakers were found to be less favourable, and were considered to be worse communicators (Cargile, 2000; Hosoda & Stone‐Romero, 2010; Stewart et al., 1985). These studies outline a similar pattern of accent hierarchy, one that seems to penalise non-standard working-class and NN POC accents, while upholding the belief that standard accent varieties are the most prestigious. Many of these attitudes and assumptions towards accents are hinging upon an arbitrary, often-flawed evaluation of the speaker.
Several studies have shown that the ethnicity of a speaker, even just signalled by a photograph, significantly affected a listener’s judgement of their accent (Rubin, 1992; Yi et al., 2013; Zheng & Samuel, 2017). In one study, US-based undergraduates listened to a passage recorded by a native speaker of American English, while seeing a picture of the purported speaker: either a face of a White or Asian individual. After the audio passage, students were asked to judge the accent of the speech and the competence of the speaker. The study found that when listening to an audio recording alongside a photograph of an Asian face, students reported hearing an NN accent, and found the speaker to be less comprehensible compared to the recording attached to a photograph of a White individual (Rubin, 1992). More recently, Kang & Rubin (2009) conducted a similar study that yielded comparable results. They found that participants that previously had negative associations with Asian speakers performed poorly on a comprehension test when they thought the speaker was Chinese, compared to those that did not express such attitudes.
In a third study, college students in the American Midwest were asked to identify the accent-origin of Korean-accent English speech. The responses ranged from Latino, Chinese, Indian, unspecified Asian or ‘other’, with only a small fraction of students accurately identifying a Korean accent. Even though most of the students were not able to accurately identify the accent origin of speakers in this study, the stigma of NN speech was still apparent. For example, there was a prevalence of descriptions such as ‘lazy’ or ‘speaks poorly’ (Lippi-Green, 2012).
The proof of an accent hierarchy, when viewed in light of what we know from other studies regarding how race impacts speech perception, builds strongly on our evidence base to suggest two new viewpoints. Firstly, the discrimination of POC with NN accents seems to be intertwined with subtle forms of racism. Racism is not only tied to someone’s appearance, but also how they sound. These can manifest in obvious ways such as bullying and shaming, or more subtle or subconscious displays such as misguided compliments towards a native English-speaking POC’s accent or the unintended social exclusion of NN POC speakers. Secondly, despite not being able to identify a specific accent-origin, listeners are still likely able to identify speech as being ‘non-standard’. This suggests that a ‘Standard Language Ideology’ may be at work here.
Struggles of NN POC Speakers
Standard Language Identity (SLI), as defined by Lippi-Green (2012), is “a bias towards an abstract, idealised homogenous language imposed and maintained by dominant institutions and which has as its model the written language, but which is drawn primarily from the spoken language of the upper middle class.” In other words, SLI is a social construct that has historically favoured monolingual privileged groups. This system involves rules set by supposed ‘experts’, who often have disputed credentials and do not address the source of their authority directly. These rules assume that written and spoken language are equal, and that educated people are the only source of acceptable English. Their assumption is that others are not smart enough to be in charge of their own language, and must rely on experts to create structured authority (Lippi-Green, 2012). In order to find acceptance in society, students with non-standard accents are encouraged to assimilate to a standard accent. Those that do not assimilate face stigmatisation in employment, housing, education, media, courts and in everyday interactions (Lippi-Green, 2012). These external pressures also lead to a persistent feeling of self-devaluation, which has serious repercussions.
Dovchin (2020) looked at the psychological damages of linguistic racism in international students in Australia. The author found that the majority of international students surveyed have experienced linguistic racism, both in the form of bullying and mocking of their English accents, and also stereotyping based on their race, ethnicity and nationality. These victims are deprived of living a meaningful social life, are trapped between having an immutable NN accent, and perpetually facing different forms of linguistic racism. NN POC speakers are at risk of spiralling into a high level of fear, stress, and anxiety, developing a sense of non-belonging, social withdrawal, and mental health disorders including suicidal thoughts (Dovchin, 2020). In particular, it has been found that NN-accented Asian speakers seem to be often exposed to linguistic shaming, bullying and mocking of their ‘ethnic accent’ (Piller, 2016, p. 197). The social normalisation of excluding NN POC speakers due to their accent leaves these individuals vulnerable to ongoing aggression, hate and ostracization from those who feel threatened by people that are different to them. Beyond these challenges, society routinely pressures individuals to change their accents, which is akin to directing people to change a core part of their identity and culture.
