My parents immigrated to the US in the 1970s. I grew up in a bilingual home; we spoke a mix of Farsi and English. My parents did not want us to learn Farsi, as they feared this would lead to us speaking English with an accent. Despite this, we learned Farsi, since it was the language they spoke to each other.
My mother speaks English with a Persian accent. Understanding her experience navigating life while being seen as an outsider because of the way she speaks is something I have only really come to understand after over 30 years as a secondhand experience. I stood at my mother’s side countless times as a shocked stranger looked at her fair complexion, blond hair, and hazel eyes and exclaimed, “Where are you from?! I think I hear an accent!” I watched her gracefully answer the question multiple times a day, and sometimes saw her be not so graceful in her response. I also know she often felt passed up for opportunities to advance her career because of the way she spoke.
Studies have shown that we are able to detect someone is not a native English speaker from hearing a single spoken word or even just excerpts of spoken syllables.1,2 While we may not be able to distinguish different non-native American English accents from one another, assumptions may be made about a person’s competence that are founded in bias.3 For example, someone who speaks with a British accent may be perceived being well-educated and of higher socioeconomic standing, while negative assumptions might be made for different accents. This type of bias serves to not only create discrimination in hiring, but also promotion, career advancement, and contributes to the “bamboo ceiling.”4
Accent discrimination is a violation of the law. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bans national origin discrimination against any individual. The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 further prohibits employment discrimination because of national origin against US citizens, US nationals, and authorized aliens. National origin discrimination involves treating people unfavorably because of their nationality, ethnicity, accent, or appearance. Despite these laws, accent discrimination still happens, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission allows employers to determine if an accent will interfere with an employee’s ability to effectively communicate in a manner that allows them to fulfill the functions of their job. While tests of English fluency, such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOFEL) and Test of Spoken English (TSE) exist, not holding these types of evaluations as a standard has allowed for continued discrimination in the workplace.
I now have my own daughter who stands by my side. In becoming a parent, I have come to see parts of my mother’s experience I was never able to realize before. How she was raising her children in a place that did not accept her as their own. How she was reminded multiple times a day that she did not belong. How she felt her value and worth questioned in front of her children every day. While I do not speak American English with a foreign accent, I do feel I am aware of all too often casually made comments and assumptions we make about non-native English speakers. While this form of discrimination often does not garner the same attention as racial, sex, or gender discrimination, it is important for us to recognize.
- Atagi E, Bent T. Nonnative Accent Discrimination with Words and Sentences. Phonetica. 2017;74(3):173-191.
- Flege JE. The detection of French accent by American listeners. J Acoust Soc Am. 1984;76(3):692-707.
- Quinn JFP, J. A. Emerging Strategic Human Resource Challenges in Managing Accent Discrimination and Ethnic Diversity. Applied Human Resource Management Research. 1993;4(2):79-93.
- Akomolafe S. The invisible minority: revisiting the debate on foreign-accented speakers and upward mobility in the workplace. J Cult Divers. 2013;20(1):7-14.