I’m Sorry for My English
It seems impossible to walk along the corridors of Sciences Po without hearing the half-muffled sigh: “have you heard their accent,” or the apologetic plea: “I’m sorry for my English.” From their prevalence, one may expect there to be widespread problems with miscommunication; however, more often than not, the perceived ‘problem’ is simply the accent the language is spoken in. Accent discrimination is an especially tricky form of discrimination in the way that it is based on something so abstract and since it often aims to conceal, more or less successfully, other types of discrimination.
You don’t speak correctly
Researcher David Crystal defined accent as either the regional or social location of a person based on their use of language. In other words, it is often possible for people to distinguish the socioeconomic and ethnic or cultural background of people by the way they speak. Accent discrimination thus refers to the phenomenon in which people are maltreated due to the way they speak a certain language. This can apply in the case of a foreign language or an acquired language, in both simply carrying the message: ‘you don’t speak correctly’.
Statistics speak for themselves: according to a study by Professor Lance Workman of the University of South Wales, 8 out of 10 UK employers admit regional accent discimination affecting their decisions in recruitment processes. Cosequently, 13% of the British feel discrimination against their accent in job interviews, and an astonising 28% feel accent disrimination in other parts of their daily lives. A person speaking English with an RP, Received Pronunciation, was found to be the most likely to be employed, although people speaking this accent only account for 3% of the British population. Similarly, a research by the European Commission found that in the EU, 45% of managers often in charge of hiring would tend to see a foreign accent as a disadvantage, making them less willing to hire the person, especially harming immigrant communities.
The issue in accent discrimination is not ‘language’, it is ‘discrimination’
But who, in the end, is the one to determine the ‘right’ and the ‘wrong’ between accents? If the goal of learning a language is to sound like a native speaker, which native speakers are we referring to? It is impossible to ignore the influence of a colonialist past on our understanding of ‘correct’ language. Stretching to this day, the Western world spreads its influence through language, as it does through so many other elements: not only are people from all around the world now expected to speak English, or other major European-based languages, they are expected to speak it in the ‘correct’ way: with the same pronunciation and intonations as the country of origin. If this is not neocolonialism, making people punish themselves for not fitting the mold of the dominant powers, what is?
Accents carry a story of our roots and backgrounds. The judgement that a certain accent is not ‘suitable’ for professional life or in certain ‘circles’ is in other words the societal decision to exclude specific groups from the spotlight. Thus we are left with a tiny percentage of people who have acquired the ‘right’ way of speaking by the virtue of being born into privileged families, an idea that is held by our misconception about the acceptability of different accents. Thus the only possible consequence of accent discrimination is the continued exclusion of some social groups, separated from others with invisible barriers formed by language.
However, accent discrimination is not at its core a controversy over language; it is intolerance of the paths that other people have walked to be where they currenty are, manifested through a scapegoat. In the end, it is not the sounds that create the discrimination, rather than our pre-held stereotypes of groups that are often charactarized with the accent in question. Hence, the issue in accent discrimination is not ‘language’, it is ‘discrimination’.
Are they talking about my accent?
One of the detrimental consequences of accent discrimination is the lack of confidence it results in. For many that recognize an accent in their speech, public speaking can be made almost impossible: “During orientation, I felt insecure to speak in front of many people. Partly because of my accent, or not being fast enough,” a Sciences Po student tells me. “I always ask myself: ‘are they talking about my accent?’ I’ve heard people say that someone has a “weird accent,” and in my friend’s class students often complain about it being difficult to understand the ones with strong accents. But I also recognize it in myself. I feel more safe with a person who speaks French without a strong accent. And that’s wrong.”
Sciences Po can only gain from trying to eliminate accent discrimination. Social sciences are by nature built on deliberation and the exchange of ideas, which is significantly discouraged if people feel too insecure about their language abilities to put their thoughts into words. Furthermore, encouraging accent acceptance is crucial in aiming to tackle issues with discrimination at large: if inequality between language already exists inside the ‘bubble’ of an internationally recognized university such as Science Po, the extent to which it does in the wider global context is beyond imagination.
Languages have the ability to grow and develop, from one time period to another, from society to society, and from individual to individual. No two people speak a language the same way, since our personal and cultural experiences will always be manifested in the way we express ourselves. Reclaiming language as a series of sounds driving the exchange of ideas, rather than evidence of an individual’s competence, is necessary. Language can inform but also move, hurt, and educate; and all of these it can do no matter the accent it is spoken in.