Selling Out Or Fitting In?


| 2 Comments
I'm an international student. I'm just off the boat. I've never lived in America. I'm here specifically to attend Penn State.

One year ago, when I was a nervous freshman here with an easily understood Indian accent, people believed my international status (after the usual, 'Oh! But you speak so well!' and 'Your english is impeccable!' and my personal favorite, 'Is it hard for you here, having to speak english all the time?'). Setting aside the innocent but racist nature of these questions, I found the American perception of the average Indian to be extremely negatively skewed.

Slumdog_millionaire_ver2.jpg
Side note: No, my life isn't just like Slumdog Millionaire, but it's pretty close!
Second side note: But seriously, it isn't. Stop asking.

Much more disturbing than the questions (which while annoying, were not borne of malice) was how I was undermined in classroom and social situations. In group discussions I would offer an opinion or an answer (usually correct, thank you very much) and I was politely heard out and then completely ignored in the actual answer. Similarly in social situations, if someone ever forgot a word or said something incorrectly and I corrected them, I was just automatically assumed to be wrong.  

A few months later, I adopted the American accent. Now people find it hard to believe that I'm not from here and have never lived here. With my 'new' accent I am no longer the 'weak link' of the group or the 'less literate' friend. (Obviously this is more than a little dramatized.) 

I still find it hard to come to terms with such a shallow basis for judgement and so I decided to look into it and I found this study conducted by the University of Chicago. The study was a single blind test which measured native American-English speakers' perceptions of credibility in people with mild accents, heavy accents and native American-English accents. The subjects were made to listen to a variety of facts (half of which were untrue) and decide whether they were true or not - only the facts were delivered by the three accent groups. To assure an unbiased response, the subjects were unaware of the true nature of the experiment and were misled by a series of superfluous activities. The results were as you'd imagine: on a truthfulness scale they rated the native speakers highest, followed by the mildly accented people followed by the heavily accented people.

The study was then repeated again, this time with the participants knowing what the study was about. The results were much more even with mild accented people and native speakers being rated similarly and heavily accents people being rated as slightly less truthful. 

While the results of this study are a little disappointing, they are not entirely shocking. Accents are the primary way of processing foreigners in a society. And while native American-English speakers' instinctive distrust of accented foreigners may seem offensive, it is more likely that it is due to the fluency theory. This basically entails that people are more likely to trust something if they can comprehend it easily. 

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And while that may be true, I wonder if there is also a possibility of reverse bias? This article states that the British associate American accents with 'success in business'. While most Americans are said to view the British accent(s) as more sophisticated - despite some being anything but. Is it just our judgement of foreign cultures based on the stereotypes we see in the media? What if the University of Chicago study had been repeated with people who had lived in a foreign country for a period of time or travelled extensively, would the results have been any different? 

So by modifying my accent to suit my lifestyle, am I selling out? Or is it just that I have greater empathy for Americans (as this study claims)? More importantly, do the results of the UofC study bode well for non-native speakers who are on the lookout for jobs? Does this article make you think differently about a friend/acquaintance of yours with an accent?




2 Comments

Interesting post you have and I agree on some points. As an american myself, I think part of the blame for are skewed perspective on different places around the world can be accredited to some of our media. Movies and pop culture usually paints a less then accurate picture of different places, cultures, and societies (like you used Slumdog Millionaire as an example). Were so used to watching them that we get this idea that we know more about other places from them. We can also get this wrong way of looking at the world via news outlets as well. Sometimes the news is very Pro-American and can sometimes show other places as less then ideal or take out of context information and kind of "warp" it in a way to fit a more Americanized story. I just feel like the best way to understand a different place, culture, or people is to have face to face contact with such things. We have to stop being so naive about these things I think. Plus this is just a small part of a big problem with discrimination and race relations that we have been struggling with for hundreds of years now sadly.

This post was very interesting. As an American born with majority immigrant family members from India I have seen how many people can be misled by accents. Multiple times , the same goes for me. Whenever I visit India, my family and friends there do not take me seriously even when I speak in Hindi because of my accent that comes along with it. Heck, I've even been told at Penn State that I speak "pretty good" English...well I would hope so since I was born and raised here. I think part of the reason many people have trouble accepting people with accents has to do with plain ignorance and media. Many people believe that Australian and British accents are so cool and make them sound so sophisticated as you said. Yet other accents such as African and Hispanic accents are associated with people who are less educated.

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