Podcast: The Complexity of Having an Accent

August 15, 2018
August 15, 2018 Rochel deOliveira

“Standard American English” – what is it and what’s the story behind its origins?

…and when you don’t speak American English accent well, what are the social and professional consequences?

Here is a thought-provoking podcast by the Asian American Journalists Association, where questions about assimilation, discrimination, and stereotyping are sensitively explored. One of the reporters from AAJA dropped by the AccentsOff offices and participated in a speech evaluation with Rochel deOliveira.

The complexity of having an accent


A Japanese immigrant has felt isolated from the surrounding community in Ohio and been afraid to speak to her neighbors. A Chinese immigrant raising an American-born kid worked hard to make sure his daughter grew up as a native English speaker, so she wouldn’t face the problems he did. A radio reporter from Hong Kong is a rare example of someone who made it into public radio without a standard American English accent.

What does it mean to “sound white” in America? In the world of public radio, as Code Switch reported in its Aug. 8 episode, this means a Midwestern accent. This way of speaking was proliferated by John Kenyon, a linguist in Cleveland who wrote books on pronunciation. Broadcast journalists started using his books, and that became the way people were taught to sound on air.

How we receive language is emotional, tied to cultural and ideological norms according to Amelia Tseng, a linguistics professor at American University. For example, social perceptions of immigrants could potentially influence the way someone hears an accent.

Linguistic stereotyping and accent discrimination is real and documented.

John Baugh, a black professor at Washington University in St. Louis conducted a study in 1999. He called hundreds of real estate agents and found that they were less likely to offer him properties in white or Hispanic neighborhoods when he used his black voice as opposed to when he mimicked a more white sounding voice. He invented the term “linguistic profiling.”

A 2013 working paper from the University of Pennsylvania examined Standard American English accents, against Asian accented English and Brazilian Portuguese accents. It found that participants recorded generally negative evaluations of Asian accents.

When someone doesn’t have what many consider the default American accent, how does that affect their life on an individual level? In this podcast, we explore the experiences of three people and how their accents have shaped their lives.

Listen to the podcast here. 

(Image permission of Emma Stiefel/AAJA Voices)

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