An accent in English: a barrier to top jobs?

May 16, 2018


Big companies are now more diverse than ever, yet business elites around the world still have one key thing in common — most of them speak English with little or no accent or variations in dialect or grammar. While some experts recommend polishing your English skills as early as you can, others say that accepting non-standard English may be the next diversity goal after ethnicity and gender.

Several years ago this issue was brought into the public eye by a letter from parents to a primary school in Middlesbrough, in north-east England, where they asked teachers to pay special attention to their children’s spelling, as it was influenced by the local accent. In response, the school came up with a list of 11 banned words and phrases, such as “I dunno”, “yeah”, “nowt”, “yous” (a regionally-used plural).

According to a report in The Telegraph, while the school insisted that it had no intention of erasing the children’s Teesside accent, the teachers described their decision as an “attempt to ensure children are not discriminated against in job interviews when they are older”.

While the number of non-native English speakers continues to grow and while the most proper UK English (or “Queen’s English”) is spoken by less that 3% of Britons, research shows that discrimination against speakers of non-standard English is very real. Researchers at Yale University discovered strong prejudice about accents. When respondents in a study were presented with sentences in different varieties of English and asked to describe the speakers, many said they expected them to be “lazy or uneducated”.

Other research projects have pointed to the same conclusion — people react differently to various accents, drawing all kinds of conclusions about the people they communicate with, not only about their levels of education but also about their physical appearance, character traits and life choices. And it all happens in the first few seconds of conversation.

Not wanting to endanger their future prospects, many language learners decide to try and get rid of their accents, and are willing to pay the price of maybe losing their own regional identity. But some authors say this is not a good solution: not only can the transition be painful, but it leads us away from tackling issues of discrimination.

As Chi Luu, a computational linguist, argues in a BBC story, “rather than advising people to change a core part of their identity, it’s important that all of us become more aware of our hidden linguistic prejudices”. As workplaces become more diverse in many other aspects, why not make them linguistically diverse too?


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