We live in a multicultural society and that means that almost every day we are confronted with people whose accents are foreign to us. In the U.S. only, 13% of the population is made up of immigrants, either seeking refuge, employment, or simply a change of scenery. But what are the consequences of this clutter of languages and accents?
It is important to realize that more often than not, what starts as a simple linguistic difference can turn into social injustice, as people who have a foreign accent confront themselves with problems regarding jobs, education, and health care. Sadly, it is easy to make assumptions which may or may not be true about a person based on language.
But what is the reason behind this discrimination?
Well, scientists believe that this discrimination starts from the way in which our brains process the foreign accents. First of all, it is hard to understand someone speaking in a foreign accent, especially when you are not used to hearing that accent in your daily life. The way in which a foreign person communicates can contain more pauses, sounds which are different from the ones we are familiar with, and different ways of stressing certain words. And it is this difficulty which can easily alter our perception of non-native speakers.
According to a study conducted by Shiri Lev-Ari, a psycholinguist at the Max Planck Institute of Psycholinguistics in Amsterdam, which asked both non-native and native speakers to utter phrases like “Ants don’t sleep” in English, English native speakers rated the speakers with the heaviest accents as being least true.In Lev-Ari’s opinion, this negative judgment is a result of the additional effort our brains are subjected to when trying to process foreign speech. She also explains that “we expect non-native speakers to be less proficient speakers, so we rely on our expectations about what they’re going to say, rather than what they actually do say.”
However, Lev-Ari also points out that the more we’re exposed to foreign accents, the more our brains will be able to understand the speech better. In fact, a person can improve this ability in as little as four minutes.
Unfortunately, the reality is that people who have a foreign accent can face discrimination in about every country in the world, even one with a diverse population and immigrant history. And even if things are on the right track with the U.S. having an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or some universities in Germany allowing refugees to take classes in English instead of forcing the German language on them, much remains to be done.
As Alene Moyer, a linguist at the University of Maryland said, “We’re going to increasingly be exposed to accented speakers in the workplace, in doctors’ offices, in our neighborhoods, and in all the places we encounter folks we don’t know well. The question is whether or not we accept and acclimate to that reality.”