As an accent coach, I’ve worked with people from all areas of the world and from all corners of the United States. The people I work with tell me that a major factor that contributes to their seeking out Standard American accent lessons is the desire to have others hear them clearly and focus on what they’re saying, not how they’re saying it. Also, they are hoping to avoid unfair stereotypes, as well as rude questions and comments.
Mostly, I work with people who wish to learn a Standard American Accent for a wide variety of reasons, and, thus, most of my blog posts are usually addressed towards that audience.
However, in this blog post, I’m addressing my fellow people who have a mainstream accent where they live: Let’s go out of our way to stop perpetuating unfair stereotypes and stop making thoughtless remarks. In that spirit, please bear in mind these 4 things when talking with someone with a different accent from you:
1. You Have an Accent, Too
Everyone has an accent! Many people do not think of themselves as having an accent at all – they are totally accentless and those who deviate from that are the ones with accents, right? Well, it’s really more complicated than that. Speaking “without an accent” is just a commonly understood way of saying that you speak with the mainstream accent and dialect of the country you’re in.
Standard American English is a dialect that is loosely considered to be the way American English is spoken in the non-coastal Northeastern plus a few other pockets of the United States. It is the dialect of American English that dictionaries and textbooks tend to be written in for a variety of social, cultural and historical reasons, though there is nothing inherently more correct about the features of one dialect American English versus another (which is another interesting topic for another blog post.)
Back to the topic: technically, there’s no such thing as “losing an accent” – after all, there’s not a Standard American Accent buried beneath a person’s usual speaking voice just waiting to emerge! “Learning the Standard American Accent” is a phrase that more accurately describes the process of “losing an accent”. Besides, the accent is not really “lost”; it is submerged beneath the surface and can reemerge if the person wishes. Oftentimes people switch between accents or dialects depending on the situation, also known as code-switching.
2. Foreign or Regional Accents Have Nothing to Do with Intelligence
I think the headline really sums it up here. OF COURSE someone’s accent has nothing to do with how intelligent they are… why would it? Certain stereotypes exist about some accents seeming “more intelligent” or “less intelligent”, but that’s all they are: stereotypes. If you’re drawing conclusions about someone’s intelligence based on their accent, take a long hard look at the stereotypes you’ve imbibed from your surrounding culture. Stereotypes and other such unfair assumptions ought to be questioned and spoken up against when you encounter them in real life.
In American culture today, discrimination based on accents seems to be more socially acceptable than other forms of discrimination. Of course, accent discrimination can also intersect with or overlap with any other form of discrimination, including racism, classism, xenophobia, and more.
Here are a few resources that further explore the intersection of accent discrimination with other forms of discrimination:
- On prejudice against African American English
- On making fun of accents and discrimination against South Asian accents
- Research on accent, perpetual foreigner stereotype, and discrimination as linked with depressive symptoms in Chinese American adolescent population
- On accents, stereotypes, unconscious bias, and the law
3. There Are Some Things That People with Accents are Really Tired of Hearing
This list is compiled from real life incidents I’ve heard from people with foreign or regional accents that they would be happy to not encounter again.
Tips for conversing with someone whose accent is different from yours:
- Don’t have one of the first things you say about a person upon meeting them be a comment on their accent. Discuss the content of what someone is saying, not the way they’re saying it. Having an accent is natural (remember the part above about how everyone has an accent?) and is not always the main topic a person wishes to discuss!
- Saying something that you may intend to be positive, such as “Oh wow, you hardly have an accent” can come across as alienating or offensive. Someone may see their own voice as a part of what makes them their own unique self, so saying that you barely hear an accent may send the message that that part of themselves is unwelcome and you would prefer it to be gone entirely.
- Do you know of a fictional or cartoon character who has an accent based in the same first language as the person you’re speaking with? Are you really good at doing that character’s accent? Yes and yes? Well, good for you, but kindly do not imitate that accent to the person you’re speaking with. The person has likely heard the imitation before and is not likely to find your impersonation to be cute, funny, or original. It’s more likely to be annoying, the billionth time the person has heard it, and possibly offensive.
- While we’re on the topic, don’t imitate or mock the accent of the person you’re conversing with, full stop. This blog post has an in-depth explanation as to why, including discussion of accent discrimination: “What’s the big deal about mocking someone’s accent?”
