When I moved to the Netherlands to study at one of the many English-taught university programs offered, I was welcomed by students from all over the world. However, when socializing and speaking to a group of local Dutch students, I heard the remark: “Wow, your English is really good for an Italian!” When I asked for further explanations, they just replied “Oh, you know, because you don’t have an accent.” That comment stuck with me due to its superficiality. In Italy, nowhere near as much attention is paid to teaching English conversation skills, or so-called ‘proper pronunciation,’ as in the Netherlands. All the members of my family back in Italy have an accent when speaking English (if they’re even able to speak it at all). Trying to single me out as ‘one of the Italians with no audible accent’ was just so shallow, as it ignored the nuances of second language learning and my experience as an international student.
I suffer from rhotacism (like Jonathon Ross) and my speech is affected by both this and my hearing loss, especially when tired.
When I was 7 years old, I was in a Y3 class and my teacher asked the class to name things that were outside on the school grounds. I confidently raised my hand and said ‘trees’ but what came out sounded like ‘cheese’. Cue laughter from the other students, and my teacher saying, whilst laughing herself, that ‘there’s no cheese outside’.
I was never embarrassed about my speech, or felt ‘different’ from my peers, until this incident occured. This is something that has haunted me for over twenty years. I’m sure that no-one remembers it happening except for me, which shows how powerful just one negative comment about someone’s speech can be.
I thought it was just me overreacting or over thinking, but I soon realised that it wasn’t. In some situations my mild Nigerian accent , was proving to be a hindrance to people making connections with me. I saw it at work, (some) parents at my children’s school, as a participant enrolled on a professional training course – “it” kept following me around. I would say my name or introduce myself and the look on their face and quick withdrawals was obvious. I was the same person, with years of professional UK work experience, but I was beginning to question myself based on these repeated experiences. Why would anyone judge me on the basis of my accent?
Why should my contributions and answers be taken less seriously on a course, because I did not sound like those with an English accent? I moved to the UK from Nigeria in my twenties and surely could not be expected to sound like someone that had lived in UK most of their lives. Or maybe, they wanted me to sound like them?
As a test, I changed my accent a few times, to hide the Nigerian tone and they connected. I even did it on the phone – I got better responses with a London accent than with a Nigerian accent!!
It is quite sad that with diversity being all around now, some people still see others through myopic lenses.
How boring if we all sounded alike?
Also, who judges what accent sounds better than another, based on the part of the world that you come from?
I cannot sound like you, because I have not lived in your part of the world!
I am who I Am – not who you say I Am?
I am so glad to have found this website – accentism.org.
I come from Kingston-Upon-Hull which has a very distinctive accent. At the primary school, we sang a hymn that ends ‘nothing can our peace destroy’. The teacher shouted at us for pronouncing it ‘distroy’ and told us to sing it again ‘properly’. I privately decided to pronounce it as I wanted, as did the other 150-odd children in the room. She practically turned inside out with fury, which we all thoroughly enjoyed. When I was teaching primary I always remembered not to lose my dignity in that way but also never to criticise children’s accents.
I have always seen that as my first act of mass protest.
I am a senior academic who has worked in a variety of North West UK Higher Education institutions. A nurse by background, I also studied Linguistics and got a lovely understanding of my rhotic Lancashire accent, of which I am proud. I have avoided changing my accent over the years and this has never seemed to be an issue. I will speak more slowly if being interpreted, or speaking to someone not used to a Lancashire accent, and I’m always happy to chat about accents and dialects.
In the past a small number of people have commented negatively on my accent but this subsided as I became more senior. However recently, two colleagues I respect and work closely with, began to do a Northern accent mimicry of others, or of a tough ‘ee-by-gum’ type situation (neither are Northern). Last week it was directed at me, suggesting in said mock Northern accent, that I was intransigent and feared flexibility. Both individuals taking a turn and finding it hilarious.
I am quite saddened and surprised at the ease of the linguistic prejudice, and the associated intellectual limitations on Northerners that was also suggested in the mimicking process. It makes me wonder about our students and the subliminal prejudice they too face. Would make for a great academic outcomes study.
I was born in Paris, but lived in the Southwest, near Bordeaux in an Italian community that spoke a Neapolitan dialect with a bit of Sicilian and Corsican thrown in. At school our prof was only interested in Shakespeare so when I came to England at the age of 19, well guess what? I could not understand the people around me.
Anyway, determination and utter focussing on my pronunciation (hours in front of the mirror having composed sentences with th) and years later I finally went into nursing. However, it became apparent that something in the way that I spoke was rubbing people’s back up the wrong way. After some illuminating points from my colleagues, I had to change the intonation on some words as I sounded harsh; an intense awareness on my pronunciation got me there. It was the tone in which I said for example: No! I don’t think so. In an English intonation the ‘no’ is soften by elongating it a bit ‘no-o’, and ‘I don’t think so’ both ‘I’ and ‘so’ are lowered in tone so to soften it up.
After many years here, and in some companies the questions about having an accent are interesting: am I Welsh? Scottish? Scandinavian? Or even Dutch. Not one bit of French or Italian!
