Everyone Has An Accent
Everyone has an accent. Wherever you live, wherever you were born, wherever you grew up, you have an accent. Does that accent have any bearing on the kind of person you are? Of course not. Does that accent have any impact on your skills? Absolutely not. Why then are some accents considered to be more prestigious than others? Why do people continue to be discriminated against because of the accent they carry? Why has “codeswitching” become more common among people trying to avoid accent bias?
Codeswitching at its most basic is the switching between language varieties, accents, or style of speech in certain situations. This can be as benign as switching dialects to better accommodate the people involved in a conversation, but it has become more common for those with accents or styles of speech that are considered less prestigious to switch into a more accepted style for the workplace. For those of immigrant or working-class backgrounds in the workplace, this is usually a defence mechanism to protect against bias or discrimination on linguistic grounds. People of colour are aware of the common stereotypes that they then work to avoid falling into. The fear is that by having an accent or behaving in a way that differs from the norm, accent bias and linguistic discrimination will set in and affect the relationship with coworkers. Thankfully this has begun to improve in recent times, but the fear of becoming the victim of bias in the workplace is still real.
A compounding problem is that the accents which are most often looked down upon are the accents that are most often found in immigrant and POC communities. In contrast with other accents which are associated with intelligence or working hard, these are associated with less positive ideas and are the butt of jokes. This works in tandem with the wider fear of becoming a victim of accent bias to further push those from non-norm backgrounds into habits like codeswitching. The work to be done to break with these stereotypes is underway and progressing, but there is always more to be done to break these negative ideas.
The accents that we develop should not be seen as something to be ashamed of. In many cases, they show knowledge of at least two different cultures and languages, bringing a fresh view to any situation. They are an extension of a culture that stretches back centuries and brings with it all kinds of value. They show the fresh perspective that you can bring to any team or any conversation, as well as your ability to move to a new place, find your bearings, and thrive in an unknown situation. An accent should be something to be proud of, a badge of honour to wear as a sign of personal durability and adaptability in life.
At the end of the day, bias will remain as long as we allow it to remain. Linguistic discrimination is something to be called out when it is seen, to provide a more welcoming environment for anyone whose way of speaking might differ from the accepted norm. We should be celebrating the differences and the value that it brings, and for now, we should be doing what we can to make that the case.