These internal struggles motivate many NN POC speakers to invest a lot of effort into ‘purifying’ their English accent, even if they cannot identify the specific features that mark them as non-native (Derwing & Munro, 2013; Dovchin, 2020). This drives a demand for accent-reduction classes, a process that has been subjected to controversy. Accent modification is difficult, even for actors learning to imitate of another accent. Despite careful coaching and several attempts, many actors still struggle to accurately portray another accent, even in the limited capacity that is asked of them during filming (Lippi-Green, 2012).
While there are several challenges that affect a NN speaker during communication, the listener may also struggle to understand the contents of these conversations. It is important to remember that the degree of NN accent cannot predict the level of an individual’s competency, and that breakdown in communication is often thought to be due to the listener’s negative social evaluations of the speaker’s accent (Lippi-Green, 2012). To reach mutual intelligibility, both the listener and the speaker can take measures such as asking the right questions, using pauses, repetition and back-channel cues to negotiate past challenging points of communication (Pickering, 2006). Additionally, it may be helpful to communicate in an environment with less background noise, having a good telephone connection or establishing face-to-face contact. However, the listener may choose instead to completely reject their communicative burden and thus not put any effort into working towards mutual understanding. As evidenced earlier, these attitudes are often driven by negative perceptions of NN speakers, especially those belonging to minoritized racial groups. As outlined below, such attitudes lead to more serious consequences in society.
NN POC Accents and Their Consequences in Society
The negative public perceptions of NN POC accents, including the negative stereotypes associated with an individual’s foreign accent, race, social class and ethnicity, all play a major role in the ways NN POC speakers are treated in society (Pickering, 2006). Linguistic prejudice continues to be a socially acceptable way to discriminate against racial groups, affecting NN POC speakers in all sectors of society, from children in education to those seeking employment and housing, and it is even prevalent in the court system.
In US schools, NN-accented children often feel pressured to learn and speak Standard American English, and teachers are made responsible to teach this form of ‘perfect’ English (Lippi-Green, 2012). NN-accented teachers are also discriminated against, with some parents convinced that their children are at risk of picking up their teacher’s accent (Lippi-Green, 2012). However, this belief has no linguistic foundation, as young children acquire their phonologies from their families and schoolmates. By the time they are old enough to go to school, this acquisition process is largely finished (Lippi-Green, 2012).
Once in the workplace, NN POC speakers continue to be viewed as having an impediment. The Equality and Human Rights Commission states that a person with a different accent cannot be discriminated against if they are able to communicate and be understood effectively in English. However, employers can base an employment decision on an individual’s accent if it is perceived that their accent interferes with their ability to communicate effectively, which may in turn negatively impact their business. The terms used here are very vague, and still place NN POC employees and job applicants at risk of being subjected to discrimination.
There are countless examples of accent discrimination cases presented before the tribunal, many debating on the NN speaker’s ability to perform job requirements in which language skills are a prerequisite. In (Kahakua v. Friday, 1989), a university trained meteorologist in Hawaii with 20 years of experience was denied for a promotion because as a bilingual English-Hawaiian Creole speaker, he had a Hawaiian accent. Mr. Kahakua subsequently sued his employer on the basis that his language traits are linked to his national origin. The judge, not from Hawaii, stated that there is no racial or physiological reason why Kahakua could not attain a Standard American English (SAE) pronunciation, despite not defining this explicitly. Additionally, the ‘expert’ chosen to testify on behalf of the employer, a speech pathologist, urgently recommended that Kahakua seek professional help in striving to ‘lessen this handicap.’
This case is just one of many examples of misconceptions of language in the court system. The SLI was clearly at play here as the judge believed that a NN speaker should have no problem attaining a ‘superior’ SAE accent. It also demonstrates a failure of the court to acknowledge that accent is a largely immutable characteristic of national origin, and there was no objective assessment of the demands of the job or the plaintiff’s English proficiency. Lastly, the ‘expert’ that was consulted was an expert in diagnosing and treating communication disorders, rather than one that studies the spoken language. In this case, a highly trained native-Hawaiian professional was denied a job opportunity by a white employer because he was unable to obtain a SAE, an accent that was modelled after the speech of privileged white communities. Rather than being valued for his bilingualism, Mr. Kahakua experienced discrimination as his native culture became an obstacle for further advancement, even in his homeland.
Another sector of society in which NN POC accents are frequently encountered is the overseas customer service industry. Many businesses reassign their customer service to a third party, typically an overseas call centre service which maintains agents who are trained to handle the business’ incoming calls. These call centres present an interesting opportunity for the study of accent bias, because it allows us to examine both listeners’ prejudices to NN POC accents in a voice-only service environment, and the struggles of individual NN POC employees.
