The Weight of Speaking English

Accent Prestige Theory

When you interact with someone with an accent, what are your initial thoughts? What judgments do you make…. when a word is mispronounced or the grammar isn’t quite right? Do you want to giggle? Does it grate you in some way? Go on, be honest. What are your thoughts? Do you put it down to the lack of education or even the lack of intelligence? How much does where the person is from play a part in your conclusion?

Have you heard of the accent prestige theory? Well, this theory basically concludes that we use a speaker’s accent to judge their personal characteristics….

Can we take some time to digest this? So… when you or I, hear an accent, we decide the type of person we are interacting with. Whether they are intelligent, successful, worth our time, good or bad.

According to the accent prestige theory, an individual who speaks with the “standard” accent of the dominant group will be rated better than non-standard-accented speakers. They are perceived to be more intelligent, better educated, of a higher social class and assumed to have greater success. And as though they need anything more, they will also be perceived to be more friendly, trustworthy and kind.

Unsurprisingly, this positive bias extrapolates to the accents of politically and historically strong nations — which tend to rank higher than other accents, particularly when it comes to status.

Consider how this impacts our lives today, and how we perceive and interact with each other.

The Power of English

One thing I have noticed growing up in the UK is the judgment of people’s ability to speak English. There is this innate pride and ego around it, a superiority complex.

These judgments impact the lives of immigrants in negative and pervasive ways, cutting them off from opportunities and impacting the lives of those dependent on them.

As someone with roots in a developing country, there are slight nuances to this I have personally observed. European accents tend to fare better than African accents. You generally find, the closer to European intonations you get, the more palatable the person is perceived to be. This is not to negate the fact that there are biases within the European continent itself, but even here, similar rules apply.

I have overheard and heard this story many times before. Someone from a developing country arrives in the UK for instance, thinking their education and work experience puts them in good standing, only to find none of it is considered or recognised, … and even worse, looked down upon. In order to survive, they have to take jobs they would have never considered back in their home countries. They take these jobs with the hopes that they will somehow be able to progress, or that this will at least give their children the opportunity to create better lives.

The snobbery doesn’t just come from the outside, it is internal too. Within the African community, the educated mock the not so educated. We highlight and dramatise the use of poor grammar or inaccurate pronunciation. Don’t get me wrong, I know this happens in most communities around the world in some shape or form but there is a particular weight that comes with speaking English. Being the most widely spoken, English is the most powerful language in the world. This likely explains why being able to wield English at a high proficiency is particularly important to those of us from or with roots in a developing country.

The comical part of all this is no one is born speaking English fluently, and the likelihood of this literally depends on the family you were born into and their ability to access education. The more affluent the family, the higher probability of a better quality of education and consequently English-speaking. So if you’re lucky enough for this to be you, be grateful, not judgmental.

In-Correct English

Then there’s another element many people often don’t consider. Is grammatically incorrect English actually incorrect? Hold on… hear me out… When someone speaks English as a second language, they are often literally translating it from their mother tongue, where words and sentences are formed differently and a different structure of grammar, verbs and tenses are used. The literal translation is often completely correct, it’s just that it doesn’t fulfil the grammatical rules of native English speakers today.

This means, as well as having to translate from the mother tongue, the non-native speaker then also has to remember the grammatical rules of the language that is foreign to them and press their translation into that framework… and even after all that work, something that they can’t change, their accent, may still let them down. Imagine how that must feel.

Rather than looking down at people who aren’t native English speakers, we should admire them, especially those who learned as an adult or did not receive formal education. It’s bloody hard work and takes commitment and bravery many of us can only imagine. On top of that, research has found, due to learning and speaking a second language, this group of people are likely to have increased cognitive ability, decision making and empathy.

Judging Me, Judging You

Accent bias or profiling is probably the most legitimate form of discrimination today, and it mostly still tends to impact ethnic minorities, who already face discrimination before opening their mouths. I’m sure you’re thinking, oh, here we go again… but we can’t tackle problems if we continue to avoid or minimise people’s experiences and these kinds of conversations. We’re simply avoiding the truth, because it’s uncomfortable.

There are plenty of studies that show, before choosing to communicate inter-racially, most people already have a perception of a person based on their race. This impacts how that interaction will go before it even starts.

Many of us on the receiving end already know this. We know the stereotypes attached to us and that our work is to undo them as much as we can so we can be seen for who we are as individuals.

These judgments being made impact self-belief, earnings and familial relationships. You may not care about this, because you are not impacted by it, but consider how perhaps you are impacting someone else’s life and access to opportunities that lead to a better standard of life because of judgments or assumptions you make.

So how do we overcome all of this?

Increase Language Diversity

According to the World Economic Forum:

  • Native speakers of English have low awareness of language diversity.
  • Differences between languages go hand-in-hand with differences in the conceptualisation and perception of the world.

The impact of this is that though speaking a common language may enable more people around the globe to communicate, it may simultaneously increase misunderstanding.

The World Economic Forum suggests, for there to be a balanced exchange of ideas, we all need to have proficient knowledge of each other’s native language. Particularly native English speakers, who are the group less likely to learn another language.

So take steps to increase your language diversity. Learn another language properly, not just how to ask for a beer but learning local terms and working harder on correct pronunciation. Immerse yourself in other cultures by travelling more extensively and interacting with local people to better understand their culture and perspectives.

Own Your Bias

Consider people you have interacted with in the past or recently, particularly those with accents. What judgments did you make, and why? Was it based on what they said, how they said it or what they did? What could you have done differently?

Taking the time to really consider this will enable you to recognise and take accountability for the past, putting you in a better position to make real efforts to interact more openly and positively in the future.

There is No Right or Wrong

When it comes to accents or English-speaking, there is no right or wrong. There is no good or bad. Only variations. Remember the point I made earlier on literal translations. Even the English native speakers speak today would be seen as incorrect to those speaking English 100 years ago. There are also regional differences with how English is spoken. Language is not stagnant, it is alive. Language evolves and splits, and varies.

Start Your Day Consciously

Rather than falling into each day, start your day consciously. Give yourself a moment at the start of each day to remind yourself of the type of person you want to be, how you want to see and perceive people, and interact with them. We tend to start our day more focussed on our tasks than the kind of human being we want to be. Let’s change that.

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Lola Oguntokun

Lola Oguntokun

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I help build, shape and champion innovative companies and culture.