As an international journalist, my work entails talking to people from different countries all over the world. But the moment I get on a call, I’m inundated with questions like, “Where are you really from?”, “How can you write for a US/UK magazine if you don't live here?”, “Are you really capable of pulling this off? From your accent, you don’t seem experienced in the industry.” All because I have an accent that shows hints of my Indian heritage.
Based on my resume and experience, I’m often shortlisted for job opportunities, only to be rejected after the phone interview because they are looking for a “proper” native writer.
Reports from Vice, Al Jazeera and Forbes indicate I’m not alone. Thousands of people are denied work opportunities because their accents don’t sound “real enough”.
Things have worsened since lockdown. Now that many offices have moved online, companies have a wider pool of candidates that transcends traditional regional boundaries. But with this expansion comes discrimination.
“Foreign language speakers are typically evaluated not on the basis of how far they have come, what they have achieved and how much they are able to do, but by the gap that still separates them from the ‘ideal’ native,” linguist Vivian Cook says.
In a quest to put this lockdown free time to good use, I enrolled in a virtual language exchange programme where language learners from different countries come together to learn from the native speakers. I almost immediately regretted my decision when native speakers refused to work with me because I didn’t speak like them. “You have a heavy accent. I’m not sure you can help,” a participant told me.
People appear to correlate accent with intelligence and capability. Various scientific studies have proven time and again how people with an accent are seen as “dumb” and incompetent.
Last week, a new brand reached out to me with writing assignments after reading my published work online. Excited to understand their needs better, we hopped on a call where things slid downhill fast. “We loved your work, you sound brilliant on paper,” they said. “But your accent gives you away.” You are clearly not experienced or skilled enough – they kept telling me polite variations of this sentiment, after praising my work just minutes before.
The compassionate part of me wants to believe this is just a cognitive bias and not everyone is purposely discriminative.
Dr Alice Foucart, a psycholinguistics researcher conducted a study called SocialAccent that revealed possible causes of this discrimination. In her project, she observed how the brain processes information when it is delivered in a foreign accent and found higher levels of activity compared to when it comes from a native speaker.
“It requires extra effort to understand the [non-native speakers],” she said. “The increased levels of activity show difficulties in processing lexical and semantic information. This can trigger negative perceptions.” It isn’t necessarily because of the person themselves, but because something cognitively is happening, she adds, assuring me my accent doesn’t make me wrong.
But my experiences say otherwise: no one has ever complained that they can’t understand me – my English is fairly correct, my speech is clear, and meaning comprehensible, so what is it about my accent that puts me at the bottom of the list?
Research shows 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 categorise someone into stereotypical and prejudicial ideas about their country of origin and the socioeconomic class they belong to.
“Why don’t you enroll in one of those accent reduction courses?” my friends ask me. “That would solve this discrimination problem.” If only spending around $100 an hour was the answer to undoing bias.
But the real question is: why should someone give up their cultural roots to be considered competent? Just because I don’t speak like you, doesn’t mean I can’t work like you.
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