For a customer service representative (CSR) working in a call centre service, the linguistic target is to attain a native-like accent. This accent is seen as a valuable commodity to their employers, and those that cannot mould their accents well or receive complaints about their language skills are removed (Rahman, 2009). In order to help CSRs reach their targets, agencies often provide in-office ‘accent neutralisation’ courses (Cowie, 2007; Rahman, 2009). Cowie (2007) describes this training process as an extremely immersive experience, even so far as to celebrate American holidays and implementing an ‘English Only Policy’ at the office. While CSRs work towards this ‘neutral’ accent with varying degrees of proficiency, they also create entire identities around it, including false biographies, westernised names and a cultural knowledge of the target country. However, despite the intensive training, this performance often typically only succeeds in enabling them to ‘cross-over’ to the desired identity for brief interactions (Rahman, 2009).
The main incentive for these practices does not seem to be to deceive customers, but to make customers comfortable and avoid miscommunications (Moyer, 2013). However, research has shown that listeners still hold negative biases towards NN POC accents even when the content of the speech is completely understood (Hosoda & Stone‐Romero, 2010). Furthermore, a few controversies arise with this systematic approach of correcting local accents in order to create a performance of pseudo-American or British style speech to appease customers. For example, Western standards are extensively imposed on local speech standards, which degrade and devalue unique NN POC accents (Chand, 2009). In addition, the lengths that a CSR has to take in order to create a new identity at work reinforces a SLI that views NN POC speakers as ‘unintelligible’ (Chand, 2009; Rahman, 2009).
In addition to these biases and controversies, CSRs have to manage customers that are experiencing a range of emotions relating to the content of these calls, such as those that are unsatisfied with the results. These emotions have been shown to skew the customers’ accent biases towards NN-accented CSRs. In their survey, Wang et al. (2013) found that when service outcomes were unfavourable, frustrated customers speaking with foreign CSRs will express stereotypical beliefs (e.g. Indian-accented employees are not as competent) and subsequently NN-accented CSRs are negatively evaluated. However, when an outcome is favourable, these accent biases are suppressed and the CSRs are positively evaluated. Based on this information, it is suggested that when customers begin a service call already frustrated, they may be less able to suppress their negative biases.
There are mechanisms that can be put in place to set appropriate customer expectations and help improve customer emotions before interacting with CSRs. For example, one survey showed that messages apologising for hold times resulted in negative customer reactions, while message providing customers with information about their location in queue led to positive customer reactions (Munichor & Rafaeli, 2007). The results of this survey also suggest that customer emotions may be influenced by a range of conditions and are not exclusively expressed due to their negative perception of NN POC accents.
The attitudes towards NN-accented CSRs in offshore call centres are a good example of negative accent bias that is specifically targeted towards NN POC speakers. Although accent prejudice is prevalent in society, several studies have identified that increased exposure to NN POC accents, even for a short period of time, can build trust between interlocutors, facilitate comprehension and reduce listeners’ biases against NN POC speakers (Boduch‐Grabka & Lev‐Ari, 2021; Bradlow & Bent, 2008; Clarke & Garrett, 2004; Derwing et al., 2002). Additionally, company leadership teams need to be aware of these socially acceptable implicit biases and help create change within their organisations. This can be done by fostering diverse workplaces and providing support to all team members, using strategies such as providing toolkits and inclusive practices to promote effective communication between team members with different backgrounds and accents, and instituting unconscious bias and cultural sensitivity training.
This paper demonstrates that linguistic prejudice continues to be one of the few remaining socially acceptable forms of discrimination, alongside weight and age discrimination. As shown in several studies, a listener’s perceptions of NN POC speakers are influenced by implicit biases, racism and stereotypes. As a result, our society continues to discriminate against these speakers and pressure them into suppressing their accents in favour of a standardised dialect, simply because listeners find NN accents too difficult to process. Persistent exposure to discrimination negatively affects people’s opportunities, mental and physical wellbeing, and sense of identity. For most, changing their accents is an impractical idea, and does not provide a viable solution to dealing with the discrimination they face in everyday life. It seems that the problem is not with NN-accented speech itself, but the attitudes that listeners hold about NN speakers. Increased exposure to NN-accented speech can reduce prejudices and difficulties in accent processing, and interlocutors can employ certain communication cues to understand the contents of challenging conversations (Boduch‐Grabka & Lev‐Ari, 2021).
The way we speak is deeply intrinsic to our identities and how we perceive others, and we are already taking a step in the right direction towards reducing linguistic prejudice by simply being conscious of our accent biases and our role in systemic and institutionalised racism. As such, further research should be directed at understanding the connection between accent and racial discrimination.
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