The Accent Question

In a recent talk at the African Studies Program Ohio University, Athens, Ohio much interest was elicited on the question of the African accent. While some audience members acknowledged that indeed, the accent could be a barrier to communication, they echoed a certain counter story from participants in the study of African-born women faculty. It was a riveting, yet honest conversation on how to bridge the gaps without unduly silencing people. Here are some excerpts on the accent question:
Identity: Ifeoma “The accent is really a metaphor for who I am . . . suspended in the air” (p. 109).
Intelligence: Nana “Being an African professor is about challenges of color, gender but the biggest is accent. It hurts when people act as if they don’t understand you” (p. 124).
Competence: Ndeda “Having published in mainline journals will dispel the perception that having an accent is synonymous with being ignorant”(p. 163).
Doubt: Cathy “They’re not even listening” (p. 127).

Do you feel silenced by your non-American accent? If so, how are you handling this challenge?

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10 thoughts on “The Accent Question

  1. Dr. Ifedi,

    Thanks for sharing your blog with me. Linguistic profiling is such an underrepresented topic. I’m glad someone is talking about it.
    Many people feel that they are being stereotyped because of their accents. Language is such a big part of our identity, accent as well. In TESL classes they have pronunciation classes, but I think they should have a class to teach student teachers how to understand people with different accents. Why does everyone have to measure up to the United States standards, even in the way we speak or sound.

    1. Tanya,
      It was good meeting you at the 6th International Conference for Civic Education. Thanks for the great work you’re doing with our school kids.
      As you put it, linguistic profiling can make one both visible and invisible at the same time. Keep encouraging your ELL students not to feel silenced.

  2. I am so glad to read the article by Rosaire Ifedi and the views expressed by my fellow African-born female professionals.

    Keep up the good work.

  3. This is a subject that I am very passionate about and will like this to be taken to a different level if possible either through our different ethnic communities or otherwise.I am one person that will not let anyone shut me up because of my accent and will encouage people to be themselves at all times, pronounce a word to the best of your ability, slowly and clearly if possible and leave the rest for those that are interested in understanding you because most times, half of those myopic minds do not pay attention to you but just nods.
    Keep up the good work Rosaire and may the Good Lord continue directing you where he wants you.

    1. Amen to that prayer.
      As you rightly state, shutting up (silence) is hardly a solution. Being pragmatic to be understood and being oneself are equally essential.
      Since you’re really interested in this conversation, I’ll share an excerpt from my study about voice/accent and identity/visibility:
      “. . . While voice is from the perspective of self, visibility is from the perspective of the other. In other words, the marginalized do not render themselves invisible; others render them invisible” (p. 191). It’s up to us to find ways to counter that invisibility.

  4. I can not stand it when my fellow colleagues complain about professors they have yet to even walk into their classroom let alone hear their voice because they know that he or she is not from America. It is all a mindset. I do agree that once someone feels like they don’t or won’t understand something, they shut down completely and become close minded. The ignorance begins before they even get a chance to hear the “Asian professor” or “African guy” speak. Most of the time, these are the most intelligible faculty members on this campus but because of their accent, they are put off by students and even ridiculed outside and inside of the classrooms. I believe Americans need to re-evaluate the way they regard non-Americans and people with accents because in actuality they are depriving themselves from being enlightened and developed academically and socially…

  5. When I first arrived in the U.S., there were two things that made me stand out as a foreigner- My accent and my name. People either responded with a “Huh?” when I spoke or with “Whatever!” when I tried to correct their pronunciation of my name. So I found myself not speaking at times even when I had something to say. With time, and with maturity, I came to speak whenever I wanted and did not mind repeating myself without any embarrassment. I have learned that those who want to understand what I am saying will do so. It’s all in the mind. Usually the people who do not understand have shut down their minds as soon as they hear the accent or the name. They have immediately reached the conclusion that the owner of the accent and the name is unintelligible. Surprisingly, the reaction to a French, Italian or British accent is different. Those are considered exotic even when the speakers are not understood (But that is a story for a different day). I am concerned most especially for our children who are migrating at a much older age and who have to face the same ridicule in school. I am sure they are silenced, too. It was no surprise when I conducted a recent study of Nigerian and Ghanaian immigrant girls being raised in the U.S. to discover that one of them felt silenced in the school because of her accent, and would not speak even when she knew the answers to a teacher’s question while another dreaded her graduation day when her “weird” last name would be called out to her embarrassment. I must say that these two examples broke my heart and I could relate because I had been there, too.

    1. I appreciate your commenting on this issue. We do need to encourage our children not to keep silent when there is a reason for them to speak up. That’s the challenge.

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