Imagine moving to another English-speaking country or even another region of the United States. You might feel fortunate at first that your neighbors and coworkers speak the same language as you, but this gratitude usually doesn’t last for long. Throughout your life, you have acquired a particular method of pronunciation and specific speech patterns from your environment. Even if you move to a region where you look the same as everyone else and speak the same language, your accent will mark you as a non-native. This often leads to negative and sometimes dangerous consequences.
Even though I was born and raised in the United States, I developed a particular accent as a result of growing up in an Indian American household. Both of my parents learned English as a second language and I acquired their speech patterns at a young age. During my adolescence, I would see my accent as a curse inherited by my parents. Countless individuals would inappropriately point out my accent, demand that I “speak better English,” and blame my poor grades on group presentations on my pronunciation.
Although Americans are more accepting of other cultures and nationalities than ever before, accent discrimination still takes place. Accent-related stereotypes result in feelings of prejudice, and this sometimes results in discrimination and exclusion. Recent studies indicate that those who speak in non-native accents receive poorer treatment from landlords and employers. For example, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that potential tenants who spoke African American Vernacular English were more likely to have their housing applications rejected. Even college campuses, professors and graduate assistants with strong accents are rated poorly. A study performed by Georgia State University found that teachers who were non-native English speakers were subject to negative student biases on the Rate My Professors website. These professors were consistently ranked lower on the clarity scale, and the other aspects of their teaching were ignored.
In most cases, accents are noticeable but do not impede communication in certain languages. However, many societies, especially the United States, use accents to enforce a social hierarchy and promote stereotypes about particular groups. Those who speak with a Southern accent are commonly judged to be less intelligent, and many Americans consider speakers of African American Vernacular English — popularly referred to as Ebonics — to be ignorant, uneducated or “ghetto.” When immigrants come to the United States to learn English as a second language, their accents are the subject of ridicule and comedy.
We must recognize that everyone has an accent. If an individual speaks English in a different way than his or her peers, that person simply has a different accent than the majority population. Contrary to public opinion, it is impossible to be “accentless.” Taking an accent reduction class will simply modify your accent to resemble one that a specific subgroup considers superior.
Modifying one’s accent to the point that it is completely unrecognizable will erase an important sign of a person’s personal history and cultural heritage. Those who grow up with a particular accent may grow to embrace it and even make it a cornerstone of their self-identity. Our society encourages everyone to love themselves for who they are but those who embrace their accents encounter negative consequences both professionally and socially.
Most importantly, we must address the portrayal of certain accents in entertainment and popular culture. The use of certain accents for mocking and comedy only legitimizes prejudices against individuals with non-native accents. Even though these portrayals often occur in fictional universes, they result in very real consequences. By preventing the spread of harmful stereotypes and giving this issue the seriousness it deserves, we give all Americans a voice and allow them to embrace themselves for who they truly are.
As our country becomes more diverse and accented, we must embrace those who speak with different accents. We must be willing to work with those who have different speech patterns, and adjustments must be made when necessary. Individuals should not be stereotyped based on their accents and we must make more of an effort to end such misconceptions. No matter what accent or vocabulary an individual may speak with, they must be considered equal.
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