Foreign language learners' accent: does it impact our future prospects on a professional level?
Her bruised and beaten lips purse to form an utterance but all they can make out is altered by the malnourished phonemes grown on different soil and in a different climate very unlike the English one. She struggles to form words in an original manner as if she had not been born into a specific country and as if she does not bear the markings of a particular culture on her tongue. She chips away at herself until she becomes a loitering vagabond tied to nothing, owing her tongue to no one and blessed with vocal cords mothered by every language. The questions of whether her inability to mimic the accent of a native speaker of the English language and whether it shall affect her prospects on a professional level loom over her head. But, in the simplest, even though such things should bear no major importance, one cannot deny that it does matter and that it will affect one’s employability, image, and performance.
One of the first things to fall prey to the toxic expectance of Received Pronunciation is employability, affecting it in a two-fold manner. Firstly, the candidate for a job position is far more likely to be the one employed if they are bestowed with a more natural-sounding accent than the candidate that is still endowed with certificates as proof of their knowledge of the language but with a vestige of their own upon their tongue. For example, a Master’s thesis titled "Employment Decisions as a Function of an Applicant's Accent" with research based on data gathered from 167 undergraduate students in Northern California inspected the importance of an accent in relation to employability and “showed that Spanish-accented applicants were rated less suitable for an entry-level software engineering job, were perceived as having a lower chance of being promoted to a managerial position, and were hired less frequently compared to the Standard American English-accented applicant” (Nguyen, 2010). Secondly, apart from being seen as a disadvantage in the interviewing process, the presence of an accent also closes off a number of jobs. For instance, positions such as teachers and customer-relations are more likely to require the standard of a language as opposed to other forms of it because the standard accent goes towards the company’s or the school’s credibility due to the common, albeit unjust, social convention that ties together knowledge and accent.
The second to fall is the image as listeners unconsciously attribute various personal traits to the speaker purely based on how they sound – linguistic prejudice and stereotypes play gargantuan roles in this. Firstly, it is quite common to allot adjectives such as competent, able, and well-suited to a person whose voice cannot be distinguished from the voices giving England its 5 o’clock news and it is quite common to allot antonyms of the aforesaid adjectives to those that do not possess that kind of voice. The study introduced in the paragraph above also researched the perceptions of the applicant’s personal characteristics and found that the Spanish-accented applicant was seen as less competent than the applicant with the Standard American English accent which is expected but it also exposes the grim bias the society still bears towards any kind of difference for it was and still is ready to attack any morsel foreign to the domestic one. Secondly, the accent, which proudly shows off the speaker’s origin and history to the listener, awakens all the stereotypes deeply rooted in their mind. For example, when one perceives a voice speaking English but is rather French in its manner, one has a tendency to stop listening altogether and instead wonder whether the speaker’s black beret is in the washing prompted by the absence of one and whether they are arrogant and cheap without actually listening to a word they say.
In an environment that still perceives the presence of a non-native accent as something that is in dire need of a reprimand, the third to fall is job performance as it prompts discrimination and affects self-esteem. To begin with, even though the world is in constant progress and in the crucial period full of righting wrongs and preventing further wrongdoings, discrimination and problematic behaviour such as accent-based bigotry is still something that exists and undoubtedly affects people in numerous ways – lowering productivity and causing great unhappiness. For example, call centres that mostly employ foreign workers whose first language is not English and consequently offer them lower wages, often monitor their workers’ accent variations and push them to have accent training in order to obtain a more standard-like accent and thus maintain the credibility and image of that particular company. Furthermore, with such actions and such pressures, another thing affected certainly is self-esteem, which is incredibly important for each person and to have that taken away, is to be an empty shelf surrounded by an air of doubt and uncertainty with the notion of the imposter syndrome hovering over one’s head. The imposter syndrome causes the affected to doubt every single success they have had and to chalk it up to luck without giving themselves any credit, and this prevailing feeling has been reported by many non-native English speakers when in communication as the fear of judgement and discrimination casts a great shadow on their self-esteem and job performance.
In brief, the question of whether it matters if a language learner has an accent in relation to employability, image and performance is truly an outdated one but still it receives an answer in the affirmative, which can be deduced from the points made above. From the first point, one can perceive that a presence of an accent brings certain disadvantages in the professional sphere of life. From the second point, it is evident that the image crumbles as the toxic linguistic prejudice and cultural stereotypes put massive pressure on it. Finally, from the third point, it is clear that an accent, in this day and age, does not only affect one in a professional and social tone but in a deeply personal one due to the discrimination and the diminishment of one’s self-esteem. Keeping all of this in mind, one should be advised never to forget that even though the quality of English with which one speaks may not measure up to that of a BBC newscaster, the origin and quality of one’s accent does not determine nor define one’s knowledge of the language itself and one’s capabilities.
Nguyen, Lam Thanh, "Employment Decisions as a Function of an Applicant's Accent" (2010). Master's Theses. 3882. DOI: https://doi.org/10.31979/etd.fsr7-gmcu
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