Xenophobia

Back in July 2020, in the introduction to the post ‘M is halfway‘, I invited you to suggest possible topics for posts N–Z. Colleague Daniel Barber took me at my word and suggested that for ‘X’ I should write about xenophobia. Happy just to be getting feedback, I said that I would. In hindsight, that was rash of me as the topic is a minefield. But having made the promise, I have to be true to my word.

What has pronunciation teaching got to do with xenophobia, you may be asking? Well, basically accent, and accent discrimination. I talked about this at the very beginning of ‘An A–Z of Pronunciation’ in my post ‘A is for Accent‘, so in a way it’s fitting to start to close the circle by returning to this same point now that the blog is coming to an end.

In my first post I mentioned in passing the sort of accent discrimination we had suffered back in the 60s and 70s because of our working-class, Geordie accents, the accent of NE England. ‘Things have moved on since then, Robin’, Jeremy Harmer chided me during a round-table debate at an IH DOS Conference back in 2012. ‘Accents don’t matter any more’, he seemed to be saying. But it turns out that they do, and that they always have. I’m sure that many of you, for example, will have read the comments made by senior Whitehouse security advisor, Dr Fiona Hill, about how her Geordie accent would have hindered her career progress in the UK.

I grew up poor with a very distinctive working-class accent,’ she told congress during the impeachment hearings for Donald Trump. ‘In England in the 1980s and 1990s this would have impeded my professional advancement. This background has never set me back in America.’

But that was back in the 80s and 90s. And as Jeremy pointed out in London in 2012, things have moved on. Or have they?

A recent study by Queen Mary University of London and the University of York showed that:

Accent bias exists. British people tend to downgrade non-standard working-class accents and selected ethnic minority accents, and upgrade accents historically perceived as more prestigious. This accent hierarchy has been in place since the earliest surveys 50 years ago.

Accent Bias in Britain, 3

The outcome of this accent bias is that job candidates who spoke with an RP accent were judged to be more suitable for employment than those who didn’t, ‘even when speakers of other accents gave identical answers.‘ (Accent Bias in Britain, 3). Those who most suffered accent discrimination were from Birmingham or had Afro–Caribbean accents. The QMUL report makes for grim reading, and the only glimmer of hope it offers is that professionals in major law firms in the UK appear to have ‘the ability to switch off personal biases and attend very well to the content of job interview responses, regardless of accent.’ (Accent Bias in Britain, 3).

Is this issue of accent bias and discrimination limited to the UK? Fiona Hill’s final comment above might be seen as suggesting that it is. But as Rosani Lippi-Green makes apparent in a powerful way in her excellent English with an accent., accent prejudice and the resulting discrimination are rife in the US as well. And it doesn’t stop there. I Googled ‘accent prejudice Australia’ and saw immediately that it is an issue there, as it is in Canada and New Zealand. In short:

Accent discrimination can be found everywhere in our daily lives. In fact, such behaviour is so commonly accepted, so widely perceived as appropriate, that it must be seen as the last back door to discrimination.’

Lippi-Green, 73

In other words, given that the law and social custom now forbid us to use race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation to discriminate against a person, accent is used in their place.

Is this an issue that should concern us as ELT professionals worried about our learners’ L2 accents of English? After all, the above prejudices and discriminatory practices refer to mother-tongue accents of English.

Well, yes, I think it does concern us – the sort of prejudice that is a constant among and between native speakers is also applied by native speakers to those who are using English as a second or additional language.

Research has shown that speaking with a non-native accent is linked to career possibilities and progression, as it can influence managers’ perceptions of speakers’ fluency, and expectations concerning non-native speakers’ performance abilities. Moreover, this research also suggests that speaking with a non-native accent may lead speakers to feel excluded and devalued at work.

Argarwal, 2018

This is an important issue, then, and one that we need to at least make some sort of approach to in class through our own teaching. We aren’t overnight going to change practices related to accent discrimination in the UK, US or elsewhere in the Inner Circle, but we can at least begin to bring the issue out into the open. It’s just like ELT and the climate crisis. The work of groups like ELT Footprint isn’t going to bring the crisis to an end, but it is going to contribute positively to us all eventually reaching our goal. The same is true with accent discrimination and xenophobia.

