How accents affect newcomers in the workplace

Accents can be heard all around. For many they are a form of identity. But, when it comes to acceptance and integration into a new society, for some their accent can present a challenge.

“Accent functions as a second skin,” says Isaku Kawamura, researcher. “In Vancouver, almost 50 per cent of people are now people of colour. So they are no longer a visible minority. However, accent can still function as a strong marker of separation, creating an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ rift.”

An accent is part of the richness of someone’s presentation to the world.

What are the challenges

As quickly as visual markers can incite judgement, the linguistic profile of an individual can generate prejudice around their ethnic origin, socio-economic class, and even their intelligence.

Kawamura, a Sociology Honours graduate (2022) from University of British Columbia (UBC), studied under the supervision of Professor Jennifer Berdahl to investigate the impacts of accents on immigrants’ labour market experiences in Vancouver.

As a foreign national himself, Kawamura came from Japan in 2016 to Canada, a personal experience with an airport immigration officer was the catalyst in conducting further research on accent discrimination.

“Having an accent can be seen as a lack of effort to learn the language,” he explains.

His personal interest in sociology was fuelled by his father, a sociology professor in Japan. When he came to Canada, Kawamura found himself in the position of an ethnic minority and this motivated his interest in sociology further.

The accent can manifest as a marker of foreignness in the labour market. And can interact with race, class and gender when it comes to generating racially motivated biases – even in a tolerant country like Canada.

Lending a linguistic hand

It is important, says Wendy Duke, M.Sc., RSLP, CCC-SLP, the person looking to participate in the accent modification program is personally invested in the process.

“We are looking to make people aware of the sounds of English, where they might be having difficulty,” explains Duke.

Duke, clinic director of Columbia Speech & Language Services Inc., was one of the first practitioners (1987) to offer an accent modification service as part of a private practice in British Columbia.

Duke initially started working with people who wanted to improve their pronunciation of English, usually for workplace reasons. She discovered she loved this area of work. Unlike people who were getting speech and language therapy –
as a result of a medical conditioner or brain injury – these people really wanted to be there, and were really grateful for the service.

Over the years since starting her private practice, Duke has seen a shift in the type of people seeking the service.

“In the 80s, we were seeing people from China and Korea,” she recalls. “There were many people whose background language was Cantonese. Now, most of the people who come from a Chinese language background are Mandarin speaking.”

“More recently the percentage of Asians in our program has decreased. We have been seeing an increase in Brazilians, which is a relatively new phenomenon.”

According to Duke, the people who typically seek the services of the clinic are in their late 20s to early 30s. Around 60 per cent of people are looking to make a career advancement. Whether it’s people who are about to graduate from university and have job interviews, or professionals who really understand the importance of communication in
the workplace.

Isaku Kawamura. | Photo courtesy of Isaku Kawamura.

“We even had a really puzzling French Canadian who wanted to work on her accent. So it’s not just for individuals who are new to Canada,” reflects Duke.

The team at the clinic supports participants by helping to identify the pacing of English. For example, where a person might not be pausing, in a place where native speakers of English would be expecting to hear a pause.

“We will not ‘get rid’ of someone’s accent,” she reinforces.

By focusing on intonation patterns, which are also very important. The rise and fall of the voice across a sentence carries a lot of meaning in English that is not present in other languages in the same way. The process really tries to help individuals understand what they can do to make it easier for listeners to understand them.

Duke goes on to say that if someone is going to be discriminated against for being from Brazil or India or China, they will still suffer that discrimination because they will still have an accent.

More research is needed

Wendy Duke | Photo courtesy of Columbia Speech & Language Services Inc.

Ultimately the decision whether a person would like to embark on an accent modification program should be entirely their own, and success is always greater when participation is self motivated.

Employers can suggest or recommend the services. However, it needs to be done in a sensitive way, reducing the chance of the suggestion being perceived as disrespectful.

“More work needs to be done to objectively compare if some accents are more tolerated, or perceived more positively – as well as comparing accents based on ethnicity,” says Kawamura, who is now embarking in a masters program at McGill.

Kawamura points out that even though participants experience negative issues, Canada is still perceived as a fair country and people are satisfied with their new life here.

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