I’m an academic in Applied Linguistics and Tesol and have been in academia since 2010. I’m teaching at a University and I think I’ve never consciously tried to sound more ‘native’ like because I like the way I talk and it has never led to any communication gaps. Some of my postgraduate students would ask me during inductions if I’m Italian (which I’m not) and that would be fine by me. What is not fine, is having colleagues (non-native speakers of English) commenting (or perhaps gossiping) about my accent, even in front of me and saying “Oh the students think you’re Italian hahaha”. Some of these ‘colleagues’ are supposedly working in the field of social justice! The irony…
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.
I’ve lived in three countries: the Czech Republic, the UK, and Denmark. I’m a native speaker of Czech and a non-native speaker of some of the languages relevant for the UK and the Danish contexts. I have experienced more negative comments on my attempts to speak Danish than I have on my attempts to speak English or Welsh, irrespective of how far I’ve been on my trajectory to acquire a higher proficiency in the language in question. The Welsh context has been the most tolerant: most Welsh speakers I’ve encountered have been incredibly supportive of me using Welsh, no matter how many mistakes I produced.
In England, it happened to me once that a non-native speaker of English started correcting my pronunciation in a way I didn’t find appropriate. It was a student attending my class on general phonetics & phonology. “How can I know what dialect I speak?” – “Well, there are various ways to find out. You might start with the literature,” — here I got interrupted. “What?” “You can consult the literature, see what features are typical of the speech of the area where you grew up.” – “What should I consult?” – “The literature.” – “Say it again?” – “The literature?” – “You mean LI-TRI-ture!” Yes, he was focusing on the fact that I pronounced the word “literature” as “lit” – “ra” – “ture” rather than “li” – “tri” – “ture”, which affected how I pronounced the “r”.
I’ve experienced similar reactions more frequently in Denmark when speaking Danish, but on a more extreme level. On three occasions I can remember, Danes refused to continue communicating with me once they realised I’m not a native speaker of Danish. How did this happen? I simply asked them, in Danish: “Could you say that again?” or “Could you say that again a bit more slowly?” Reactions? Head shaking. No words in any language ensued. On one occasion, the speaker didn’t say anything at all, turned away from me and walked away. In another of the three cases, I decided to push the Danish speaker a little bit (everything I said was in Danish): “You can’t say it again?” More vigorous head shaking. “So you can’t say what you’ve just said again, a little bit more slowly?” More head shaking. “Well, have a good Christmas.” He didn’t reply. And I wish I could say I didn’t really care.
I’v also experienced one case of a Danish student correcting my pronunciation of his name, repeatedly for two years (so far). I consulted Danish phoneticians, one of whom had the same name as the student in question. It is indeed the case that I don’t pronounce the name as native speakers would, but it seems that my mispronunciation is not as distant from the native pronunciation as the student has been insisting it is – at least based on the opinions of a couple of native Danish speakers who also happen to be phoneticians focusing on Danish pronunciation in their research. I can understand that one wants one’s name being pronounced correctly, but it’s only happened to me with native Danish speakers that they would make a repeated point about my mispronunciation of a genuine attempt to pronounce their name correctly. I haven’t experienced this with native speakers of Chinese, Dutch, English, Farsi, French, German, Japanese, Lithuanian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, Welsh, and possible others.
In Wales, I was once trying to have a friendly conversation with someone on the train. “So what did you think of X?” (We attended the same event, X, the week before we bumped into each other on the train.) The Welsh speaker started correcting my Welsh grammar. I rephrased what I’d just asked with the construction he insisted I should use. After I produced another sentence, he started commenting on my lexicon. This kept on repeating itself, until I gave up trying to have any conversation with him. After the incident, I asked a couple of native speakers of Welsh if the constructions I had originally used were incorrect and why (I had seen them in textbooks.). It turned out that they didn’t find them incorrect. In fact, they found some of the corrections rather bizarre. I couldn’t help wondering if that Welsh speaker would have corrected these constructions if he heard them from native speakers of Welsh.
And as we can see, all the cases I’ve described above have happened with men. I myself am not a man.
I’m a French academic who has recently relocated to Belfast. Visiting friends in England recently, I was joking about starting to have a Northern Irish accent, especially when I say Belfast. The Englishman opposite me said “this has to be avoided at all cost”.
I’m a PhD candidate and associate lecturer, originally from Wolverhampton.
I never really developed a thick Black Country accent. Whenever I speak to people at conferences and I tell them where I’m from, there’s always a somewhat congratulatory “oh, you can’t tell!” reaction.
Academia is not the natural home of working-class Belfastians, and certainly not in England. I’m sure I lost out on lectureships because I refused to anglicize my voice. I’ve been sniggered at by students, told I’m Irish, asked when I moved to the UK from Ireland, had it assumed that I’m stupid because we’re treated by many GBers as if we’re worthless trash, treated with apprehension because the person only associated my accent with the rendered violence they saw on the news, had it assumed I’m a lush because they think I’m Irish and that the Irish are mad drunks, been asked which ‘side’ I’m on (i.e. Protestant or Catholic), and am never done having to repeat myself because Geordies can’t seem to understand me even though I enunciate clearly and speak slowly for them without them doing the same for me.
I’m from Long Island NY, from a family with a pretty light accent to begin with, or so I thought. When I went away to college (the first one in my immediate family) to upstate NY the first thing that I knew had to go was my accent. Every time I said anything with my natural lilt my roommates were laughing and demanding I repeat certain words for their entertainment because it was just so funny. I was majoring in Linguistics and when we learned phonetics in the introduction class I used that understanding to change how I spoke. The making fun stopped and no one could tell where I was from anymore; I had to lose a piece of my identity to be accepted by my peers here and more broadly in academia as I’m now working on my PhD.
I was presenting my research at a conference in Cambridge University a few years back. It was a great success and at the end of the questions section my supervisor – A British bully with major stammering issues- told me to ‘stop talking because my accent annoyed him’….
Before presenting my research at a conference the chair of the session (and head of the organisation running the conference) introduced me but instead of introducing my position or the title of my paper thought it more relevant to tell everyone that “Dave is from Scotland, so he is going to try to speak very slowly and clearly for us all so that we can understand him, isn’t he?”. I responded that I could deliver my paper in Scots if they would like to which they replied “yes you like to think you have your own language don’t you?”
I think a few of the audience were also quite shocked at this but the majority thought it was quite funny. I always find it surprising that this would happen at an applied linguistics/sociolinguistics conference! Stuff like this happens to me frequently at conferences and it consistently strikes me as odd that linguists (mostly old, white and English…) assume that I’m not aware of my own speech or think I’m incapable of speaking in a way in which people can understand me.