This time I have decided to share an article I wrote for the TSHA ” Communicologist” magazine. The topic is a bit different from what you guys are used to reading from GeekSLP, but I thought it was important to let you guys know a bit more of what I do and who I am.
The discussion over accent and dialect can bring very interesting reactions. Sometimes those whose accent/dialect differs from the majority experience a feeling of inferiority. Some natives who consider themselves “accentless” may believe they are superior to those with an accent. It is important to keep in mind that everyone’s dialect is impacted not only by their first language but also by their geographical region, age, gender, educational level, etc. Therefore the concept of being “accentless” would not be appropriate to describe those who speak a form of mainstream English for that specific area, in our case Texas.
Despite the fact that the American Speech, Language and Hearing Association (1998) has developed a technical report called “Students and Professionals Who Speak English with Accents and Nonstandard Dialects: Issues and Recommendations” and made it available to all professionals, we still encounter a lot of discrimination towards professionals who speak a variety of English “with an accent.” The document makes reference to some of the dialects of English spoken in the USA such as, individuals who speak Appalachian English, one of the New York dialects, African American English, British English, Southern English, and English influenced by some other non-English languages such as Spanish.
I was born in Brazil and did not learn English until I was 21 years old after moving to this country. During my training as a speech and language pathologist (SLP) I encountered discrimination and prejudice towards what first was only a limited English proficiency to what later became merely an accent as my proficiency of English increased. I have experienced everything from questions such as “how can you become an SLP with such an accent?” or being told by a professor in one of my communication and disorders classes that I in fact had a speech disorder in front of the entire class, to being discouraged to pursue a career as an SLP. Dealing positively with such comments was a challenge!
Going through a series of accent reduction CDs did not help me feel empowered as a speaker as I expected. Overcoming the effects of discrimination did not come until I was able to understand and value diversity while being supported by professors in my graduate program.
Now let’s talk about another example of students facing discrimination in our profession collected from another colleague; this time involving a native English speaker.
“There was a student (Caucasian) who came from a small town in Texas. She had a strong Texas accent, and was an excellent student academically. A professor (who came from the northeast) commented, “You will have a hard time finding a job with that accent.” Another professor responded, “If she wants to work in rural Texas [which she did], her accent is a plus.”
Stories such as the one mentioned above repeat themselves daily, not only in programs that train future professionals, but in professional work environments as well. Just when I thought the times when professionals are judged based on which dialect of English they spoke were past us, I heard something I just could not believe and it came from an SLP. Here is the little anecdote:
A few professionals (diagnosticians, SLPs, teachers, etc) were discussing the details of an upcoming project in my school. As part of the project we had to make an audio recording of a book to be played to the bilingual students. We all agreed that we needed someone who is very lively and enthusiastic to make the recording. When the name of one of our liveliest diagnosticians was brought up to the table; the SLP in charge replied: oh no! She cannot do this; she has an accent! While trying to recover from the shock, I realized that some professionals needed to be educated with regards to this issue. Now my colleague frequently speaks of starting some sort of “accent reduction” program. Apparently she believes now that her accent must be eliminated because an SLP made her feel inferior.
SLPs are one of the very few professionals who understand the origin of dialect and accent. It is our responsibility not only to practice and treat other professionals in a way that keeps this knowledge in mind, but also to educate other professionals about the importance of a nondiscriminatory behavior regarding linguistic diversity. A dialect is more than just a form of English: it is part of who we are as cultural individuals and part of our identity.
The American Speech and Hearing Association states that “acceptance of linguistic and cultural diversity behavior is expected of speech-language pathologists and audiologists in their interactions with colleagues and student clinicians.”
Test Your Knowledge of Accents and Dialects:
1. How many dialects are spoken in the USA?
2. What is ASHA’s standard for English language proficiency?
3. What measures are used to demonstrate English proficiency?
4. Is a Texas “Twang” a legitimate form of English?
5. Which accents are acceptable?
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (1998). Students and Professionals Who Speak English with Accents and Nonstandard Dialects: Issues and Recommendations [Technical Report]. Available from www.asha.org/policy.