Accent Discrimination at Macalester

Accent Discrimination at Macalester

Alan Schulz Diaz, Contributing Writer

Part 1: Mac-Accents: Steps you can take to understand and not discriminate against other people’s accents (both native and non-native speakers). 

Every time I open my mouth, I have two types of interactions at Macalester: the ones in which my accent is understood, and the ones in which it is not. The frequency with which the topic of language and accent comes up in my conversations with my Latin American friends warns me that this is a significant and recurrent issue for Latinos and people of color whose accent is associated with negative judgments. 

The problem is not language fluency. Just as with Spanish, I can hold long and deep conversations in English. Just as with Spanish, I can actively interact in class and deliver meaningful presentations. Sometimes, however, I notice that people repeat my words: people who are still not familiarized enough with students’ experiences with accents. I say that I want light-roasted coffee to student staff, and they reply, “did you say, light roasted coffee?”.  I say, “where is the theater?” and a student replies back to me “the thither?”, “down the stairs”. The most oppressive of the interactions are with faculty, in the classroom, in the spotlight, when the teacher rephrases more often the statements and questions of certain accents, even if they and my fellow classmates understood everything perfectly. This extends for student groups, in which it is harder for students with certain accents to be perceived as assertive, and thus take leading roles. This has been studied for some variants of Asian accents. And I don’t need to read any research to know this is also part of my experience with my own accent.

It is OK if you don’t understand me. But you have some homework to do to improve your comprehension, as well as some homework in order to avoid making others repeat themselves when you DO understand the message.

I acquired the English fluency I have now just two years ago, and believe me, it was hard: it made me self-conscious every time a word came out of my mouth. Let me repeat that; every time I communicated. It was a struggle, a challenge and a trauma. And now, when I have finally learned the sufficient vocabulary to express what I feel, and communicate what I want, I find myself, again, fearful of not being understood —a fear shared by others with foreign accents. Yes, I know my English is “good,” you don’t need to tell me that. I do ask you (native and non-natives, Latines and non-Latines) that, if you understood what I said, don’t repeat the words to me in standard American English. This an unnecessary step in communication that reminds me of the many times I wasn’t actually understood, and a step that is somewhat patronizing towards ‘ethnic accents’. 

I am making an effort to speak standard American English, at least in terms of pronunciation, as I know it would facilitate other people’s understanding. I am also making an effort to understand some variants of African and Asian accents, as I don’t want my friends to repeat themselves. Exposure to other accents is key to enhance comprehension and reduce negative stereotypes associated with these accents. We all hear Latine, African-American Vernacular English and other accents in our classes and social groups (I hope): so let’s pick up those ‘accented words’ and remember them. It is kinda fun, we have to do it all the time with Standard American English! 

Macalester, thankfully, is small enough where a change in staff and student culture could improve the experience of those students whose accents are stereotyped. This requires students and staff to actively try to familiarize themselves with these accents. So yeah, it requires the DML (and the future Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and inclusion) to pass on this message periodically. This message should be careful to not ostracize those for it is intended to protect. It should be transmitted as an opportunity to both celebrate multicultural life and enhance inclusivity.

Here are some additional steps to enhance language and dialect inclusivity at Mac are:

First, I suggest adding subtitles in videos shown in classes, at least during the first semester of college. In order to not ostracize others, do not ask about whether people want subtitles, just add them. 

The second suggestion is to use less slang and speak slower. This enhances communication for everyone in the classroom, especially for those less familiar with the dominant accent and language. In my experience, some teachers often overestimate slang as a way to look more approachable, and underestimate how slang — and technical terms —constrain clear communication and accessible lessons. 

While slang is encouraged as a potential culture bound, one must make sure it doesn’t repeatedly leave people out in the classroom, which happens often as a consequence of a faculty which is not representative of the student body. I like when teachers explain the slang, and I like when my peers feel great about themselves when they happen to know the slang (I do it as well when speaking Spanish). I also would like other English and bilingual slang to be celebrated; for example, Chicano slang (which I don’t know). For that, guess what, we need more diverse faculty and staff! We also need diverse faculty to be proud of sharing their dialect, slang and language with their students in the same way slang is shared by white collar teachers that resonate more with white collar students. This, among other cultural common grounds, facilitates connections with faculty that translate into research opportunities and preceptorship. When those opportunities concentrate in certain groups, it transforms into a form of discrimination. Discrimination which, in most cases, is simple favoritism, results more from, according to Safwat Saleem, “wanting to help people that you can relate to than the desire to harm people that you can’t relate to.” 

Third and final suggestion

If you don’t understand me, that’s OK, just ask! I want to be understood, and I deserve to be understood. I recently made a request in the library, and the kind person there told me the book wasn’t there. I then asked: did you understand what I said? and they told me, with genuine shame “no, I’m sorry”. I rephrased my request, and they were able to help me out. 

I shared this experience because I want to emphasize that communication should always be the goal. Teachers and students must not ignore people’s requests and ideas because of the fear of being discriminatory when asking others to repeat themselves. This creates an imbalance in whose words are listened to in decision-making processes. It is often the case that the ideas of some non-native speakers in group projects, strategic planning processes, student government meetings and all other decision making spaces, are less taken into account. We, native and non-native speakers, fail to comprehend the full message of those with certain accents and second language learners. With good intentions, we rephrase their ideas and add them in a trivial way. That is not enough. We must ask questions until we FULLY comprehend what someone else is saying. We need to understand the details and the reasons why someone else wants to implement something. Think about a project you were passionate about in which your idea, instead of some else’s idea, was the leading one. You found the words to back it up, you explained the pros and cons, you said that your peer’s ideas can be used as a “compliment” oh my god, you may have even told a joke or a compelling emotional argument. 

For some folks, it is not as easy to give an extensive argument in favour of an idea: finding the words to share the idea is a hassle itself. The extra energy that it requires to persuade is something many extroverts with Standard American English take for granted. An idea will only have power until we fully comprehend its details, and the reasons behind it. It’s our job to make all ideas powerful, and that means asking questions. The easy path is to use your language privilege to get your own idea across over someone whose accent is not understood (or perceived as assertive). The easy path is to enjoy the extra attention native and non-natives unconsciously give you, because this society relates standard American English with smartness. But that’s not the meaningful path. The meaningful path is to actively ask questions, in a calm way, until the idea of someone else is fully heard. So, we can take action only when all requests are fully understood, and most importantly, fully valued.