How to tackle ac­cent prej­u­dice in academia

Quiet ac­cep­tance of ac­cent dis­crim­i­na­tion dam­ages ef­forts to make sem­i­nar rooms more in­clu­sive, says Ka­te­rina Loukopoulou

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Ka­te­rina Loukopoulou is a se­nior aca­demic de­vel­oper for the Fac­ulty of Arts and Cre­ative In­dus­tries at Mid­dle­sex Uni­ver­sity.

Few or­gan­i­sa­tions are as com­mit­ted to poli­cies en­cour­ag­ing di­ver­sity and in­clu­sion as univer­si­ties, but one form of dis­crim­i­na­tion re­mains silently ac­cepted in academia.

I’m talk­ing about prej­u­dice against re­gional and foreign ac­cents. While univer­si­ties have made huge strides to stamp out dis­crim­i­na­tion against staff and stu­dents based on the nine pro­tected char­ac­ter­is­tics of the Equal­ity Act 2010 – such as race, sex, re­li­gion and dis­abil­ity – ac­cent bias has eluded cur­rent good prac­tice.

Con­sider the is­sue of teach­ing and learn­ing: it is quite com­mon to en­counter ses­sions about ac­cent re­duc­tion or re­ceived pro­nun­ci­a­tion (RP) as part of pre­sen­ta­tion skills train­ing for stu­dents, es­pe­cially for in­ter­na­tional stu­dents or na­tive speak­ers with strong re­gional ac­cents.

Al­low­ing for var­ied ac­cents in the class­room should be part of the wider drive to cre­ate an in­clu­sive cur­ricu­lum that will ap­peal to the widest pos­si­ble range of ears.

How­ever, very lit­tle re­search ex­ists on the role of ac­cents – foreign and re­gional – in ei­ther class­rooms or syl­labus con­tent. In­spired by Hamid Nacify’s land­mark 2001 book An Ac­cented Cin­ema, I have started de­vel­op­ing a project about ped­a­gogic strate­gies that may fa­cil­i­tate the em­bed­ding of dif­fer­ent ac­cents into the cur­ricu­lum, mainly in the dis­ci­pline of film stud­ies, but I hope that it will have wider ap­pli­ca­tion across other dis­ci­plines.

The project poses sev­eral un­com­fort­able ques­tions for the academy and at­ti­tudes to­wards ac­cents. For ex­am­ple, does un­con­scious bias against cer­tain ac­cents ex­ist in higher ed­u­ca­tion? If so, does this bias also act as a bar­rier to in­clu­sive learn­ing and teach­ing, as well as ca­reer pro­gres­sion for staff?

Cur­ricu­lum de­sign is of­ten pre­dis­posed not only to­wards an an­glo­phone syl­labus con­tent, but also to­wards RP. In the field of film stud­ies, for ex­am­ple, it is com­mon to en­counter mod­ules with generic ti­tles such as “film nar­ra­tive”, where 95 per cent of the syl­labus con­tent con­sists of an­glo­phone films of pre­dom­i­nantly “neu­tral ac­cents” – for ex­am­ple, the US “Hol­ly­wood ac­cent” or Bri­tish RP ac­cents. This un­ac­knowl­edged pref­er­ence pre­vents stu­dents from ex­pos­ing them­selves to what voice coaches He­len Ash­ton and Sarah Shepherd call “di­ver­sity that we can hear”.

Hav­ing taught and re­viewed nu­mer­ous film stud­ies cour­ses, I have no­ticed a pat­tern: un­less a mod­ule ti­tle in­cor­po­rates ge­o­graph­i­cal spec­i­fi­ca­tion, such as “Bri­tish Cin­ema” or “French New Wave”), then the syl­labus con­tent of most in­tro­duc­tory cour­ses will con­form to an an­glo­phone-RP agenda.

I de­cided to tackle the is­sue after one par­tic­u­lar in­ci­dent in the class­room. After a screen­ing of an ex­tract from the highly ac­claimed 2011 Chan­nel 4 documentary The Story of Film, di­rected and nar­rated by Mark Cousins, some of my stu­dents ex­pressed dis­taste for his Ir­ish/Scot­tish-ac­cented voiceover. “A David At­ten­bor­ough-style nar­ra­tion would have made it so much more cred­i­ble” was one of the com­ments, ex­pos­ing pre­con­cep­tions caused by the lack of fa­mil­iar­ity with a nonRP ac­cent. Documentary film has for so long been bur­dened by au­thor­i­ta­tive-neu­tral-ac­cent-voiceof-God nar­ra­tion that slight vari­a­tions still stand out as ex­cep­tions.

The prob­lem in­ten­si­fies when com­ments about a speaker’s ac­cent turn into eval­u­a­tive judge­ments about their in­tel­li­gence, cred­i­bil­ity, trust­wor­thi­ness or sim­ple abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate. Re­search in this area is grow­ing; cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gists Shiri Lev-Ari and Boaz Keysar have in­ves­ti­gated the ques­tion “Why don’t we be­lieve non-na­tive speak­ers?”, while so­ci­olin­guist Bet­tina Bein­hoff has shown how “per­ceived in­tel­li­gi­bil­ity [of ac­cented speech] is in­flu­enced by fac­tors such as fa­mil­iar­ity with the rel­e­vant ac­cent”.

It high­lights the ques­tion of whether stu­dents and staff with re­gional or foreign ac­cents en­counter bi­ased at­ti­tudes. At Mid­dle­sex Uni­ver­sity, I will be col­lab­o­rat­ing with col­leagues who teach the BA English mod­ule “Global Englishes” to ad­dress some of these ques­tions and to co-cre­ate ac­cented re­sources with our di­verse body of stu­dents by draw­ing on their own experiences and small re­search projects.

Con­fronting ac­cent prej­u­dice is about not just valu­ing stu­dents and staff but im­prov­ing the class­room ex­pe­ri­ence. If, for ex­am­ple, in­ter­na­tional stu­dents be­come self-con­scious about their ac­cents and do not feel com­fort­able con­tribut­ing to class dis­cus­sions, sem­i­nars and oral pre­sen­ta­tions, then all learn­ers lose out. The same ap­plies to stu­dents from the North of Eng­land, Wales, Ire­land or Scot­land who are study­ing at univer­si­ties in south­ern Eng­land.

So let’s equip fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of stu­dents with flex­i­ble speak­ing and lis­ten­ing skills that will em­power them with knowl­edge of dif­fer­ence and di­ver­sity as it is vo­calised around them. A di­ver­sity of ac­cents should be wel­comed as a rich teach­ing re­source rather than seen as a dis­trac­tion from a mono-ac­cented or­tho­doxy of higher ed­u­ca­tion.

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