Have an accent, will speak

“Have you ever felt nervous about speaking to someone or out loud in a classroom because of your accent? I have, and I still do. All the time. This annoying feeling has a name: it is called linguistic insecurity,” says Marie-Eve Bouchard, an assistant professor of sociolinguistics for the Department of French, Hispanic & Italian Studies

Linguistic insecurity is expressed as discomfort or anxiety when speaking. It refers to a speaker’s own evaluation of their way of speaking as inferior to another language variety that they perceive as “correct” or more prestigious, says Bouchard.

Two major social forces are responsible for creating and perpetuating linguistic insecurity: “standard language ideology” and the stereotyping of accents

This insecurity emerges when the speaker becomes aware of a distance between their own language and the variety that they consider to be legitimate.

“Personally,” she says, “I also feel this linguistic insecurity when I fear that I will be judged based on how I say something rather than what I actually say.”

Roots of linguistic insecurity

Two major social forces are responsible for creating and perpetuating linguistic insecurity. First, there is what linguists call “standard language ideology,” or a bias toward an abstract and idealized language variety or way of speaking, imposed and maintained by existing institutions, including the school system. This belief, Bouchard feels, is a social construct that can lead people to assume that some ways of speaking are “good” and others are “bad.” The standard language variety – perceived as “good” – is usually taught in school, spoken on television and radio, used in the written form and so on. A person who feels that the way they speak is inferior or too far from the standard is bound, she says, to show signs of linguistic insecurity.

Marie-Eve Bouchard, assistant professor of sociolinguistics for the Department of French, Hispanic & Italian Studies, UBC.

The second social force is stereotyping of accents. This type of stereotyping refers to the process when a generalized belief about a particular accent is created. But stereotyping can result in prejudice, such as considering individuals with a non-native accent to be less competent, less intelligent or less educated than those with a native accent, says Bouchard, especially when the individuals with a non-standard accent struggle to find a job in communication or education.

By and large, people with an accent from higher social classes and urban areas are perceived more positively than those from lower social classes and rural areas.

At the individual level, linguistic insecurity related to language use has three main sources. The first one is negative comments, such as “The way you say this word is so weird.” Interventions can also breed insecurity: “This is not how we pronounce this sound. You should try to pronounce it this way instead.” A third source is humiliation, such as “You sound dumb when you speak like this.”

Linguistic insecurity has become an important area of concern in recent years among minority-speaking communities in Canada. This insecurity can lead to a loss of confidence in speaking a language and eventually to the erosion of knowledge and ability in this language. Hence the importance of fostering linguistic security.

Fostering language security

An Important way of fostering linguistic security is to raise people’s awareness about language use and the impact of language discrimination. Critical language awareness can be developed through education, says Bouchard. Teachers here have an important role in fostering linguistic security at the individual and societal levels. Friends who wish to build their linguistic confidence need to be supported, and strengthening a sense of belonging to different groups can also be beneficial. Regardless of the way people speak, people should strengthen their sense of belonging to different groups. Creating safe environments free of prejudice where individuals can build linguistic security and confidence is also helpful.

Bouchard wishes above all for people to learn how to appreciate different accents and ways of speaking because they don’t all speak the same way, and that, she says, is a good thing.

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