Being perceived as having or not having a certain accent has profound consequences. (Tweet it!) Preconceptions about accents can lead to discrimination in job interviews, performance evaluations and access to housing, to name just a few areas. According to linguist Roberto Rey Agudo of Dartmouth College, “Too often, at the hospital or the bank, in the office or at a restaurant — even in the classroom — we embrace the idea that there is a right way for our words to sound and that the perfect accent is one that is not just inaudible, but also invisible.” But as Professor Agudo also points out, “No one speaks without an accent.” (New York Times)
The “standard accent” in the United States—the one we tend to hear in the media—is still an accent. Perhaps one key difference is that the standard accent is never mocked, unlike many nonnative accents or American variants, such as Southern Drawl, Valley Girl, or New York “Fuhgedaboudit.”
Such judgments are purely social, says Agudo. “To linguists, the distinctions are arbitrary. However, the notion of the neutral, perfect accent is so pervasive that speakers with stigmatized accents often internalize the prejudice they face.”
What we all must remember is that accent by itself is a poor measure of language proficiency (the linguistic equivalent of judging a book by its cover). It does not reflect strength of vocabulary, or capability to provide detail or to hold one’s own in an argument. Instead, we should become aware of our linguistic biases and learn to listen more deeply before making judgments.
Do you think you have an accent, and how would you characterize it? Do you think you have ever, perhaps unwittingly, pre-judged anyone based on their accent? To join the conversation, click "comments" above.
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