Mouth Full of Marbles: A Response to Accent Prejudice and the Bilingual Clique
When Mark Zuckerberg recently blew everyone’s minds by speaking Mandarin for 30 minutes in a Q&A session at a Beijing university, the praise seemed to be largely short-lived.
Although it was originally deemed as a formidable feat, critics were all too quick to slam the young billionaire for his reportedly atrocious accent, even going so far as to say he sounded like “an articulate 7-year-old with a mouth full of marbles.”
Never mind that Zuckerberg tackled what is considered to be the toughest language in the world, disregard that the CEO didn’t actually have to carry out the interview in Mandarin, and forget the time and effort he put into learning a new language. Everyone was more concerned with Zuckerberg’s supposedly terrible accent, and he was judged harshly for it.
It’s daunting to think how easy it is for people to judge us according to our inflections, drawls, twangs, and enunciation. If a famous guy like Zuckerberg can’t seem to escape scrutiny over his supposed inability to speak Mandarin well because he has a ‘bad’ accent, the rest of us are undoubtedly doomed.
So let’s take a moment to address the issue of society passing judgment on accents, whether in a native language setting, in a professional setting, or even as an opportunity to form part of a certain clique.
Native Language Judgment
It would seem that if you grew up in the U.S. speaking with an ‘American’ accent or in the U.K. speaking with a ‘British’ accent, your chances of landing a great job in your country of birth should be easy, right? Wrong. Studies show that employers judge potential employees based on their inflections which may explain why over eight percent of British alter their accents in order to sound more ‘posh’ while Americans with a Brooklyn or Southern accent have more trouble being taken seriously. Things are looking up for British looking to work in the United States though; any sort of British accent is viewed more favorably in the USA and people tend to automatically assume someone with a U.K. accent is more intelligent than their American counterparts.
Job Proficiency Judgment
English teachers working abroad are usually more than aware of the stigma attached to those with unfavorable accents. The most preferred native accent is American, with British and Australian coming in second and third. If you have an accent which varies even slightly from these three, you’ll have a hard time finding work. Consider India: one of this nation’s national languages is English and nearly 20% of the population is fluent, having grown up speaking it. However, it ultimately doesn’t matter if English is an Indian teacher’s native tongue; when going up against American and British counterparts, an Indian will automatically be deemed as a less proficient language teacher solely based on his or her accent.
As expounded in this fascinating blog about Nigerians and foreign accents, locals who go abroad to the U.S. for even short amounts of time adopt the American accent simply because they see how it affords them more perks. But in cases like these, as in many cultures, two cliques develop and both judge accordingly. On the one hand, you have the clique who considers themselves better, more educated, or more important because they strive to speak with a certain accent. They are offered more perks or treated better because they have a certain inflection, and in turn may consider it unseemly to revert back to their ‘old’ accent. On the other hand, there is the clique which believes they are remaining true to their culture and roots by refusing to ‘give in’ to the need to drastically change their enunciation. This clique judges those who put on American or British accents as being fake or giving up a part of who they are. But, as long as people are rated according to their accents, this sort of divide is almost unavoidable.
As our world becomes more and more globalized, languages are crossing barriers and evolving at every turn. But the accent problem remains. Perhaps one day we will all speak a single, global language which doesn’t vary in accent, but remains the same across the board. Or perhaps not.
Until then, knowing that your accent is an important part of success should drive you to seek out language classes in your area, which can give you the proper tools to enunciate and execute the ups and downs of a language. And if you truly care about accents as definitions of where people are from, then test how good you’ve trained your ear by trying your luck at Language Trainers’ English accent game.
Remember; don’t let the critics get you down. Learning a new language is something to be lauded, not criticized, as Mark Zuckerberg’s recent foray into Mandarin has proven.