Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
Earlier this year, I was at a high-end store in Greenwich, Connecticut, and as I was shopping, a salesperson approached me, offering her help. She was curious to know where I was from. “New York,” I replied.
Not surprisingly, she followed up with, “Where are you from, originally?”
“Pakistan,” I responded.
“How long has it been since you moved to the U.S.?” she inquired. “Almost two decades,” I promptly replied.
But what came next was somewhat unexpected, as she said, “Oh, but that accent is still there.”
I smiled politely, we exchanged some more pleasantries, and I made my way out of the store.
As I walked out, I kept thinking, “Do accents have an expiration date?” Would she have said the same to someone with a French or a British accent? Perhaps, but I will never know for sure. Based on my past experiences, I imagine the conversation would have gone differently had I been European. The salesperson would have offered a mix of admiration and fascination rather than a snarky remark.
The incident raised many emotions within me, such as anger and frustration about how different accents are perceived in American social discourse and how people who don’t have “acceptable” or “familiar” accents when speaking English are viewed and treated with a certain degree of otherness.
English: The Colonizer’s Language
Accent bias is ubiquitous in the United States, where English is considered the universal language and, even more so, a social currency. Speaking English has become synonymous with cognitive excellence, conferring a certain degree of global linguistic clout upon the user.
Perhaps this phenomenon may be traced back to British colonialism and White supremacy—in the U.S. and worldwide. British colonizers not only looted and plundered other nations but also imposed their culture and language on Indigenous populations. Hence, English became a marker of class, etiquette, success, and higher intellect and a rite of passage for people who wanted proximity to colonial power.
Even today, Pakistan has two official languages, English and Urdu. English, or as I have come to call it, “the colonizer’s language,” is also widely spoken in India and other parts of the world that were once colonies of the British empire.
The legacy of language is visible in the class divisions of the formerly colonized. People from the upper echelons of society are conditioned to speak “proper” English because, for them, the command of the language sets them apart from the masses.
The Brigham Young University undergraduate school of psychology published a study in 2007 suggesting that accents impact people’s perceptions of intelligence, physical attraction, and trustworthiness. Hearing someone talk with an accent originating from a non-European country invokes unfounded assumptions about their cognitive capabilities.
In most instances, the default is to assume that someone who speaks English with a non-Western accent is somehow less intelligent. As a result, there are profound economic implications. According to studies, people often miss jobs, housing, and other opportunities because of their accents. In addition, people who do not enunciate words according to American conventions are not considered dynamic, innovative, or worthy of a particular employment.
Some Foreign Accents Are Admired, Others Are Not
Sadly, accent bias and discrimination are normalized in American society and even justified under the pretext that it is difficult to comprehend someone’s conversation if they speak with a non-European accent. I have often heard people complain that they cannot fully understand someone’s accent because of how they enunciate words, which can be frustrating for the listener. While this may sometimes be true, it’s baffling that Europeans, like French and German people, may speak English with thick accents that are objects of admiration in pop culture and the media.
There seems to be an implicit ranking or “accent hierarchy” in the U.S. From years of living as an immigrant in the U.S., I notice that British accents are seen as the most superior of foreign accents, while African and Eastern accents are at the bottom, with over-sexualized Latin American accents somewhere in the middle.
For instance, in an episode of the Apple TV program Loot, Olivier Martinez plays Jean-Pierre, a French billionaire and love interest for an American woman named Molly, played by Maya Rudolph. Most characters in the episode are shown fawning over his French accent.
Conversely, non-European accents are ridiculed at the expense of the communities they are assumed to represent. One of the guests on my podcast Immigrantly, Hari Kondabolu, a comedian, writer, podcaster, and filmmaker, made a documentary in 2017 titled The Problem with Apu in which he called out The Simpsons for its controversial portrayal of Indians. Apu, a South Asian character on the show, is voiced by Hank Azaria, a White actor who seems to have a warped understanding of an Indian accent.
Accents are not universal. Even in this country, English sounds and words are spoken differently across regions and boroughs. Not only are accents affected by geography, but they may also be based on people’s education, socio-economic status, and grasp of other languages. Hence, there is no such thing as a definitive Indian or Pakistani accent. Yet Apu’s etched character crafted a particular image of how an average Indian immigrant speaks English. Azaria’s portrayal invited viewers to laugh at him rather than with him.
Normalizing Diverse Accents
Even though the salesperson in Greenwich noticed I spoke as though I was born outside the U.S., my Pakistani accent is not as apparent as the foreign-sounding accents of other immigrants. I grew up in an upper-middle-class household in Pakistan and had access to world-class education and private schools. I learned English early in life, so I am confident in my language skills. Yet occasionally, I am reminded that my accent differs from the mainstream in not-so-endearing ways.
It is crucial that non-native English speakers should not be obligated to speak English a certain way or have their speaking style reflect their intelligence. On the contrary, those who speak with unconventional accents probably know a second language, suggesting they are resilient, intelligent, and have navigated multiple cultures. Further, if a non-native speaker can speak English fluently, their country of origin was likely colonized, forcing native people to learn and adapt to a language that isn’t theirs.
Expecting people to speak a language in a specific way is more indicative of a colonial mindset and less of the speaker’s ability to utilize and comprehend English. Moreover, every accent is unique and tells a story about someone’s lived experience. A person with an accent from a non-European nation deserves admiration for their mastery of another language.
To normalize unfamiliar, non-European accents in American society, we need to start by employing people in the workplace based on their skills rather than accents. While some may argue that comprehensibility is a central issue in the workplace, another perspective is that humans have an innate ability to adapt: The more we listen to various accents, the more we learn to understand and appreciate them. Additionally, DEI initiatives can include training on how to acclimate Americans to different accents.
Hollywood can also take steps to normalize non-mainstream accents. Other than actors like Salma Hayek, Gal Gadot, and Sofía Vergara, there are few on-screen stars who have foreign-sounding accents. Hollywood can and should portray characters with strong accents—not as caricatures but as central three-dimensional characters. And most importantly, White actors should never play characters of color!
The news media bears similar responsibility. While NPR boasts of journalists from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, such as Leila Fadel, Ailsa Chang, and Ramtin Arablouei, it is rare to hear a host with a non-mainstream accent on the platform. While comprehensibility may be the pretext for such bias in audio journalism, if platforms like NPR hire more hosts with diverse backgrounds, listeners will likely get used to hearing intelligent, dynamic people with various accents.
Lastly, the podcasting industry can play an instrumental role in being more inclusive and fairer in promoting accent diversity. Since podcasting is an intimate, personal audio space, it allows people to learn and unlearn privately in their own time without any judgment.
Before I launched my podcast, Immigrantly, three years ago, a few people suggested that listeners would not be able to comprehend my “thick accent” and that since podcasting is an audio medium, I should rethink the idea of hosting a podcast. I am glad I persevered, and through my podcast, I hope to expand people’s expectations of different accents.
Saadia Khan is a Pakistani American immigrant, human rights activist, and social entrepreneur. A graduate of Columbia University’s Masters program in Human Rights Studies, Saadia has worked with UN Women and other UN entities representing civil society organizations. Saadia has hosted and produced 185+ podcast episodes and has received several awards. Previously, she worked as an interpreter for Human Rights First. She is also the board member of Hearts & Homes for Refugees, a nonprofit organization that works with the U.S. Department of State to welcome refugees. She writes for publications including Brown Girl Magazine, the Globe Post, and Medium. She can be reached at http://immigrantlypod.com