Accent discrimination: let’s call the whole thing off

June 25, 2019

King John, Jafar, and Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz walk into a bar. King John promptly orders a goblet of wine, Jafar complains to the manager about having to leave his parrot sidekick outside, and Doofenshmirtz mumbles something about the weather. Everyone else at the bar is holding conversations in Standard American English, but both King John and Jafar have British accents, and Dr. Doofenshmirtz has some kind of German accent.

All jokes aside, most of the times, the villains in children’s animated media are portrayed as foreigners who speak differently from the heroes. British English is, in fact, the most popular choice of accent for bad guys, according to a 1998 study conducted by Julia R. Dobrow and Calvin L. Gidne. German and Slavic accents are also very common. In addition, evil sidekicks usually speak in accents or dialects associated with a low socioeconomic status and none of the villains in the 12 shows analyzed speak Standard American English.

While younger children might not even notice the difference, the adults who come up with the stories sure do, and intentionally choose to write the characters that way. Cartoons are all fun and games, until they start foisting biased messages on children by portraying most of their villains as foreigners and possibly contributing to accent discrimination in society.

Blame it on the brain

An accent means different things to different people, but, simply put, it’s the way a specific group of people, particularly natives of a specific region, communicate. Nothing less than the words we use and the way they sound.

Accents can be sorted into two different categories. The first kind of accent is the one we speak our native language in. It is determined by many different socioeconomic factors, but more strongly by where we born or where we live in. It is usually very easy to tell where a person comes from based on their accent. Just think of the North-South divide in many countries. A Liverpudlian sounds very different than a born-and-raised Londoner. A Madrileño will thank you by saying “gracias” while a Sevillano will say something that sounds more like “gracia,” swallowing the sibilant. And, in Portugal, Northerners will say “binho” instead of “vinho” when talking about wine.

The second is a foreign accent, the way we sound when we speak a second language and do so using the rules or sounds of our native language. For example, you might hear a Portuguese native saying, “I can’t ear you,” instead of “I can’t hear you.” It’s not a mistranslation from an equivalent expression, it’s just that the “h” sound in “house” or “herb” doesn’t exist in the Portuguese language.

There is a close relation between learning a new language and acquiring an accent. Children will pick up native-like pronunciation of a second language more easily than adult learners. This is explained by the concept of neuroplasticity. In neuroscience, “plastic” refers to the capacity that materials have to change and be moulded into different shapes. A brain that is still growing and developing is more easily adaptable. Neuroplasticity generally decreases as we grow older, and accents can be expected to change until we are in our early twenties, after which they seem to become hard-wired into the brain.

But accents, both native and foreign, can change even during adulthood. A native accent is easier to change, because it’s the same language just with a different pronunciation. Some people even unconsciously change it by adjusting to the dominant accent of the region where they live.

As far as foreign accents go, most researchers agree that acquiring a native-like accent of a second language as an adult is nearly impossible. While some individuals are able to do it, it depends, in great part, on what your native language is. Japanese, for example, has 5 vowels and 17 phonemes; English has 10 vowels, excluding diphthongs, and 44 phonemes. A Japanese person will have a harder time learning English, let alone mimicking a native accent, because there are sounds in the English language, like Rs and Ls, that they simply can’t distinguish because they do not exist in their first language.

If we’re not used to them, foreign accents can be hard to understand. Usually, someone who’s speaking in a non-native language makes more pauses and uses sounds that may differ from the ones we’re used to. They’re also more likely to stress words and sentences differently. This is the scientific basis for a certain level of discomfort towards foreign accents, but this is only how our brains process the whole thing.

You are how you speak

Despite the fact that our brains are wired to recognize foreign accents as, well, foreign, we have the stereotypes formed through socialization and culture to blame for the preconceived opinions we have of people.

The good news is, stereotypes come from external influences and are not fixed anywhere in our brains, which means we can overcome them by questioning our prejudiced ideas. Typically, stereotypes persist when a member of a group behaves as we expect, confirming the stereotype, or because the emotional aspect of the prejudice gets the best of us and subdues the rational arguments that speak against stereotypes.

Just ask yourself: would you feel more confident being treated by a doctor with a native or a foreign accent? You don’t have to answer that, but research shows most of us would go for the native-sounding doctor.

A study conducted by psycholinguist Shiri Lev-Ari found that “we’re less likely to believe something if it’s said with a foreign accent.” She observed this by having both native and non-native English speakers record simple statements like “ants don’t sleep” and then playing the recordings back to native speakers only, who in turn had to rate them from the most to the least true. The heavily accented statements were deemed the least true, despite having the exact same content as the natively spoken sentences.

A different study proved that “it takes us less than 30 seconds to linguistically profile a speaker and make quick decisions on their ethnic origin, socioeconomic class, and their backgrounds.” That’s less than half a minute to categorize someone into whatever stereotypical and prejudicial idea we have of their country of origin.

Accent discrimination seems to be a socially accepted form of discrimination, as opposed to others more clearly based on race or nationality. And in terms of legislation, most countries still don’t protect their citizens against it.

In the US, individuals are generally protected under the law if they suffer from accent discrimination in the workplace, unless their accent interferes with their performance. That’s if they make it past the interview phase and find a job in the first place. More often than not, even the most qualified doctors, engineers, or lawyers have a hard time finding employment outside their country of origin. Not because they don’t have the necessary skills, but because employees will base their opinion on the prejudiced ideas they infer form their accents.

In France, politicians have been pushing to make glottophobia, a recently coined term for discrimination based on pronunciation and tone, a criminal offense. This came after Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a former presidential candidate, publicly mocked a journalist’s Toulouse accent by saying she was talking nonsense and asking if anyone else had a question in “more or less comprehensible French,” shorthand for the standard Parisian dialect.

We are more exposed than ever to different accents, both in the workplace and in our personal lives. In 2017, 258 million people lived outside their country of origin, making it more likely to encounter someone speaking our language with a non-native accent either at our company’s finance department, the doctor’s office, or the local Starbucks. It also means a good chunk of us are speaking with a non-native accent, the author of this article included. Yet this exposure to different nationalities and backgrounds doesn’t seem to be making us any more tolerant.

The modern day Eliza Doolittle

Even regional accents within a country can be a barrier to mobility and employment. Daniel Lavelle told The Guardian how he signed up for an “accent softening taster session” after moving to London and being mocked for his Manchester accent. He’s not alone. An increasing number of young professionals are enrolling in “voice enhancement” lessons, under the impression that a Received Pronunciation, also known as the Queen’s English and spoken by a mere 3% of the population, will improve their chances in the British capital’s highly competitive professional context. For tutors, or speech coaches, business is booming. Platforms like Superprof or Tutorpages have thousands of users offering one-to-one lessons, priced at around £50 per hour.

Much like Disney depicts villains as foreigners, the British Southern-centric media often portrays Northerners as simpletons. The result: Lavelle, an award-winning journalist with both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, is still viewed as a less competent person by some in London society — all because of the way he sounds.

Measuring someone’s language proficiency and judging them based on their accent is the linguistic equivalent of judging people by their looks. Even though our accent evidences where we come from or who we hang out with, it’s a shallow indicator of our qualifications, our personality traits or our social status. Children in the US are apparently picking up a British accent thanks to the popular TV show Peppa Pig, yet this doesn’t make them any more royal.

We still have a long way to go until we eliminate all forms of discrimination from society, but reversing the trend described in Dobrow’s and Gidne’s 1998 study by exposing kids to a variety of accents with no negative connotation seems like an important step.

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