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ACCENTuating the Positive

-Reframing the Way We Perceive Accents-

by Dr. Rachel Toncelli

As a career English language teacher, and now a TESOL teacher educator, accents have long been on my mind and something I have had to consider in my professional practice. Years ago, when I was first trained to teach English, a significant part of my training focused on accent reduction—or the very intentional act of making my students pronounce English as I do—yet my thinking on this has evolved dramatically over the years as I have come to interact more deeply with the power that educators wield over accents that they perceive to be different from their own and to recognize that forcing accent assimilation is a source of damaging pressure that pushes learners to shed their linguistic and cultural identities.

Though the TESOL field has made great general strides in the way we approach our role as language teachers --now honoring home languages and fostering multilingualism rather than English-only approaches--I still hear frequent and upsetting stories from bilinguals who have been treated badly or denied opportunities because of their accents, so more conversations about accent in education and in society are necessary.

To this end, I recently spoke to two women who have dedicated their entire professional careers to their local communities despite the ways that they have been misjudged for their accents. One, Ms. Mousa*, is an educator who speaks four languages and skillfully channels her cultural and linguistic experience into empathy for the most vulnerable learners in her school. As an educator, Ms. Mousa is exceptional, earning only the highest scores on her professional evaluations and beloved by the students she cares so much for. The other, Lt. Governor Sabina Matos, is a public servant in the state of Rhode Island whose entire career has required her to shatter one glass ceiling after another. As only the second woman --and the first woman of color-- to ascend this office in Rhode Island, Lt. Governor Matos is an inspiration to those who see themselves reflected in her.

Ms. Mousa and Lt. Governor Matos serve the public with grace and skill, yet both were discouraged from their current roles because their pronunciation of English does not quite sound exactly like the local dialect. Fortunately, they persisted.

Though Ms. Mousa speaks four languages that echo her family’s journey from the Middle East to South America and then to the United States, she came to English later in her life so her speech carries the faintest and loveliest inflection of this journey. When she was a student in college here in the US, a professor advised her against becoming a teacher, noting that her accent would make it very difficult for students to understand her. “Lose the accent,” was his unkind advice. Ms. Mousa recalls feeling invisible as this professor, like many others, did not see her skills, her empathy, and her deep pool of linguistic and cultural resources. He only saw her for what he believed she lacked: English that sounded like his. She notes, “America looks at people that speak other languages more as a disability, as something bad.” Ms. Mousa became a teacher anyway because she believed in herself and she eventually found educators who did as well.

Like Ms. Mousa, Lt. Governor Matos ignored the naysayers in the pursuit of her dreams. Her accent also tells a story, the story of a journey from the Dominican Republic to Rhode Island and her tenacious pursuit of education. When she first came to this area, she took English courses at the International Institute of Rhode Island, then the Community College of Rhode Island, and finally Rhode Island College. When there were no more English language classes to take, she pursued her degree in communications. Lt. Governor Matos rose to her position after dedicating years in community activism and then serving on the Providence city council, yet she too almost feared pursuing this path because her English, though impeccably clear, differs from the dominant local variety. Lt. Governor Matos shared that along the way in her career, she met with “some political blocks” and endured people “making comments” about the way she speaks. Despite still feeling so self-conscious about her speech that even today she collaborates with a communication coach, Lt. Governor Matos marches forward and tells those who comment that she is “still an ESL student” and she is “still learning the language.” Similarly, Ms. Mousa still feels nervous if she has to present to monolingual English-speaking teachers because she knows she is judged for her language. This all begs the question: is the problem more with the listeners than the speakers?

Isn’t it time that the monolingual English speakers, in education and beyond, came to think more deeply about accents? What if more people, upon hearing accents different from their own, recognized them as a sign of courage and skill? Lt. Governor Matos recalls that, in one of her previous roles, “[she] saw so many individuals that were super qualified for the job that they were applying for, and that were not given an opportunity because other people say they cannot understand them when they speak.” At the school level, Ms. Mousa worries that many students' home language resources remain invisible and that there is much pressure on them to master English at all costs. What do we lose when we silence these voices?

