Native English speaker or not, you have an accent. So does the girl sitting next you, and so do I. We all vocalize our thoughts with different rhythms, intonations, percussiveness, and inflections. Even within the United States, people speak English differently. Despite this natural tendency, we are keen to point out the “accents” of those who speak differently from how we do. We understand accents to be collective ways of speaking, unique to certain populations. This perception creates space for “us” versus “them,” and leaves room for us to value certain accents over others. We should struggle against this hierarchy.
According to a study conducted at Cleveland State University on “Dialect Perceptions and Stereotypes,” it is clear that an accent is used as an identifier of difference, as a means by which we can alienate others. Certain accents are widely regarded in a favorable light, while others are accompanied by unfavorable stereotypes. The study found that the New York or “foreign” accents are more likely to connote negative stereotypes. Along a similar vein, psycholinguist Shiri Lev-Ari has concluded that native English speakers are less likely to believe a statement if it comes from someone with a foreign accent. While some may contend that these are minute social problems, valuing certain accents over others in the workplace, school environment, or other areas where we compete for opportunities is prejudicial. Based on the findings from the Cleveland State University study, in a fight for a promotion, a man with a British accent would likely earn the raise over one with a thick New York, Southern, or Puerto Rican accent. It is important that we reflect on these biases as we seek to dismantle them.
Not only do these biased perceptions of accents reflect a historical, social hierarchy, but also perhaps native speakers would perceive accents in their own language differently than non-native speakers. In my Spanish class, we were assigned an exercise video in which we had to guess, based purely on accent, what country the different Spanish speakers were from. As a non-native speaker, I struggled immensely; though I could understand the words each participant spoke, I could not distinguish the differences in accent that were so astutely noted by my teacher. My accent in Spanish might label me as a foreign speaker to someone from Argentina. Similarly, to my relatives, my accent when I speak Portuguese pegs me as bilingual, but perhaps more comfortable with English.
To someone learning a language for the first time, however, it is likely that the line between native and non-native speaker would be blurred. This phenomenon led me to consider the following situation: Imagine a non-native speaker, sitting in class to learn English for the first time. If this student travels to America, would she be able to decipher between the accent of a Southern belle and that of an inner-city teenager?
I would venture to say that perhaps to a non-native speaker, the English language comes to the ear in its purest form, not tainted by the charged perceptions that native speakers may carry. The very same words that to us may label an applicant as unqualified, phony, or undeserving, may earn merit with a more unbiased, non-native listener. This is neither to discount a non-native speaker’s ability to perceive accents nor to assume that non-native speakers are absolved of all biases. The binary between native and non-native speaker could reveal that there is no inherent merit to some accents over others. Our perceptions of accents are rooted in stereotypes, conscious or not.
To help combat these biases, we must pay attention to our conversations. Rather than deny a person a job after an interview due to their “unprofessional” accent, we must evaluate their ideas and messages objectively. To do so, first we must first acknowledge our biases, and then dismantle them by paying closer attention to the words. In doing so, perhaps we will realize the merit in ideas, which we would have previously overlooked because of our biases.
On a broader scale, by placing more people with socially stigmatized accents at the forefront of media, positions of authority, and culture, we could help foster greater awareness of linguistic diversity. This shift in perception of accents can only happen if, when someone speaks, we consider the content, rather than the delivery, of their words.
We must credit and highlight all accents for their merit—Southern, Northern, and all others in between. When we listen to politicians on TV or artists on the radio, we cannot discount their messages based on the ways they communicate. To raise awareness, it is more powerful if speakers do not compromise their integrity and do not discredit their origins by masking their accents. It is up to the listener to evaluate the content of their words. After all, an accent is something innate to the speaker, but the listener is the one who either grants or discredits the value of the words spoken.
Sabrina Sequeira is a first-year from Springfield, N.J. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.