One of the kids I babysit in New York teases me mercilessly about the way I pronounce – mispronounce, in her view – the name of her schoolmates.
“It’s elle-oh-EEZE (Elouise), not eh-LOO-ease,” she would say, hands on her hips. “And it’s Cass-sy (Cassie), not Kay-see.”
Well, I have a Singaporean friend named Cassie, who happens to live in New York, too, who insists on going by Kay-see – the very pronunciation that irks the American girl I babysit, even at just six years old.
As a Singaporean, I found that over the past year and a half I’ve lived in the United States – the bulk of which was spent in the melting pot that is New York City, no less – many seem to misunderstand me even though English is my first language.
Or, they would exclaim, “Wow, your English is so good!” Thanks, I guess, for commending me on fluency in my native tongue.
I’ve also found that even if they convey the same words, certain varieties of English are more often associated with professional and intellectual competence than others.
My minority peers share similar experiences.
Singaporean actress Jody Doo, who came to New York to study acting was not allowed to do her graduation showcase five years ago “because the faculty thought I 'didn’t sound American enough.’”
“They cut most of the immigrants,” said Doo, who graduated in musical theatre at Circle in the Square Theatre School in Manhattan. This was after she had paid to see a speech doctor three times weekly to “address the language problem”.
Interestingly, Doo recently scored one of the leading parts in White Pearl, a play that recently premiered in Washington, DC. It is set in Singapore, and centred on a racist ad for skin whitening cream. Once shamed for her native accent, she now gets to spout the patois of the little red dot – that combines English, Mandarin, Malay, and Chinese dialects like Hokkien – on stage for this play. In a post on Facebook, Doo wrote: “I don't have to neutralise my accent to cater to the American ears? SAY WHUT……"
Similarly, South Korean actor Park Hyo Jin, who recently graduated with a Masters of Fine Arts from The New School, also in New York City, was frustrated to have been assigned only silent parts for her graduation show. She also recalled being barred from a dialect class during the three-year program because the instructors “said my American accent wasn’t neutral enough.”
“On one hand, the instructors ask me to ‘stay true to myself’,” said Park, recalling how they dissuaded her from giving herself an English name when she first joined the program. “On the other hand, they don’t treat me equally to my classmates who are white.”
She lodged a complaint under Title IX, but it bore little fruit, possibly because the US federal law that governs schools receiving public funds prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, not language.
Brazilian journalist Gisele Regatao wrote in a piece for Columbia Journalism Review last year that NPR would not air her story “in part because of my accent”. Regatao is also an assistant professor of journalism at the City University of New York.
But more than “not sounding American enough,” there appears to be a hierarchy of accents in many societies.
In the United States, for instance, white though foreign accents seem to be readily accepted. The generic British accent is viewed particularly favourably; while talking about TV shows a few weeks ago, two friends unanimously named The Great British Bake Off as one of their favourites because of the way it sounds.
On the other hand, studies have shown that foreign accents from people of color tend to be negatively perceived here. New York University linguistics professor Carina Bauman, for instance, found in her research published in 2013 – comparing English-speaking American listeners’ perception of mainstream US English, Asian-accented English and Brazilian Portuguese-accented English – that Asian accented English tend to be rated lower by American listeners on attractiveness, status and dynamism.
Emphasising that the hierarchy of accents is “socially arbitrary,” Boston University linguistics professor Neil Myler cited himself as a case study. Born and raised in a working class neighbourhood northwest of England, his accent was often dismissed by peers when he went to university, south of the country. The perception of his accent “changed completely” after he arrived in the US, Myler said, and so did his social life.
“Even for my wife, an American, part of the initial attraction was the way I sounded!”
During our chat, Myler had me read several monosyllabic words, like “face,” “fade,” and “know”, to demonstrate that accents from non-Anglophone societies tend to be more monotonous.
Tan Ying Ying, professor of multilingual studies at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, told me what’s most frustrating for her is how some non-white individuals themselves are “particularly obsessed” with Anglophone accents. “Often, it’s not about what you say, but how you sound,” she said.
Indeed, each time we speak, our tongues are put on trial. The hierarchy of accents can perpetuate bigotry – even self-discrimination – and sometimes lead to grave consequences.
For instance, Rachel Jeantel, who testified against ex-neighbourhood watch captain George Zimmerman for fatally shooting her schoolmate, Trayvon Martin in 2013 saw her testimony dismissed because of its unfamiliarity to jurors. Jeantel, who spoke in African-American vernacular English, was slammed online for being “a dullard,” “an idiot,” and one who “can barely speak in coherent sentences”. Zimmerman was acquitted and the case later sparked the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
Was it a case of Jeantel not speaking well, or were others not hearing her well – because of their preconceived biases against specific races, ethnicities, or social classes?
The fact that we are still judged by our accents in this “cosmopolitan” age, and people can be quickly dismissed or idolized by the way they speak, is absurd. Unless we learn to listen well and be open to speech that sounds different, many among us will take a long time to truly be heard.
Listen to the author's accent in her interview below:
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