Interestingly, after lacking contact with the French language for a while, I had to work on my intonation to help me sound French again. Oh! I almost forgot, I have also been told I have a southern English accent; cant hear that!
For as long as I can remember people have made comments (ranging from polite, mild, bold and wholly insensitive) about my accent, diction and soft tone of voice. It has had them describe me as posh, a speaker of The Queen’s English, Miss RP, plummy, coconut and sell-out.
The crux of the matter for them is that I am Black; the double prejudice knows no bounds.
I am originally from a place that sits between Newcastle, Sunderland, and Gateshead, therefore it’s very difficult to define my accent. Some people from the south, would say it’s Geordie instantly after meeting me. But here’s the thing, if i go to Newcastle, most people with a very strong Geordie accent, insist that i sound like ‘A Mackem’ (Sunderland accent). The interesting part is, when i go to Sunderland, i’m told that i sound like a Geordie. To make matters more complicated, when i went to live and work in Spain, whatever people wanted to class my accent as, didn’t have the same characteristics anyways. After working in Spain, and coming home to the UK, i spoke with a slight Durham twang for some reason. Example: “You’re annoying uz” became “You’re annoying mee”. The mystery of accentism ey!…….
I was attracted to your project by the description in today’s Research Professional. I have been affiliated to [university in Scotland] for some 55 years, with gaps, as undergraduate, postgraduate, academic and emeritus staff. I have also worked in England and abroad. I am a lowland Scot and would consider myself as bilingual in Scots and English. People who spoke Scots, when I was a child, had difficulty in distinguishing between English and educated Scots accents: both were regarded as ‘posh’.
Scottish Universities, and [my university] in particular, have a somewhat different history from English Universities with respect to the influence of accent. When I was a student in the 1960s more than 80% of the student population was Scottish, and a high proportion, like myself, lived with their parents and remained embedded in their local communities. This percentage is still substantial, but is no longer a majority. The same was and is true of the technical, administrative and janitorial staff. In contrast, less than 20% the academic staff were and are from Scotland. In the 1960s most of the remainder were English, with similar backgrounds to the academic staff of non-Oxbridge English Universities. Today the non-Scottish academic staff are cosmopolitan.
I have never been conscious of overt discrimination against students on grounds of accent, although covert discrimination is hard to rule out entirely. However as an undergraduate in a large and faceless Chemistry department, I was very conscious that barriers – lack of personal warmth – between staff and students interfered with the learning process, that these barriers were erected more by the students than by the staff, and that they were distinctly reinforced by the pervasive Scots/English divide in speech.
Later, lecturing in Agricultural Chemistry and then in Environmental Chemistry, these barriers tended to disappear in small-group teaching, and language became a less divisive issue even for my English colleagues. However I did meet one other difficulty. The language in which landscapes and their science is described in the literature is quite formalised, and the formalisation has roots in Oxbridge, or sometimes North American, English. Using that vocabulary created barriers for students who had known their own landscapes from childhood, especially if they came from farming families. When you have always known a peatland as a burn, there is an immediate disconnect when your teacher calls it a stream. I had to work hard with my students to connect what they were taught with what they had always known. My English colleagues could not see that problem. My two sons studied in different colleges of [university in Scotland], and it appears that similar but deeper disconnects arise between scientific English and Gaelic.
Stop assuming I am Polish/ East European
I am from Southern Europe and have lived in the UK for over 20 years. I have a clear accent, but when I lived in Hampshire, many locals would frequently say “Sorry?” because they couldn’t understand me – or didn’t make any effort to. I actually speak better English than the average native speaker, because I have studied for many years and it is grammatically correct. I am surprised educated and senior people in the public sector don’t know how to use the apostrophe, for example. To me, it is something I mastered when I was 8 years old!
After I moved to London, it was kind of liberating, because London being cosmopolitan, people are a lot more exposed to foreign accents. However, the native British still find my accent fascinating for some reason and constantly ask me where I am from, which can be tiring. You don’t want your accent to define you or to be the first thing people notice about you or the main thing they remember about you.
My accent nowadays must be a mixture of RP, Yorkshire, American (from TV) and Greek, which I appreciate is quite unique and different, but it is quite annoying when people cannot place me anywhere and then guess and go for the easy option to assume I am Eastern European. Nothing wrong with Eastern Europeans per se – it is just that these accents tend to be quite different to mine and I don’t like it when people are given generalised labels.
I’ve heard all sorts of nonsense that is actually racist, like whether I drink Vodka in the morning (apparently a comment assuming I am Polish/Russian? How ignorant and insulting, in any case).
If you don’t know where an accent is from just admit it. Don’t try to label people and make assumptions when you don’t have a clue. Ask politely, but don’t make it the first thing you ask about someone.
Even better, focus on the individual, their knowledge and personality, and not their accent. It just goes to show, white people can face racism too based on their accents in Britain.
Also, remember: if someone has a non-standard Anglophone accent, this means they speak at least one more language very fluently. Do you?