Arianna Huffington, the Greek-accented, former editor-in-chief of this platform, always says her pronunciation made her life hell until she met the famous diplomat, Henry Kissinger, in New York. He managed to give her the peace of mind she needed: “Don't worry about your accent, in American public life you can never overestimate the advantages of incomprehensibility,” he said.
As a foreigner living in the US, I get a lot of questions about the way I sound.
And I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. Sometimes I’m asked with such high levels of diplomacy that only the permanently smiling Californians manage it naturally (“Could I be hearing the tiniest trace of foreign influence?”). Sometimes comments go the full scale (from: “You sound so lovely. You can say anything and it will never seem arrogant!” to: “I heard that accent reduction lessons are becoming popular among foreigners nowadays?”). Good to know :-)
I wish that discussing this topic could end here - with one or two funny anecdotes.
After all, as long as we manage to communicate there should be no problem, right?
But apparently there’s something more worrisome to this.
Once I asked a communications director at a large company based in California (considered one of the most employee-friendly) whether in her opinion a foreign accent could be an obstacle to a promotion. She denied it without batting an eyelash: “Are you kidding? Have you ever heard Americans from the South? Now, they have an accent, but they still work and do great.” I took her statement at the face value, not knowing the research on stereotypes associated with a Southern drawl. This study shows that Southerners sound “nice” and Northerners sound “smart.” Even for a five-year-old. Bottom line, people may be judging you on the basis of your accent.
And often they judge you badly. Here’s another study that paints even a grimmer image. According to research done by University of Chicago psychologists, and published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2010, the heavier the foreign accent, the less trust its speaker gets. In this study American speakers evaluated foreign accents and admitted that sounding foreign may be interpreted as lying.
The question is: why?
Perhaps this bias is so deeply entrenched in the American culture that no one is aware of it anymore. Mainstream movies and TV shows don’t help. Often a foreign accent can mean that its owner is a more or less a harmless idiot (like the Italian from Everybody Loves Raymond or the Pakistani from Seinfeld). And the only serious TV journalist with a trace of foreign accent that I can think of is Fareed Zakaria.
No wonder many foreigners face something that is called an “accent ceiling ” (a concept similar to “glass ceiling”) – a term coined by linguist Rosina Lippi-Green, the author of “English With An Accent.”
Lippi-Green claims that foreign accents are associated with harmful stereotypes and that employers often discriminate due to mispronunciation. In other words, some people think you are stupid or can't speak proper English, because you sound different. And this is just sad.
Even worse, the law allows this to a certain degree. It is possible to refuse to employ an immigrant if the job requires perfect pronunciation and a certain accent. The United Kingdom and Australia have similar laws. There might be professions in which this is understandable (no one wants to question whether a hospital dispatcher is calling a cardiologist or a urologist). But the discrimination might go a lot further. Even in industries with many foreign workers, such as IT, healthcare, or banking, people with accents have limited promotional opportunities.
But don’t let this get you down.
There are many examples of people who achieved success in the US despite their heavy accent. Here are just a few off the top of my head: Arnold Schwarzenegger, an Austrian and the former governor of California; Andy Grove, a Hungarian and the co-founder of Sun Microsystems; and Arianna Huffington, mentioned above.
So as someone who faces this issue everyday I say: try not to worry about your accent. Make yourself understandable. Improve your vocabulary. And excel in what you are doing. That’s it. And if you meet someone who tries to belittle you because you sound foreign, then it is this person's problem. Not yours. Period.
And always, always, remember: Your foreign accent is a part of who you are. Your personality. Your rich experience. Your personal brand. Use it to your own advantage.
So how should you manage in the US despite having an accent?
First, don’t fight too hard.
According to the theory currently accepted in linguistics, you cannot avoid some degree of an audible accent in your second language. Anyone who moves to a new country during or after puberty gets one. Even people, who started learning a foreign language when six years old, will sometimes speak with a barely audible, indefinable foreign accent as adults. Of course, there are shades and scales to accents. How audible your accent is depends on how long you have been speaking the language, whether or not you use it at home, how many years you have been living in the country, whether you have a good “ear” and, most of all, how different the other language is from your first.
Second, try to minimise the pronunciation differences.
Go to a special class, or even employ a speech therapist. In doing so, you can learn to intone sentences correctly and to speak slowly and clearly. It is totally doable and can help you in your life and career. Take the actress Sophia Vergara for example. She speaks a heavily accented English, but she pronounces everything correctly, so is easy to understand.
Third, think smart.
Carefully choose your industry, profession, environment or company. For example, an actor with a Polish accent will likely be cast as a foreigner from Eastern Europe. So the employment possibilities will be quite limited.
Fourth, attack back if needed.
Fourth, If you think you are being discriminated on the basis of your accent, report it. As you would report any other type of discrimination.
Fifth, confidence is key.
It is enough to speak with appropriate confidence, to be good at your job, and to know what you are talking about. When you sound confident, none will dare to discuss or questions your abilities because you sound different. Believe me.
Sixth, laugh often.
Laughter has no foreign accents.
What is your accented story? Any additional tips? Please share.