Guest blog: Why does my accent influence people’s perceptions of my intelligence or ability?


I arrived in Australia almost seven years ago. Even with all the baggage that came with being a political refugee, one of the first dilemmas I faced was the issue of my accent. As soon as I would speak I would be asked ‘Where are you from?’


Back then, I didn’t mind so much. In that moment, fresh off the boat, I was proud to say that I was from Venezuela, and would go on to talk about how beautiful South America was. But after seven years, I’m still constantly met with the same question. Except now it has a much greater impact on me, because in my soul (and my passport) I’m also Australian. It doesn’t matter how politically active I have become, or that I now vote below the line, or even that I’m a Hawthorn supporter; my accent is here to stay. And because of that, my identity is still questioned.


I feel like a belong here and I want to give back to this generous country I call home. However, when I was looking for employment several years ago, my efforts were hampered by my accent. Potential employers, on hearing my accent, would question my intellectual abilities or my ability to do the tasks that were needed. It was disheartening to say the least.


When an accent gets in the way of career progression, things become difficult. You start resenting your background and getting upset for not sounding ‘Australian’; you become obsessed with your accent, as if this was the make or break of your entire being.



Rejecting accents, rejecting identities


Linguistics specialist Rosina Lippi–Green affirms that when people reject an accent, they also reject the identity of the person speaking. Our accents, she claims, are ‘important messengers of who we are, so rejection of a person’s accent has the effect of rejection of the whole person’. And rejecting the ‘whole person’ means dismissing their race, ethnic heritage, national origin, regional affiliation, or even economic class.


It would seem a strange dilemma to face in a country that takes pride in its multiculturalism.


Yet, this kind of discriminatory judgment is unfortunately still quite common in Australia today, as though having an accent was some kind of a deficit or a problem to solve. It’s common to hear phrases like ‘Fresh off the boat’, ‘Whoa, you have a thick accent, mate’, ‘How long have you been in Australia?’, or ‘You still have an accent after living here all these years?’. Less kind is ‘What language are you speaking?’, or ‘Is that English?’.


Then there are those who are OK with accents if they are heard in the ‘appropriate’ setting; for example, the Indian accent from the taxi driver, a Latin waiter in a Mexican restaurant, or a Colombian cleaner in the office.


This kind of discrimination does not always mean that the individual airing these views is being racist. The struggle to accept difference is, unfortunately, an all too common human trait and often discrimination against another’s accent goes unnoticed. I’ve encountered people who are passionate about multiculturalism and who advocate for refugees, but still struggle with accepting accents.


Perhaps a reason for this is that we rarely have the conversation about how accents are intrinsically related to migration and multiculturalism.


According to 2011 census data, 24.6 per cent of Australia’s population was born overseas and 43.1 per cent have at least one overseas-born parent. This suggests that accents other than Australian English are a common phenomenon in this country. It also suggests that Australia is home to a large population of bilingual speakers, which has the added benefit of interacting with people who are able to activate different areas in their brain.



Bilingual speakers activate different areas of their brains


A 2015 Georgetown University Medical Centre study generated MRI data analyses from 45 young adults who had completed at least one year of university. The group consisted of bilingual and monolingual students.


The results showed that the bilingual students presented greater frontal grey matter volume compared to the monolingual students. Consequently, bilingual students had a better executive control, i.e., better cognitive processes, including attention and inhibitory control, memory and cognitive flexibility.


These attributes are important when considering leadership task-focused roles, negotiations, project development and strategy. The reason for this phenomenon is that bilinguals need to control the selection of one language, and the inhibition or suppression of the other, leading to an advantage in their executive control.


Despite all the research, a counterfactual point of view remains; a view which incorrectly judges peoples’ intelligence and capabilities.


Sydney speech pathologist Esther Bruhl confirms that a large percentage of her clients ‘are motivated to undergo training because their accent is getting in the way of them acquiring a job, or is affecting their ability to blend in at work or to progress in their job’.


People who suffer this prejudice face a Shakespearean dilemma: whether to let their accent be or not be. If they decide to persevere down the rough road of accent erasure, they need to consider the significant stress and anxiety attempting to do so might generate.


