Canada as a rainbow of accents
English has been established as a global lingua-franca and a business language, so it became the majority practiced language. Canadian English has been diversified with features of dialects and tongues from all around the world. At this point in time, with the Israeli-Palestine war, Canada is openly welcoming refugees, who will also contribute to the colorful accents, and they should know that however they speak their English, they will be accepted as important members in the society.
Knowing how to speak and write English has progressively been associated with upward mobility and a chance to a prosperous life. To those who were born and raised in Canada, their Canadian accents come naturally, but those who learnt English later in life often carry their language phonology, which then manifests as their non-Canadian accents. It is expected that in this multicultural nation that there is not a standard English accent required but that does not mean that everyone is going to gladly tolerate and acknowledge others’ accents.
What is accentism?
Accentism is a term that describes discriminatory or unfair behavior centered on someone’s accent or language use. Although it is not illegal in Canada, it can also be a product of racism, which is illegal.
Anecdotal evidence with accentism
My first year as a student in MacEwan University was my second year in Canada and, although I thought I managed to communicate with clear and grammatically correct English, I still possessed the thick accent from my native tongue. I remember one time, I had a school project to present and someone yelled in class, “Gosh, I wish you came with subtitles because I can’t seem to hear a thing,” and that really devastated me because it made me self conscious about my accent. For a while, I tried very hard to mimic the socially accepted Canadian accent, but that only made understanding me even harder. It was only when I owned my accent, spoke it confidently, and enunciated more that other people were able understand me clearly.
How about accent privilege?
We know there are a few selected foreign accents that are often glorified and romanticized globally. The French and British accents are usually perpetuated on television to be the best accent while other accents, such as the Chinese accent and Indian accent, are often portrayed to be annoying. Those with foreign accents that are perceived positively tend to have a privilege when communicating. They are favoured and even admired for their accents, so they don’t face the negativity similar to those with foreign accents that are not glorified.
What does existing literature say about accentism?
There are online blogs that show findings that foreign accents are ranked from sexy, to intelligent, to annoying. These are not just stereotypes, as research indicates that people subconsciously tend to distrust those of the accents they do not like.
This is also affirmed with the popular psychology that people often like and prefer to associate with those they share similarities with. This suggests that people are more inclined to respect and look up to those with similar accents while being completely opposite to those with foreign accents.
A study conducted in 2020 has provided evidence that non-native English speakers are often associated with detrimental work outcomes by both their peers and their leaders. That means that in a workforce, those who have a foreign accent face the unjustified stigma that they are low performing employees with unfounded evidence. Even in classrooms, studies say pronunciation issues in second language learning has been perceived to be the top scholarly concern due to the unwelcome evidence by native English speakers.
Others with foreign accents’ experiences
For Larona Tau, her thick African accent has always made her standout, so within a year after relocating to Canada she was already working on perfecting her Canadian accent.
“When most people hear me speak for the first time, they are always curious where my accent is from and although it is subtle, you can see them as they start to distance themselves from you,” she said.
As a foreign student, worker, and parent in Canada, she says she had to learn to not take it seriously when Canadian English speakers criticized her accent.
“It is not always obvious, but some people will keep correcting the way I speak while I’m talking to them.” She expressed that some people will repeat a word in their accents after she said it in hers, as if to try asserting that their accent is the proper way.
Immaculate Moranga, a MacEwan alumni originally from Kenya, says English is her second language after Swahili.
“Having a foreign accent made me the odd one out only when someone pointed it out, otherwise I just communicate as usual,” she recalled. “I have tried to change my accent when it came to job interviews and working at customer service jobs only because some people almost always seem to have trouble understanding me.”
What can we do to stop accentism?
Accentism can be curbed by the mutual efforts from both people interacting. The person with a Canadian accent can be patient and try to listen without dismissing those with accents different from theirs, while those with different and complicated accents can understand the communication hindrance brought by their accents and try to enunciate their words clearly.
A Forbes article dated March 2023, also gives advice to those with foreign accents to protect themselves from accentism and limiting their potential.
Other studies have confirmed that speaking confidently with a foreign accent eliminates the mistrust from listeners and that is good advice to help foreigners settle well in Canada.