Does it really matter if we have an accent?
By Adelle Glance-Wilson
Over 40% of Australians are born overseas, however an influx of overseas-born professionals are choosing to undergo accent modification training to sound ‘more Australian’.
How much does it really matter if we have an accent?
There are concerns that the way we speak, specifically an accent, is affecting one’s job prospects, ultimately deciding who gets to climb the corporate ladder.
When Binh Doan first immigrated to Australia from Saigon, Vietnam, he was a shy seventeen-year-old who did not talk much in school. Now Binh owns his own speech pathology clinic ‘Speakable’ in Bondi Junction, teaching others how to speak more clearly and sound ‘more Australian’.
Binh says that many of his clients are business people who have the ability to start their own businesses however “need to learn how to speak well”.
Moreover, Binh says he helps his clients are to “blend in more” and “communicate better with their colleagues”.
“If an employer hears the way they speak, or if they are missing sounds, or if they are not confident in the way they speak, they may not be able to get the job they want,” Binh says.
Binh says that many of his clients have “good jobs” in their home countries but after immigrating to Australia they “are just doing odd jobs here and there”.
“If they can present themselves well, speak English well and are confident when they speak, then that will help them gain their desired job and opens up a new world,” Binh says.
Binh also adds that many jobs require you to speak specifically jobs which are typically undertaken by migrants including working in a call centre, education, customer service.
People who come to Binh with concerns are worried about this as people constantly ask them to repeat what they say on the phone or face to face. This may be due to not being able to pronounce certain sounds or not being able to say a particular word, making them feel nervous.
Binh has had many successful clients who have climbed the corporate ladder or achieved their goals that they felt their accent was prohibiting them from achieving.
“One of them [clients] was a yoga teacher, they had graduated from a course but due to their accent they were not confident. Ten weeks later they were not only teaching but they had opened their own yoga studio, running their own business in Sydney.”
Another success included an individual who was sent by their employer to work on “communicating in a confident way”. After Binh stepped in for twenty sessions, the individual was able to stay at the company and has now become an Australian citizen.
Dr Aniko Hatoss, linguistics lecturer at the University of New South Wales, specialises in migrant cultural studies and agrees that accents can impact job prospects as well as education.
“One big issue is in academic contexts when academics are not understood by their students in class or in lectures,” Dr Hatoss says, “It is a big issue for both the university and also the students, because it impacts on student evaluation and it impacts on learning”.
Therefore, there is reason to believe accent modification can increase confidence and can facilitate employment and job prospects, but is society continuing a culture of discrimination?
The underlying question remains: should the 40% of Australians who are born overseas be changing their accents, or should society learn to be better listeners?
“People do need to listen better but people also need to learn how to speak better,” Binh says.
“If you don’t speak clearly or you meet someone who is less patient, then they won’t listen to you,” Binh says.
Conversely, Dr Hatoss believes that an accent should only be an issue when it impedes understanding.
“it is not just a matter of attitude but also understanding,” Dr Hatoss says, “ With less exposure to different accents, people don’t actually develop the skills to decode and comprehend heavy accents”.
There are arguably still some negative attitudes to different accents in professional contexts. One of these being Indian as explained by Dr Hatoss.
“Typically the Indian English is something that people consider to be not so pleasing to the ear, probably because of the high pitched voice, and sometimes accents are easily misunderstood,” Dr Hatoss says, “I think that causes quite a lot of tension because some people might think that the person is being impolite, however that is just their natural voice or their natural accent, or the impact of their first language on their second”.
According to Dr Hatoss, these kinds of stereotypes are dangerous for society because people jump to conclusions about the person’s attitude or the person’s willingness to help or assist.
“I think maybe that’s why the companies are potentially interested in employing people who have the standardised Australian accent.”
An accent is a part of an identity, by modifying it, are we stripping ourselves of our identity?
Dr Hatoss’ attitude is that society needs to move forward and embrace a diversity in language with concerns that Australia is still in a “monolingual mindset”.
“We still have some kind of monolingual mindset in Australia where the standard Australian English, or the British kind of English is the only acceptable English.”
She also believes it is important to maintain other languages and respect for linguistic diversity.
“It would be very sad to see all languages blending into some kind of English where all cultural traditions and linguistic varieties are washed into something that is a common language,” Dr Hatoss says.