The Attitude Towards Accents

I’m never quite sure how to react when I hear the phrase “Wow, you don’t have an accent at all!” Whether it’s directed at me or a friend, whatever variation of that sentence I hear always gets under my skin. What does it imply - that my appearance dictates that I normally would have an accent? That having an accent in the first place is a negative trait? Or that assimilating my vocal cords and the shape of my tongue to the standard American pronunciation of letters and words is the greatest achievement I could attain in the English language?


An accent is determined by the group of sounds we learn to produce with our speech organs, usually as children. Despite the romanizations we often see of other languages, we all know that there are hundreds of those languages in the world that don’t use the same sounds as English does, though they may be similar. Looking at it from the other side, we can imagine that English has a variety of sounds that aren’t found as often in people’s first languages as well.


But why are accents still looked down upon so much? Here’s one way to look at it: American children mispronounce words as they learn increasingly complex aspects of English - I remember once being unable to pronounce “disparage” correctly because I kept placing stress on the wrong syllables. But due to their environment (surrounded by mostly English speakers, and plenty of people willing to correct them) as well as their base of learning (they’ve grown up hearing English a lot), they eventually develop the “correct” accent. Children learn the entire language through trial, success, and error. Without taking racial and ethnic discrimination factors into consideration, we can theorize this: when someone else speaks with the fluency and ability of a child, i.e. with an accent, we mentally reduce their intelligence to that of a child as well. This discrepancy in perception becomes a part of the reason accents are viewed so negatively.


(Racial and ethnic discrimination is a large part of why different accents are viewed negatively, but within that issue, there are many layers and types of bias that I’ll discuss another time.)


I speak with a rather heavy Indian accent myself. It’s just barely harder to speak without it, but my accent is something undeniable when I talk to my parents and brother. It decreases in strength when talking to other Indian adults, and disappears entirely at school or in public. My friends are often puzzled as to why I sound like a different person when I talk to my family, and I’ve been on the receiving end of more than a few uncomfortable smiles when I get off the phone with my mom. When I speak with an accent, the smart, straight-As-in-English student they know is erased. The girl with perfect grammar and good writing skills disappears, the girl who tears through 500-page (English) novels is gone. She is replaced with an ambiguous entity who might not understand what you’re telling her, an entity with an alien personality, an entity that receives silent contempt. A part of me is erased because of my accent, so I usually choose to not have one. Instead, I speak with standard pronunciation, the accent of the Midwestern United States.


Now let’s consider the fact that English is not everyone’s first language, no matter how long they’ve been living in an English-speaking country. Some people have learned English either through immersion or through their own schooling, and it is inevitably imperfect. The fixation on standard English being the most prestigious tier of communication has many factors behind it, but let’s stick to how it affects the perception of accents. Earlier, I mentioned that if we were to look at English from the perspective of another language basis, we would see a set of sounds - a phonetic database, if you will - that has very little in common with English. This phonetic database is probably hard to assimilate into, even if you’ve had some prior experience with the language. Think of the “r” sound in French, the differentiated tones of syllables in Mandarin, or perhaps the click sounds found in southern African Xhosa and Zulu. These increasingly complex units of speech are commonplace, pronounced exceedingly easily by their native speakers, while a language learner would have a foreign accent.


 Frankly, the notion that a person could speak perfect English and still be laughed at for having a foreign accent, as though they hadn’t learned a whole other language with its unique structure and pronunciation, is tiresome. My mother’s accent is fairly strong, and though her grammar is impeccable, she is met with the stilted half-smiles of cashiers and coworkers when she speaks. My friend’s father has an accent, which he is made fun of for in his student evaluations despite having a Ph.D. in the subject he teaches.


This outdated idea that one’s English has to be perfect for them to be considered intelligent persists among United States regional accents too. Even within its own borders, the U.S. has its range of acceptable accents and pronunciations. This makes said English perfection very subjective. In one of my classes, I once watched a documentary in which a woman said her fiancé developed a stronger accent as they drove south to meet his family. She stated that she couldn’t have her children turning out speaking in such an uneducated way, “like hillbillies” or some such word, so she broke up with her fiance on that trip. African American English is looked down upon as a degenerate form of English in many places, and some accents automatically lead people to assume personality traits (think the “Valley Girl” accent, a stereotypical Boston accent, or other Southern ones). Assumptions about the correlation of English skill and education or status fly back and forth in people’s efforts to assert that they speak the correct form of English.


What doesn’t make sense about any of the assumptions about speaking the “correct” form of English is that there is no correct English. Even the “standard” English, which I’ve mentioned to be the template for comparison against different kinds of accents, is so constantly-evolving and so complicated in its rules and sounds that it’s genuinely difficult to gain complete fluency. So why confer internal judgment upon a person for having an accent? Whether it be a foreign accent or one of the many variations of American English, accents aren’t a thing to be frowned at, nor are their absences something to be celebrated - since that absence doesn’t really exist. Instead, they are merely proof of linguistic difference - unique, but not alien.


For further reading, here are some links:

“You Speak With Accent, I Don’t”


“Accent discrimination: let’s call the whole thing off”