Ms. Mousa and Lt. Governor Matos have the fortitude to ignore those who doubted them and those who continue to doubt them. In their work, they embody the reality that they simply have more to offer our communities, and their service to our schools and society is a benefit to us all, so it’s time that those who judge people as less than because of their pronunciation look within. When you hear someone speak, try seeing them for who they are as a full person. Educators, please recognize and encourage the bilingual students and their families in your care. Employers, hear accents and suspend judgement and assumptions; start by recognizing you have a talented person in front of you.

It’s been well over twenty years since I was first trained, and I think my field has been working to reframe the way that accents are addressed in schools, but I still see that judgment of difference is all too alive and well. For the purpose of advancing these conversations, here is what I have come to know about accents:

1. Every human speaks with an accent. Accents paint a portrait of our geographical journeys and the communities we belong to. Though my English echoes my heritage from the northeastern region of the US and is granted authority as the “standard” in classrooms here, this standard is a false notion. My enunciation of English aligns with the local dialect of power where I am, but why should I be granted power for something I was just lucky enough to be born to? All I have to do is move and the “standard” will evade me too. This became apparent to me when I taught in a British school in Europe and my pronunciation was light years away from the Received Pronunciation I was expected to teach. What would happen if we privileged communication over power?

2. Accents bind us to our cultural groups, but they also have the power to exclude us from others. Humans evolved strong tendencies to bond within our social groups—and how we speak is a part of this. When we speak, we implicitly declare our belonging to our people and place. The flip side of this, of course, is the way we speak can also mark us as not belonging, a reason that so many emergent bilingual learners are eager to sound like the local dialect of power. Over the years, I have collaborated with students from across the globe and many who worked diligently to shed their accents and speak like locals report now regretting that effort. As adults who sound like the locals, their other cultural and linguistic identities are fully invisible and fade into the background in ways they wish they didn't.

3. Accents which you perceive to be different from yours indicate that a person has more to offer, not less. I can’t tell you how often people get this one wrong. These accents are often interpreted as a sign that someone is less intelligent. In reality, when you hear an accent that differs from yours, you should recognize that you have a courageous person in front of you, someone who could conduct the entire conversation in some other language or some other dialect of English. When you perceive an accent, please train yourself to think: More, not less. Skilled and talented, not less intelligent. Make this your mantra.

4. For too long, living the “American Dream” also meant sounding American. For immigrants to this land, and even those born here but whose home language was not English, assimilation into the proverbial melting pot has long been a requirement to unlocking opportunity here. Not surprisingly, one goal of those whose lives bring them to the English language is often sounding “native-like” by marrying their pronunciation of English to the local accent. Pressure from the English-dominant environment, particularly in schools, leads potential bilinguals to shed their differences, preferring to blend in as a way of being part of the group. This assimilation comes at a steep cost as it is often accompanied by devaluation, and often loss, of home language and culture.

5. As English teachers, we should focus on intelligibility, not “native-like” pronunciation. Language is a tool for communication. Once we help students achieve communicative clarity, we do not have to stress pronunciation further, unless doing so is a specific goal of the learner. Furthermore, humans have a biological drive to interact; while that sometimes means we give preference to our own in-group, it also means that our brains are hardwired to tune into accents that differ, so, with just a little patience, the listener can do the kind work of understanding rather than holding too tightly onto the power of their own speech patterns. Our role as language educators should not be to insist on sameness; we should honor linguistic diversity for the richness it brings to our classrooms and society. We should teach the other learners –particularly the monolingual ones who are granted status simply because of their language—to value this as well.

When it comes to accents, it’s time to accentuate the positive.

*Ms. Mousa is a pseudonym to protect her identity. Though she spoke willingly to me, she feared that speaking up could have negative consequences for her at work.


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