Today’s guest post is by Kasia Repeta, a digital marketing professional at Duke University Press and an SSP Fellow. She previously worked as a marketing professional in Poland and Turkey.
I live in the U.S. and am a non-native English speaker. I speak English with a foreign accent as does a third of the world’s population. I am asked about my accent at least once a week, more often in out-of-work interactions but also in professional settings.
Counting both native and non-native speakers, English is considered the most widely spoken language worldwide, according to Ethnologue: Languages of the World, an annual reference publication that provides statistics on the living languages of the world. David Crystal, in his article from 2008, Updates on the statistics of English, suggests that two billion people — a third of the world’s population — are English speakers. That estimate includes first language (L1) and second language (L2) speakers. Even among native English speakers there are a myriad of differences in pronunciation and vocabulary — both within and between countries. For L2 speakers, this situation results in an even wider variety of pronunciations of English and of non-native accents, where sounds, mouth position, sentence structures, rhythms, intonations, and sound selections are borrowed from other languages. This means that they might produce pronunciation errors, which are due to the phonological and articulatory properties of both the spoken and native languages.
English is generally considered to be the lingua franca of the scientific community. A rapid growth of international scholarly publishing and international collaboration, as measured by co-authorships, benefit from the increasing number of English L2 speakers in academia and beyond. While a number of tools and services have been created to help non-native English authors (all major publishers offer some form of editing service, for example), there has been little if any attention paid to the challenges of being an L2 speaker — for example, in terms of participating in conferences and other professional events, whether as a speaker or a listener.
Most L1 speakers may argue that they do not treat anyone differently on the basis of accent, however, accent detection studies have shown that native listeners are “highly sensitive to the presence of non-native accents” and that there is growing evidence that foreign accents are a source of prejudice — positive or negative. This negative bias impacts not only people with “low English proficiency,” but also highly-proficient L2 speakers with a strong command of grammar, lexicon, and pronunciation in their second — or even first — language. To avoid prejudice and discrimination towards accented speech, it is crucial to understand accent biases in speech and why they occur.
The impact of foreign accent on social interaction and cognitive processes, based on research coordinated by Gent University as part of the “SocialAccent” project, focuses on investigating the origins of bias towards non-native accents. A bias of social origin is caused by a foreign accent triggering “a rapid categorisation of the speaker as out-group.” A bias of linguistic origin is caused by a foreign accent being “more difficult to understand than native accent, thus, reducing ‘processing fluency’.” This negative perception is reinforced by the difficulty of processing foreign-accented speech. Predictably, our brains prefer stimuli that are easier to process. Although L2 speakers can sometimes be perceived positively, they are usually judged as less trustworthy, less educated, less intelligent, and less competent than native speakers. “Why Don’t We Believe Non-Native Speakers? The Influence of Accent on Credibility,” by University of Chicago psychologists Shiri Lev-Ari and Boaz Keysar, confirms that non-native speech is not only harder to understand but also causes non-native speakers to sound less credible. Accents cause people to doubt the accuracy of what is said, and can create assumptions about the speaker’s education level, competence, intelligence, trustworthiness, and credibility — and, consequently, can have an effect on employability.
Foreign accents of workers are protected by law in the U.S. and E.U. Under the U.S. Federal Anti-Discrimination Laws, discrimination based on accent and treating employees differently because they have a foreign accent is illegal. It is only lawful if their “accent materially interferes with being able to do the job.” E.U. legislation, Commission Communication of 11 December 2002 on ‘Free movement of workers – achieving the full benefits and potential,’ states that: “the language requirement must be reasonable and necessary for the job in question and must not be used to exclude workers, so that advertisements requiring a particular language as a ‘mother tongue’ are not acceptable.” However, multiple occurrences of court cases prove that accent discrimination laws are not enforced properly. Also, while employment statements usually mention that the employer is an equal opportunity provider and do not discriminate based on age, color, disability, genetic information, gender, gender identity, national origin, race, religion, sexual orientation, or veteran status, etc, accent is rarely mentioned in such statements. Employment, opportunities for collaborations, career advancements, credibility, and trustworthiness can all be advantaged or disadvantaged by accented speech if accent-related biases and discrimination are not acted upon.
For many, including L1 speakers, participating in scholarly communication events can be a source of situational or performance anxiety. Speaking publicly in a foreign language, especially if it’s a language that is used only occasionally, can bring about fears of making mistakes and being labelled as less credible. Any accent-related remarks by L1 speakers only serve to amplify these anxieties. “Where are you from?”, “ I can hear an accent, let me guess, you’re from…?”, or “You don’t sound like you’re from here?” An L1 speaker may think that these are appropriate questions when striking up a conversation with an L2 speaker, however, they can have an adverse impact on non-native speakers’ meta-perception: a self-judgement about what others think. They are, therefore, best avoided as they are perceived as signalling that there is something wrong with the non-native speaker and can cause their withdrawal from speaking, asking questions, sharing views and, as a result, may ultimately become career limiting. Personally, I am comfortable with such questions if someone is trying to have a genuine conversation with me and, at some point, they ask about my origin. I am proud of my heritage and can relate my experience to it. However, most of the time I find these questions distressing, particularly in professional settings like conferences or networking events, especially if they come up early in the conversation. They make me question my ability to communicate without being judged or categorized. If for any reason an L2 speaker does not want to talk about the origins of their accent, the L1 speaker should be as considerate when asking about accent as they would be about topics of race, gender, ethnicity, religious, or political beliefs. Ultimately, perception matters more than intent. We, people with accents that communicate daily in a foreign language, face these kinds of questions way too often. We don’t mind sharing, but whether or not the native speaker realizes, these questions can and are often perceived as intimidating and harmful.
As mentioned earlier, one very strong cue for in-group/out-group categorization biases is an accent in speech. However, people construct their social identity based on numerous variables, and country of origin may not be one of them. If social identity does not align with the social identity associated with an accent one speaks with, any accent-related remarks become devastating to the identity of the individual by causing intimidation, putting constant pressure on the need to explain oneself, affecting the sense of belonging. This may especially concern people who may have spent many years away from their countries of birth, or left in childhood, but have an accent — a characteristic linked to one’s birthplace and therefore immutable and hard to reduce.
To make professional and social interactions more considerate, effective, and inclusive for the benefit of both L1 and L2 speakers, it is important to recognize the issues that both sides struggle with and address non-native accents from both perspectives.
Tips for L1 speakers:
- Be considerate when asking about accent as you would be about topics of race, gender, ethnicity, religious, or political beliefs
- Increase your comprehension of accented speech by taking advantage of opportunities to exposure to non-native accents at workplace, during conferences or other professional or social events. According to a study in Frontiers in Psychology, if linguistic processing of accented speech can initially impair cognitive processing, further experience allows for rapid adaptation so you can quickly learn how to process accented speech successfully)
- Make allowances for/appreciate the efforts of your L2 speaker colleagues. For many people, possible anxiety associated with accent, choosing the right words, or speaking spontaneously can, especially in professional settings, lead to feelings of frustration and insecurity, regardless of language proficiency
Tips for L2 speakers:
- Understand and stay vigilant to the fact that people have cognitive difficulty in the processing of non-native speech
- Make a conscious effort towards accent modification and/or reduction. Reducing an accent is hard but genuine efforts in reducing linguistic barriers by speaking more clearly and practicing the accent will make it easier to communicate
Above all, every one of us working in scholarly communications should be able to identify and act upon our own accent-related biases in order to build a more inclusive experience for all in our community.