The English language is the most widely spoken second language in the world today. One billion people use it as their second (third, or fourth) language, but less than 400 million speak it as their first. Despite this, people often distrust information delivered in a foreign accent. There are strategies to overcome these biases, but the true obstacle lies in implementing them widely.
The ‘ideal’ of the native speaker in many circumstances can determine whether a person gets a job, or secure housing. The opposite is a ‘non-native speaker’ — a person constructed as accented, exotic and potentially difficult to trust due to being perceived as unfamiliar.
The English language emerged before its subsequent expansion across the world, so native English speakers have been historically seen as the absolute canons of western culture. In English language teaching, ‘native-speakerism’ policies are prevalent, particularly in developing economies where non-native teachers are usually discounted as second best. But favoring native speakers in English language teaching positions renders the field uneven and inequitable. These attitudes are reflected in how English language teaching jobs are advertised. Up to 70 percent of jobs on international sites such as tefl.com — one of the major job engines for English language teaching — are directly targeted toward native English speakers.
Accented English, or English that is noticeably different from the perceived ‘standard’ mainstream English speakers, is riddled with stigma and often rejected as ‘foreign’. The trust issue runs deep: a canonical study compared three different English accents (white, African American, Latino) and found these can determine people’s future opportunities. When the researcher called different landlords about housing options in the local newspaper, a ‘white’ accent secured him several inspections but the racialized accents didn’t. African American and Hispanic accents immediately put the researcher out of the game. A 2006 study also found that insurance agents in the United States were using clients’ accents over the phone to make predictions about their race, directly impacting the services their clients could secure.
Biases can stem from difficulties in processing and understanding foreign accents, but these can be reduced using interventions which expose listeners to more foreign accents. Another way to reduce biases is to actively engage people in the workplace in accent bias training as well as unconscious bias training. However, these activities can sometimes become ‘ticking-the-box’ exercises. Real change is likely to stem from creating truly multicultural workplaces through hiring people from a variety of language backgrounds. Exposure to different English accents normalizes linguistic variation. Ensuring that we become conscious and aware of our subjective views informed by a standard language ideology, or an imposed bias towards an 'idealized spoken language', is a way forward. Language does not exist in a state of perfection and ‘standard’ English is not the sole vehicle of intelligible communication.
The English language spread with the colonization of parts of Asia and Africa in the late 16th century when it was adopted as a common means of communication between speakers whose first languages are distinct. As for who owns English, the answer depends on who you ask. A historian will tell you that English was brought to Britain in the mid-5th to 7th centuries by Anglo-Saxon migrants hailing from present-day northwest Germany, southern Denmark and the Netherlands. A sociologist will encourage you to look up the relationship between people and the Crown, including colonies and dominions. A sociolinguist will argue: “it’s complicated”.
Dr Celeste Rodriguez Louro is a Senior Lecturer and Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow in Linguistics at The University of Western Australia. She is also Director of the Language Lab.