I’ve had people sort of judge how I pronounce or say certain words because I’m from a foreign country and the English we use is a little different to British English. Although I wouldn’t call it discrimination, I do feel very uncomfortable whenever someone asks where I’m from because they don’t recognize my accent.
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 not a native speaker of English and lived in England in the year of Brexit voting (2016). I lived in Newcastle at the time, working as a linguist at Newcastle University. This sort of job requires a fairly high level of English proficiency. I was moving some furniture from one house to another, and a native English speaker offered to give me a hand. We started chatting, and he started complaining about “all those horrible immigrants” right after I answered his question of where I come from with “Czech Republic”. The conversation got far from pleasant as we kept on pushing the furniture: his comments spanned the wonderfully broad range of xenophobic statements, a good dose of mansplaining, hand some ageist comments related to me personally. At some point, I simply stopped reacting to what he was saying because there was no point engaging with this human being. When we got the furniture to the destination, he left with the following words: “I know I speak way too fast for someone like you to be able to follow, and it’s too difficult for you to follow my dialect, but I have a good life.” Indeed, silence from a non-native speaker of English can only mean one thing – lack of comprehension. All the non-native speakers of any language out there, let’s keep our heads up!
RP speaker in Japan, late 1980s.
There were many tales of discrimination of various types, both for and against ‘outsiders’ (with quite different attitudes towards whites, blacks and Asians), as detailed by Arudo Debito amongst others. Many were flattering, amusing, or mildly irritating, rather than distressing – for example, one Western friend (fluent in Japanese) who had a perfectly normal conversation with an eyes-down shopkeeper until the latter looked up and realized it was a ‘foreigner’… whereupon they suddenly lost the ability to understand any of the Japanese said gaijin was saying.
One experience of my own: I telephoned an estate agent. My Japanese was good, but evidently still had some kind of twang to it.
“Are you foreign? We don’t let to foreigners.”
I fibbed: “No, I’m just from [a remote area], maybe it’s our local accent?”
“Ah, that’s OK then”.
I was once marked down by a lecturer in Austria for speaking with a Yorkshire accent instead of RP in an EFL class. English is not my native language. Now I have a Welsh accent from when I did my PhD in dialectology at Swansea University. I’m proud of it.
One time, a British woman asked me upon meeting me ‘Where is home?’ I assumed she meant my address, so I told her which area I lived in, to which she replied (in a manner close to baby talk) ‘No, no, home. Where does mummy live?’ I was shocked as, although she was several decades older than me (and may have seen me as a young person), I have not lived with ‘mummy’ for almost a decade. I told her that I’m from Hungary to which she replied ‘Your English is so much better than my Romanian cleaning lady’s!’ I then told her that I’m doing a PhD in English linguistics and avoided talking to her for the rest of the night.
I had to raise an issue with higher management in a big multinational because they said we couldn’t speak any language other than English while on shift (illegal) and that we would lose bonuses or get fired if we did (highly illegal). They even dared to put it in writing and send an email stating ALL of it. Of course, they had to back down. But out of a team of 50-60 people (90% foreigners), nobody else was brave enough to complain. Not even foreign managers.