One of my two-year-old twins has just started nursery. She is extremely articulate and surprises me every day with the leaps in her language and vocabulary. I say this as a very proud and an openly and explicitly biased parent, of course. But the most surprising thing is the very obvious Liverpool accent that she has picked up. It comes out in the way she pronounces ‘bird’ and ‘book’ and the way her sentences end with a particular intonation. ‘Oh no, she is picking up a scouse accent,’ I sighed, the first time I heard it. And, as I said this aloud, even when I thought that I meant it as a flippant remark, it made me reevaluate my own biases against a particular accent. Why did I not wish for her to have this particular accent? Is it because I consider it to be inferior in some way? Or, is it because I know that people with certain regional accents are disadvantaged when it comes to career progression and opportunities in life? I do not explicitly ever think like this. In fact, I love the accent, and the people here in this part of the country, but it could be symptomatic of hidden biases, and the way we internalize external messages from all around us.
People have linguicism or “accenticism” without realizing it. When we impose our judgments about a specific person on the whole group or community that this individual belongs to then we have a bias. Research has shown that we tend to unconsciously group people into a specific social class and prejudice against them based on their accents. By thinking that someone with a particular accent is not very smart or clever, we are showing our unconscious bias.
Accents are an integral part of our identity. They are also prone to quick judgments and stereotypes. Research has shown that it takes us less than 30 seconds to linguistically profile a speaker, and make quick decisions on their ethnic origin, socio-economic class, and their backgrounds. And, we are more likely to be biased against speakers who have accents different to ours or are markers for undesirable characteristics that we unconsciously attributed to certain accents. We form a hierarchical view of accents as per societal and cultural acceptability, and assign values such as pleasantness and prestige but also intelligence. It is widely accepted that the primary reason behind biases is self-constructed social identity and high ethnocentric attitude. The term ethnocentrism and its fundamental concept were introduced in social science by Sumner, who defined it as ‘‘the technical name for this view of things in which one’s own group is the center of everything, and all others are scaled and rated with reference to it’’. Rosina Lippi-Green refers to this as “the standard language ideology”, where many people believe the dialect with the highest social prestige is also the only correct and valid form of the language. This is why politicians change their accents to conform or appeal to a certain demographic.
I still carry traces of my Indian accent and recently wrote this for The Independent newspaper, which resulted in many messages on social media telling me how I did not understand humor, and that it is perfectly ok, and just “banter” to joke about everyone’s accent. However, this is not a trivial issue. Research has shown that speaking with a non-native accent is linked to career possibilities and progression, as it can influence managers’ perceptions of speakers’ fluency, and expectations concerning non-native speakers’ performance abilities. Moreover, this research also suggests that speaking with a non-native accent may lead speakers to feel excluded and devalued at work. Paul Graham admitted in an interview that “a strong foreign accent” counted against entrepreneurs when he was considering admitting them to his programme. Later, he clarified saying that “the problem is not the cultural signal accents send, but the practical difficulty of getting a start-up off the ground when people can’t understand you”. These comments were symptomatic of the wider bias that foreign and even regional accents are not very clearly understood, and show that a foreign accent is discriminated against and often a barrier to career progression in the modern workplace.
There is a large volume of research reports on preventing biases against people based on their skin color, ethnicity, or gender. However, accent related biases appear to be more acceptable and less opposed than racial, religious or gender discrimination, even though globally accent-bias is a widely acknowledged form of discrimination.
A quick survey of various non-discrimination policies in different institutions in the U.K. shows that race, ethnicity, and gender are explicitly mentioned when talking about inclusivity in the workplace. However, an accent is never mentioned.
So, what can be done to minimize accent discrimination in the workplace?
- Acknowledge our unconscious bias and offer training to the staff, especially those who sit on recruitment panels. This is something that has to be done sensitively. Unconscious Bias training can turn into a simple box-ticking exercise and so it is important to use this to enable the employees to assess and evaluate their own biases in an open and non-judgemental way. I run ‘know your bias’ training workshops for many governmental and corporate organizations, and my workshops and talks are interactive, used as a launch pad. This has to be something we all do every day rather than as a one-off session.
- Create inclusive workplace practices. We must all make a conscious effort to look beyond prejudices relating to the delivery of a message to the actual content of that message. It is important that we keep all communication as inclusive and non-judgmental as possible. Simply asking a speaker to slow down, asking for clarification of anything we find ambiguous and asking a speaker to confirm whether or not a paraphrase of what they just said genuinely matches up with what they meant establishes a strong foundation for respect and understanding.
- Create diverse teams and workplaces. It is important to incorporate more team members from diverse linguistic background. This will ensure that everyone is more acclimatized and adapted to varied accents. This will heighten multilingual sensitivity, which might reduce the ethnolinguistic notion and accent hierarchies.
- Provide strategies and toolkits. Creative toolkits can support diverse teams and create effective communication practices in the workplaces between members with different backgrounds and accents. As part of our bias training workshops, we provide such toolkits and strategies that support the employees in becoming more aware of their linguistic biases and able to find words and phrases that are not constrained by regional variations.
A person with an accent cannot, according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, be discriminated against if they are able to communicate and be understood effectively in English. An employer may base an employment decision on accent only if that accent materially interferes with effective spoken communication required for performing professional duties, having a real-terms business impact. However, these are still vague parameters and we continue to hold hidden personal and cultural biases against certain accents, organizing them in hierarchical order, and making decisions based on our perception of a speaker’s linguistic background.
We need much more awareness of accent bias in the workplace and every day life, and this can only be done through active intervention and bias training and management.
Dr. Pragya Agarwal is an inclusivity consultant, campaigner for women’s rights and gender equality, TEDx speaker and CEO of The Art Tiffin.