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How Can an Accent Affect Someone’s Communication and Well-being?

February 15, 2023

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Question

How can an accent affect someone’s communication and well-being?

Answer

Unfortunately, speakers who sound different often face a number of challenges, including significant linguistic discrimination. In terms of communication, speakers who are unintelligible may have difficulty conveying their ideas successfully, but even highly intelligible speakers can face discrimination ranging from subtle bias to outright harassment. Lev-Ari and Keysar (2010) demonstrated that statements read by non-natives were deemed less credible than those read by natives, even when judges were explicitly told that the statements did not originate with the speakers. Remarkably, Hanzlíková and Sarnitzl (2017) found this same effect for non-native judges. Many non-native speakers report a belief that their accent interfered with their ability to get a job, and unfortunately, there is evidence bearing this out. Munro (2003) found instances of employment and housing discrimination, as well as harassment, based on accent in a review of human rights cases in Canada. In addition, non-native speakers often report fears that they will not receive promotions as readily as their native-speaking colleagues. Fuertes and colleagues (2012, p. 130) wrote, “evaluations based on accent appear to have a significant impact on individuals who do not speak with standard accents and are likely to lead to discrimination and possibly other severe social consequences.” In addition, many non-natives report that when they speak in their second language, they feel like they are wearing a mask, and that it is impossible to convey their true identity. Stigmatization can cause feelings of otherness, isolation, and a lack of confidence. In our own field, we must recognize the barriers non-native speakers face in entering our profession. We need as many non-native speakers in our field as possible, so it is important to value their ability to work with clients effectively in more than one language, and we should be mindful of the obstacles they face.

This Ask the Expert is an excerpt from the course, 20Q: Accents and Accent Modification, presented by Robert McKinney, MA, CCC-SLP.


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