But how do we do this, Robin? I mean, do you have any idea what it’s like in an average classroom? Well, yes, I think I do. It’s where I’ve spent the last 40 years of my life. And it needn’t be that complicated. We can, for example:

  1. Examine our own accent prejudices. We all have accents we love and accents we strongly dislike. In general, however, we don’t go around telling others or even ourselves which they are (especially the ones we dislike). But as a first step towards dealing with an issue as difficult as accent discrimination, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to come clean to ourselves about our own prejudices. I remember reading Richard Cauldwell’s hugely honest description of his own journey of discovery of his accent prejudices and thinking that I needed to own up about mine*. It’s a journey we should all make.
  2. Get students talking about their own prejudices. I suggest a couple of ways of doing this in ‘Accent, attitude and identity‘, an article on this topic that I published in Modern English Teacher. I developed these ideas after reading about the work of Jorge Suárez in Speak Out!. With his monolingual groups he got students to try to decide where other members of the class came from based on their accent. Obviously this will work best with students who are still getting to know each other and who come from different parts of the country, but if that is not the case for you, the internet now provides access to an infinite number of accents. The point is to create an open atmosphere in which students can freely admit to how they feel about different accents, both in their L1 and in English.
  3. Ensure that our learners are exposed to a range of accents of English, NS and NNS. John Field, an expert in second language listening I am sure you are familiar with, suggests a gradual introduction to a small number of widespread or standard accents, followed by a greater number of NS accents and finally, exposure to a range of non-native speaker accents. (Field, 2008: 160). I almost fully agree with this, but because of the globalisation of English, I personally would put exposure to widespread NNS accents before the ‘greater number of native-speaker’ accents simply because ELF accents are what my students are most likely to encounter.

Deliberately and strategically exposing learners to an ever-increasing range of accents as Field suggests has numerous advantages. Increased familiarity brings increased intelligibility and greater comprehensibility. This alone has to be a good thing. But it gets better. Suitably guided exposure to a range of accents should also bring ‘respect for accent diversity’ (Scales, et al, 2006: 735). It would also bring pronunciation teaching practices in line with current practices of inclusivity in ELT. If we don’t take these steps, then as Lippi-Green so bluntly puts it, ‘accent becomes a litmus test for exclusion’, something none of us wants.

Ultimately, it’s up to governments to change energy policies and find lasting solutions to the climate crisis. But that doesn’t stop me from doing what I can to slow global warming down. Ultimately, it’s up to governments to legislate effectively against accent discrimination and bring offenders to court. But that doesn’t stop us from taking accent variation and accent prejudice into the ELT classroom and trying to speed thing up. Does it?

Further reading

Accent Bias in Britain, Attitudes to Accents in Britain and Implications for Fair Access. 2020. Queen Mary University of London. Available online at: https://accentbiasbritain.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Accent-Bias-Report-2020.pdf

Argarwal, P. 2018. Accent bias: How Can We Minimimize Discrimination In The Workplace?. Available online at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/pragyaagarwaleurope/2018/12/30/bias-is-your-accent-holding-you-back/

Cauldwell, R. 2013. ‘Lord Rant: a personal journey through prejudice, accent and identity.’. Speak Out! 48: 4–7.

Field, J. 2008. Listening in the Language Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lippi-Green, R. 1997. English with an Accent. Language, ideology, and discrimination in the United States. London and New York: Routledge.

Scales, J., Wennerstrom, A., Richard, D., & Hui Wu, S. (2006). ‘Language Learners’ Perceptions of Accent.’ TESOL Quarterly 40/4: 715–738.

Suárez, J. 2000. ‘El español en la clase de pronunciación inglesa.’ Speak Out! 26: 30–7.

Walker, R. 2017. ‘Accent, attitude and identity.’ Modern English Teacher 26–1: 39–43. Available online at: https://englishglobalcom.files.wordpress.com/2017/09/met-january-2017_26-1_39-43.pdf


* My own prejudices were easy enough for me to identify – RP, London English and Geordie. Yes, Geordie. We had it drilled into us so much at school that Geordie accents showed you were stupid, that when I hear one now I realise that it can still prejudice me against that person in certain circumstances. As to ‘Likes’, I genuinely love a Black Country accent, despite the place it occupies in the hearts of the English public.

2 thoughts on “Xenophobia

  1. First of all, apologies for the suggestion in the first place, Robin. As you say, it’s a huge topic but it is one that affects the lives of millions of people learning English, and thus important to include, I believe.
    Thank you for tackling it. I agree with all of the above. Like so many areas of prejudice, such as racism, we are being asked to examine our own biases, as you suggest.
    @Vijay_Ramjattan is an academic working in Adult Education & Community Development. He’s worth following if you’re interested in the intersections of language, race, & work. Because perhaps more than most areas, accent perceptions affect employability, and are therefore drivers of inequality.
    I’d love to know how similar accent prejudice is in other languages to the situation in English. Living in the south of Spain, for example, I’m aware that an Andaluz accent has certain connotations that might suggest a lack of seriousness about work to people from other parts of the country. What prejudices have other readers experienced?

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