Do we really live in times of equality and diversity? That’s what various pundits would have us believe. Sadly, in many cases, equality and diversity are only vague slogans.
There is a dramatic difference between espousing the philosophy of diversity and paying lip service to it for public relations purposes. As a case in point, let’s look at one of the last bastions of implicit discrimination, namely “accentism.”
It’s no secret that speaking excellent English gives you an unparalleled level of freedom. Pair English excellence with money and the world is your oyster. How often do you hear the question: “Why do you speak English so well?’’ If you’re a Korean who speaks excellent English, you probably hear this question a lot. As a Pole, I certainly hear it a lot. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a great conversation starter.
What would happen if I spoke English with a heavy foreign accent? My social status would diminish in the eyes of others. Your accent matters, even when others are too polite to voice their concerns about how you sound in English. In fact, your accent is a fundamental part of your English competence. Is it fair? Of course not. Life isn’t fair, no matter how much we’d like it to be. It’s a cliche, but cliches often contain the hard nuggets of truth.
Take a look at the call center industry in India. Is it fair that call center employees are forced to adopt American accents, even American names? Of course not. Nobody cares if they feel discriminated against. When you enter a restaurant, do you really think you’re not immediately judged by the way you speak? Of course you are. How about a business setting? You know the answer.
One passport lets you enter numerous countries without a visa, while another passport makes your travel options severely limited. Is it fair? Of course not. There’s a reason why South Korea has one of the most powerful passports on the planet. South Korea is seen as a cultured and rich nation.
Unless you work for the U.N., nobody will care that you see yourself as a global citizen. We’ll never eliminate discrimination and prejudice, no matter how hard we try. We’ll always make assumptions about others. It’s part of our human nature.
We don’t usually like criticism. It’s logical and natural. Then again, aren’t people doing a disservice to someone who’s a poor English speaker, yet — he or she — lives in a bubble of undeserved praise? Is the ‘‘everyone gets a trophy’’ mentality really the way to go? It takes courage these days, it seems, to tell another person: ‘’Actually, your accent isn’t that great.’’
We tend to trust those who sound like us, and it may even be ingrained at the subconscious level. There actually are people who woke up with a foreign accent. Their lives are thrown into chaos, their social identity and social status are irrevocably altered.
So don’t believe anyone who tells you accents aren’t important.