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Making your voice heard: Experiencing accent bias as a non-native English speaker

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Our accents often offer a window into our backgrounds and therefore carry varying degrees of unearned advantage, entitlement, and credibility. Even though the ethnic composition of the United States is changing rapidly, as immigrants, we still confront implicit bias from the moment we say ‘Hello!” In this blog, I share my experience of navigating work and social dynamics as an immigrant woman with an Indian accent.

My experience with non-inclusive behavior

At my previous workplace during grad school, I was often asked to repeat myself during meetings or had a white male colleague paraphrase my opinion for the group. My experience of micro-aggressions has varied depending on the power dynamics in the room. During multiple job interviews, when I’ve been at my most vulnerable, every time the interviewer would say “Sorry! I didn’t catch that!”, my confidence dropped. My American friends have stepped in to impersonate me over the phone while talking to customer service in order to get the help I needed. When some of my friends imitated me and covered it up with “you speak so cutely!”, I was instantly aware of my immigration status.

making-your-voice-heard: Sahana Sriram with her Mom and Dad

 

My relationship with accented speech

As I tried to make sense of these experiences, I started by reflecting on my own relationship with my accent and the biases I have. As a result of colonization, I grew up in a country that admires English. Watching Americans make fun of the Indian accent on television made me think that there’s a ‘right way’ to speak English and Indians were far from it.  My mother studied in a Marathi language school. I remember constantly correcting her non-native accent and pronunciation. She would immediately apologize and attempt to change. Initially, when I came to New York, I tried hard to assimilate. I subconsciously changed my accent depending on my position of power within the room. Gradually, as I renounced the shame associated with my accent and my native language, my sensitivity to micro-aggressions grew.

The psychological impact of accent discrimination

As an immigrant with a foreign accent, I walk into a white-dominated setting with much fewer poker chips than others on the table. Micro-aggressions directed at how I speak have felt like losing multiple games early on in the tournament. The more games I lose, the less confident I feel in my abilities and the less likely I am to take risks or play bigger games. Additionally, paying attention to how I’m sounding and how people are responding rather than to my thoughts is exhausting and obstructs the process of organically building connections. Lastly, isolating core parts of myself that are not welcome in a space also leads to loneliness and anxiety because I’m disconnecting with my own identity to fit into an external world.

Linguistic racism – A systemic problem

I wanted to know I wasn’t alone in my experience and started searching for stories on “non-native speaker + bias “, “Indian accent at the workplace”, and “foreign accent discrimination”. Most of the Google results I found were titled “fixing your Indian accent”, “Standard English training for a job interview”, “ads for English language teachers” and “communication difficulties with my Indian boss”. I realized that the blueprint for accent discrimination in intercultural communication mirrored the social discrimination grounded in racism.

making-your-voice-heard: Sahana Sriram with her Mom

The work of Nelson Flores and Jonathan Rosa on ‘Raciolinguistics’ helped me understand my experience better. Racilolinguistics refers to the standard language ideology and seeks to understand how the white gaze influences communication. They discuss how linguistic practices of minoritized populations are perceived as deviant based on their racial positioning in society as opposed to any objective characteristics of their language use. Therefore, long-term English learners belonging to a lower racial position will be perceived as deficient regardless of how closely they follow the supposed rules of standard English. It’s not surprising then how the British and French accent sound ‘classy’ compared to the Indian and Asian accents.

Mitigating bias

making-your-voice-heard

Apart from learning about how linguistic prejudice can be used to maintain and reinforce power dynamics, I have also been exploring practices to mitigate accent bias in everyday life. At Hyphens and Spaces, the diversity within our team encourages multicultural speech. The CEO and COO speak in their regional native accent and actively listen to team members to promote inclusion. Seeing my team members and leaders be comfortable in their regional accents has helped me feel pride and ease with my non-native speech. Additionally, discussions are supplemented with other communication channels for all voices to be heard.

My requests to English native speakers and those in power are to observe your bias, actively listen to non-native speakers, expose yourself to foreign accents and build teams that encourage mixed cultural speech. Lastly, my one recommendation to non-native speakers who wish to be comfortable with their foreign accents is to start observing shifts in their accents in different social settings. That practice alone helped me get comfortable with my foreign-accented speech and mitigate bias that I have internalized. 

Promoting inclusion at your workplace

You can reach out to Hyphens and Spaces to help foster inclusion in your organization. We facilitate workshops to build motivation, skills, and competencies to support workplaces mitigate bias.

Hyphens and Spaces support social enterprises and non-profits with assessments, strategy, and implementation as well as learning and development to improve their diversity, equity, and inclusion outcomes. For more information, contact Hyphens and Spaces via our intake form here or send an email to [email protected].

By: Sahana Sriram, Associate Consultant and Client Services Manager

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