News Article

The regional accentism that secretly affects job prospects

Posted 6th July 2022 • Written by BBC •

Judgements around regional accents can impact candidates’ hireability and pay. Is there a way to end this discrimination?

At age 22, Gav Murphy was fairly green. He was living outside Wales for the first time, working in his first job in media production in London. His South Wales Valleys accent was very thick, he recalls. He’d say ‘tha’ rather than ‘that’, for instance. But he was perfectly intelligible. 

Yet a senior colleague overseeing his work insisted Murphy change his accent so all the broadcasters sounded uniform on air. “You can’t sound like this,” Murphy says the older Englishman told him. “You’ll find it easier to do this if you just change your accent in real life.” 

The effects were far-reaching. “It sort of broke my brain a little bit,” says Murphy. “I thought about literally every single thing I was saying, literally every time I was saying it. It was just laborious.” He developed a hybrid accent that had some people wondering if he was Canadian or Australian, and led to his mates in Wales teasing him about how posh he sounded. 

Foreign-accent discrimination is rampant in professional settings. But discrimination can also extend to certain native speakers of a language, because of the judgements attached to particular accents. While many employers are becoming very sensitive to other types of bias, accent bias remains challenging to root out. But it doesn’t have to be this way. 

‘Lazy listeners’ 

Whether they realise it or not, people infer a great deal about someone from the way they speak. People make assumptions not only about a person’s geographical origins, but potentially also their class background, from a giveaway twang or lilt, for example. 

Yet these assumptions aren’t necessarily accurate – and come laden with bias. One such bias is “similarity attraction”, which means that “we favour people who are like us”, explains Devyani Sharma, a sociolinguist at Queen Mary University of London. That favouritism means people may automatically view those with similar accents as more trustworthy.

Another universal bias relates to the human brain’s desire to take shortcuts. As with foreign accents, listeners find it more work to decipher ‘non-standard’ native accents. Because the brain has to work a bit harder, memory and comprehension can be lower – making it more likely that listeners will lean into preconceptions associated with those accents. “We are kind of lazy listeners, and we rely on stereotypes when we don’t have other things to go by,” says Sharma. 

That means it’s common to make instinctive assumptions about someone’s criminality, intelligence or attractiveness based on the way they sound. People form these assumptions very early in life – for example, when children watch dim-witted cartoon characters with exaggerated Appalachian accents in the US, or Andalusian accents in Spain – and are generally linked to broader biases against the group with a particular accent. “Almost all bias related to accent is about … some social characteristic,” explains Sharma. 

Different roots 

While the cognitive shortcuts that contribute to accent bias may be universal, the degree of accent awareness and prejudice varies greatly. For instance, “The UK has a very, very fine-tuned system of accent prestige,” says Sharma. “It’s a combination of a very monolingual past, where English developed as a symbol of the nation, and the very acute social class hierarchy historically.” 

She adds that overt accent bias in the US is based more on race, whereas in the UK, it’s more tied to class.

We are kind of lazy listeners, and we rely on stereotypes when we don’t have other things to go by – Devyani Sharma

In some cases, accent bias is directly related to government policy. Since the 1860s, the Japanese government has modernised the country with a focus on Tokyo, says Shigeko Kumagai, a linguist at Shizuoka University, Japan. “Thus, standard Japanese was established based on the speech of educated Tokyoites.” In contrast, the Tohoku dialect spoken in northern Japan became “the most stigmatised dialect in Japan”, says Kumagai. Its image is “rural, rustic, old, stubborn, narrow-minded, backward, poor, uneducated, etc”. Young women from Tohoku are especially made to feel ashamed of their accents

Kumagai’s research shows that the strong stereotyping of the Tohoku dialect is perpetuated by the concentration of the media industry in the Japanese capital. Indeed, the world over, the media has an enormous impact on perceptions of accents. Media is typically clustered in a territory’s seat of power, whose accent is generally held up as standard. For example, the preponderance of UK broadcasters in London likely contributed to the marginalisation of Murphy’s Welsh accent. 

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