- People with non-mainstream accents have to face stereotypes about their accents constantly, so what may seem interesting or harmless to you may be old, irritating, and frustrating to them. Don’t throw your stereotypes about a person’s accent and/or culture out there and expect to get good results… yes, that includes “positive” stereotypes, which can be just as harmful and exasperating as negative ones. For example, no need to tell people that you hate/love/[insert verb here] their accent because it sounds scary/romantic/[insert adjective here] to you. The person who you’re speaking with probably has to deal with such stereotypes all the time and may find the topic tiresome and unilluminating, to say the least. Dealing with stereotypes all the time is exhausting to people who must do so, so please don’t add fuel to that fire.
- Do you happen to know some random words, especially curse words, in your conversation partner’s first language or dialect? You do? Again, good for you, but kindly do not shout these things at them. Do I have to explain why it’s rude to curse people out? Or why it might be annoying to shout, for instance “POTATO!” in another language at a person? It doesn’t add anything but awkwardness to the conversation.
- When you’re first meeting someone, don’t try to get them to say something or teach you something in their other language. It may put the person on the spot and make them feel like a trained monkey being asked to perform and/or feel suddenly roped in as an unpaid, involuntary foreign language teacher, which is not fun. That’s not to say you can never ask someone how to say a word in their other language, but the context and your reason for asking are super important here. Are you asking a person you barely know out of your own curiosity because you can’t think of anything else to say? Probably not good. Is this a person you’ve met numerous times, and you’re starting to get to know better, and next time you meet them their parents are going to be there, and you want to know how to greet their parents by saying “hello” in their first language? More likely to be fine. Use your judgement.
- Please don’t ask “Where are you REALLY from?” If the person has told you that they are from, for example, Brooklyn, then take it at face value that yes, really, they are from Brooklyn. If they wanted you to know more than that, they’d have told you. Let it be, and if they’ve lived other places too, it will surely come up naturally in conversation as you get to know each other better. “Where are you REALLY from?” has a rude connotation because it may make the other person feel like an outsider no matter how long they’ve lived in a certain place. Don’t put your curiosity above another person’s comfort.
- In that vein, don’t ask people what other language they speak, especially if it’s an abrupt topic change. It may be considered presumptuous or to be a personal question. If the conversation veers to the topic naturally, it may be appropriate to ask a person IF they speak any languages besides English; it’s one of those situations that depends heavily on context as to whether it’s veering into the same territory as “where are you REALLY from?” or if it’s part of a good conversation.
- Don’t “correct” someone’s accent unsolicited.
- Don’t just nod along or say “yeah” to pretend to understand someone when you haven’t actually understood what a person has said. If you didn’t catch something a person said, politely ask them to repeat themselves. It should be no different from how you’d ask a person without an accent to repeat themselves if you hadn’t caught something they said.
This list of things not to say may be incomplete. Also, of course there are many individual differences among what people consider to be offensive or awkward or rude, but steering clear of stereotypes is always a good idea.
4. Accent and Fluency Can Be Unrelated
Sometimes people who have a noticeable foreign accent in English speak the language very fluently, and sometimes they don’t, and everything in between. Don’t assume that if someone has a foreign accent that sounds strong to your ear that they are not fluent in English. In many places in the world, English is taught in school with a heavy focus on grammar and vocabulary, and less of a focus on speaking practice/pronunciation. Someone may have very advanced English fluency skills and sound accented. Think twice before you say that someone “doesn’t speak English well” when all you really mean to say is that they have a noticeable accent to your ear! On the flip side of this, no need to tell a new acquaintance who has an accent in a surprised tone, “Oh, your English is so good!”… the fact that someone can be well-versed in English grammar + vocabulary + have a foreign accent should not be cause for surprise, thus saying this may come across as uninformed or even condescending.
Conversely, someone’s accent may hit your ear as sounding mainstream American while the person has beginner or intermediate language skills. Examples of people who may fall in this category include those who grew up outside of the U.S. with an American parent and know some English at a beginner or intermediate level, or people who are at the beginning of their English language learning journey who have a natural talent for imitating accents and intonations.
A factor at play in any of the above scenarios is the large individual variation of people’s “ear” for accents and intonation. Of course, sometimes someone can be at the beginning of their English language learning journey and have a very noticeable accent, but the most reasonable course of action is not to assume anything.
TL;DR: Take a closer look at how language develops and how accent discrimination works, address WHAT someone is saying rather than HOW they’re saying it, don’t make assumptions based on someone’s voice, and be thoughtful, considerate, and respectful when conversing with people who have a different accent from you.
Do you have more questions about accents? Contact me!