There is also a reasonable chance that the results won’t be what they expect; a large component of how we shape a second language depends on the age at which we began learning it. Research shows that learning a second language after the age of eight will likely result in speaking that language with an accent connected to their first language for the rest of their lives. Professor Dianne Markley, whose research focuses on accents, states that it is ‘almost impossible to speak any language acquired later in life without an accent’.


Could anyone imagine that speaking without an Australian accent in Australia today is the only way to succeed? What kind of society are we if people are motivated to change their accent in order to sound more acceptable or to better suit a job? Limiting our workforce and social interaction to those who speak ‘Australian English’ is not conducive to inclusiveness and diversity and is effectively telling migrants that they have to lose their cultural identity in order to be accepted.



Accents in the workplace


Of course, the accent issue can be a genuine problem in the workforce. A good friend of mine who works in finance once described to me how the accent of her intelligent, problem-solving Pakistani colleague impacts my friend’s work. When clients call for financial advice in shares, my friend is now accustomed to them confiding in her: ‘Thank God I’m speaking with you; I struggle to understand your colleague!’


This is a fair enough complaint; struggling to understand someone in matters of finance can lead to all manner of problems. But perhaps having more exposure to different accents would help us get used to these heterogeneous sounds. We are today more exposed to different accents than any time in history. Most of our services are being delivered from offshore. When we call to complain about a services bill, we will likely have a heated conversation with a person from any place around the world.


When I first arrived in Australia, I remember having a conversation with a customer services representative from my phone provider. I was not familiar with her accent and the conversation became a mix of ‘What?’, ‘Eh?’ and ‘Sorry, can you repeat that, I don’t understand you’. I remember telling her, ‘English is our second language. Let’s speak slowly so we can understand each other better, otherwise we are going to spend hours at this.’ In the end we had a great laugh; it was just a matter of different accents.



The spread of the accent issue


It’s important to stress that the accent issue isn’t all negative, or all-pervasive. Places exposed to different accents tend to have a greater acceptance of them. Saad, who has lived in Melbourne’s West for 10 years and works as a mechanic full time, told me that he has never felt discriminated against in Australia because of his accent. ‘In the West, everybody has an accent — my boss is Greek and my colleagues are from everywhere. Wherever you go in the West, people have an accent.’


This claim is mirrored in a 2011 study carried out by the western Melbourne city of Brimbank, which revealed that 56% of people spoke a language other than English at home, and collectively over 150 different languages were spoken.


In theory, we all know that embracing cultural diversity improves society and makes it more vibrant. People who by nature of their background have an accent bring a different perspective that ensures innovation.


Perhaps, as Australians, it’s time to start thinking of accents in an inclusive way, on the basis that they are a wonderfully inevitable, even musical, nuance of a society that has grown through different migration waves. We can think about accents as different versions of our national anthem which, when all sung together, enrich our understanding of who we are as a nation. Accents arrive at our shoreline, gifting us the opportunity of re-tuning our ears and really listening to how they continually shape and re-shape the words we speak.


Australia has always opened its door to others, and in the longer term we always end up loving and feeling pride for those whose way of speaking we at one stage railed against. Let’s enjoy the musical tunes that the cultural diversity brings with its accents. Let’s tune our ears to the nuances of other latitudes.



Ramon Martinez - MendozaAbout the Author


Ramon Martinez – Mendoza is an entrepreneur (CEO and founder of The ANPO Experience) and academic with an extensive experience in Cultural Community Development. Martinez has been certified by the Cultural Intelligence Center at USA and also has four degrees such as Bachelor in Chemical Engineering, Diploma in International Business, Master in Arts in Public Spaces and Master by Research in Cultural Community Development at the University of Melbourne. In 2014, Martinez received a philanthropic grant for researching and developing an innovative methodology to increase organisational engagement in teams: ANPOTM [A Non Predefined Outcome]. Martinez is equipped with an analytical and creative mind and is passionate about methodologies that use professional, cultural and social differences in the work environment as an instrument to generate change. Outside his business, Martinez lectures at the University of Melbourne and Victoria University.