Snéha Khilay: Speaking with a foreign accent – should accent bias be recognised as prejudice?

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All the flags of the world: Is the an unconscious bias factor when it comes to interviewing candidates with a foreign accent
All the flags of the world: Is the unconscious bias factor when it comes to interviewing candidates with a foreign accent an issue?

During a recent training session on Unconscious Bias, where we discussed different types of biases, one of the participants brought up his personal experiences of receiving negative and dismissive responses from customers and colleagues, because of, he believes, his foreign accent. The participant was from Nigeria and has lived in the UK for over twenty years.

Let us examine the concept of a foreign accent. A speaker of a different language learns to speak English. Accent is related to how the speaker articulates the new language, in this instance English, using the first language as a basis for the pronunciation. Research has shown that once we go past our development stage of learning a new language, usually after adolescence, our distinctive intonation, tone and manner of speaking is hard wired into our brain and difficult to change. In effect, it is almost impossible to speak another language that is acquired later in life without an accent.

Ethnicity

With the established legislation and the organisational polices on equality, diversity and inclusion, there is now more of a conscientious effort to avoid direct discrimination based on a person’s race, skin colour, ethnicity or religion. However, accent bias is not always recognised as a form of prejudice.

In one piece of research, participants were given two audio recordings. They were then given two photos to represent the person speaking on the audiotapes. One photo featured a white male and in the other an Asian male. The voice on both audio recordings were in fact the same voice, that of a native English speaker. What was interesting was that participants rated audio recording linked to the Asian photo as having a stronger foreign accent than the other voice. Furthermore, they gave a low score of their understanding of the information provided by the Asian image/audio.

Responsibilities 

This research highlights the fact that we are conditioned to expect an accent from a person who is not white, to the point of finding an accent when none is present.

According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, if a person has an accent but is able to communicate effectively and be understood in English, the person cannot be discriminated against. Generally, an employer may only base an employment decision on accent if effective oral communication in English is required to perform job duties and the individual’s foreign accent materially interferes with his or her responsibilities and impacts on the business.

Snéha is a Professional Development Consultant and Trainer, working in Personal and Professional Development in International Markets. She is the founder or Blue Tulip Training, and specialises in Cultural Diversity, Personal Effectiveness, Unconscious Bias, Leadership and Management Development.

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