The Privileges and Pitfalls of Having an Accent

accents

 

Recently, Juan Pablo Galavis, the star of this year’s “Bachelor” made headlines with some negative comments about gay couples, calling them, among other things, “more pervert” than heterosexuals.  Galavis later apologized for his statements, and chalked them up to his not being a native speaker of English.

….Of course anyone who knows some Spanish, or who simply has access to an online dictionary, would know that one word for “pervert” in Pablo’s language is pervertido – so his excuse doesn’t really hold up that well.  And yet, “The Bachelor” and Galavis have gone on, without the level of fallout that fellow reality star Phil Robertson got for making (admittedly harsher) statements. There are a lot of reasons why Galavis might have escaped this fate – for one thing, there are people who agree with what he said.  For fans who don’t, an apology might suffice.  But I wondered if his being a foreign speaker really could work as an excuse.

As an American living in Paris, I know that I’m often forgiven for things simply because I have an accent. If I ask a question that might be perceived as, well, stupid, people tend to blame it my just maybe not understanding French very well, even though I’m a fluent speaker.  If I say something incorrectly, I usually get a pass on that, too (although the French do like to correct you).  I’ve even accidentally uttered words or phrases that might be considered rude or downright obscene, without anyone batting an eye.

While it is cool to get off the hook for your mistakes, having an accent can also be a block.  I’ve had people talk to me like I’m a child, or expect that I just won’t understand something.  I once had a five minute conversation with a woman in a clothing store.  As we were getting ready to go our separate ways, she remarked, “You have an accent.”  “I’m American,” I told her.  She looked surprised.  “Can you understand me?!” she asked incredulously, despite our having just had an entire discussion.

I wondered how having a foreign accent in America can influence people’s perception, so I did some research.  Unfortunately, what I found was more troubling than anything else.  On the one hand, as an American myself, I know that some accents can be perceived as sophisticated, intelligent, or downright sexy.  But as this article points out, these are often Western European ones.  People from other areas of the globe regularly face discrimination.  And it seems like no matter where you’re from, you have an automatic strike against you: an oft-quoted 2010 experiment carried out at the University of Chicago revealed that people with strong foreign accents are considered less believable than native speakers.  Another study also shows that teachers with accents are considered less intelligent than their native-speaking peers.  And don’t even get me started on language discrimination among native speakers; as I’m sure you know, some dialects and regional accents have certain stereotypes attached to them.  This is, sadly, a norm in most countries around the world.

Having an accent in the language you use every day can be many things. At times, it’s frustrating.  Other times, it can make you miss out on opportunities.  In the US, for example, getting passed up for a job – or even fired from one – because you have an accent is something that many non-native or regional-accent-bearing applicants have encountered. But it can also be a positive: 

although I don’t agree with what Galavis said, I do have to respect him – or his PR people – for using his foreign speaker status as an excuse.  On the other hand, by doing so, does he only reinforce the stereotypes so many of us face every day?

Alysa Salzberg

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s