Talking Accents in The Coast

This one’s from the hometown files. Halifax’s alt-weekly, The Coast, published an article last week entitled Dalhousie’s Accent Clinic Sending Mixed Messages. The sub-heading of the article sums up the piece well: “Improving” a person’s speech by making them sound more like a local assumes a lot about class, power and nationality”. It contains commentary from international students from Kuwait and Nigeria studying in Halifax, along with a Dalhousie University social anthropology prof and a Saint Mary’s University linguistic anthropology prof, along with the director of the Accent Clinic, about several massive and intertwining issues around language and power, race, imperialism, and opportunity.

Overall, I thought it was a good article, and I agree with everything everyone in the article had to say. However, this is such a massive issue, and I think the article showed some gaps that could have been filled in by talking to a few more select people. One major point of view missing from the article is that of choice, opportunity and access to social capital (which I’ll talk about below).

(Full disclosure: in my professional role in the English language programs at Dalhousie we collaborate with the Accent Clinic, giving their info to students who may show speaking and pronunciation issues in English that stem from more serious cognitive, fluency, articulatory or speech problems that are best addressed by a speech-language pathologist. Similarly, if they get someone coming to their clinic wanting to improve their pronunciation, but that person would benefit from simply more instruction and comprehensible input and output in English language in general, they will let them know about the English language and academic English courses and workshops we offer.)

Anyway, so first, yes, all the people interviewed in the article identify the fact that in Canadian society (and other Anglophone societies) there is all kinds of discrimination that happens via language: discrimination against users of different regional and social varieties of English, or users of non-standard English or those whose English proficiency is developing. There is blatant racism against racialized first-language/proficient users of English from countries such as Nigeria that white first-language/proficiency users of English from countries such as England do not face.  Judgements around someone’s English ability and variety plays a well-documented role in employment and educational opportunities. In academia, “linguistic bigotry is among the last publicly expressible prejudices left to members of the Western intelligentsia”, according to linguist Deborah Cameron,; this bigotry doesn’t even seem to be hidden in many cases, and is often veiled in discussions about language standards or aesthetics.

There is a sorry lack of public visibility (audibility?) of different regional and social varieties of English in the media, and this is one contributing factor in a widespread lack of ability of some people in man parts of the country to deal with any other English than their local variety. As one of the folks quoted in the article says, “Haligonians should be more patient with people who may not speak English as a first language. Instead of an accent modification clinic, she says, we need an “accent listening clinic.” I wholeheartedly agree.

There are lots of measures that need to be taken taken to counter discriminatory linguistic attitudes in society, and to increase the general population’s intercultural and multilingual/plurilingual competence; on other words, their ability to deal with different accents and Englishes. The media is one place to start, and articles like this one do a a great job of opening the conversation. Another example from the Coast is their featuring journalist Raja Salim, who seems to be a proficient user of English as an additional language, whose perspective and voice adds a lot to the paper. I think the CBC could do a WAY better job in this area. Linguistic discrimination needs to be addressed in school, in the workplace, and in society in general. And monolingual English speakers in all parts of the world should just learn more languages, in my opinion; that would do wonders for improving attitudes.

Thankfully, there are lots of educators, linguists, academics and activists across Canada and around the world working on these issues (too many to link to here!), doing the hard work to change attitudes and behaviours. This is good work, but it’s hard work and it’s slow work. It’s good to want to change the world, but what about the meantime?

In the meantime, while attitudes and behaviours are being influenced and changed for the better, as long as certain linguistic varieties or elements carry more social prestige and allow access to more social and economic power, people have to be given the choice to access this social capital if they so desire. So if in the current context of 2017 Halifax a certain accent will help you get a better job, or more dates, or get better marks on their in-class presentations, for example, someone should have the opportunity to choose to access this economic and social capital via the Accent Clinic if they want to. Not be forced to, but to be able to choose it if they would like. An English speaker doesn’t just speak one English, they have a repertoire of different styles, dialects and varieties and they can pull out, put on, and play up in different context depending on their goals. I use one variety of English in an academic lecture and a completely different one down at the pub. A user of English as an additional language is no exception; if they want to acquire the particular variety of English they will at the Accent Clinic and employ it in different contexts, why shouldn’t they?

And this was an aspect of the issue missed by the Coast article. Why not talk to an actual student who had chosen to use the Clinic’s services and talk about why they did so? Why not talk to someone at ISANS to comment on the link between accent/pronunciation and the job market in Nova Scotia? ISANS and others are doing great work locally to try to change attitudes, but once again, we’re not there yet, so people have to be given choice and agency in the matter.

There were other aspects of the issue that were missed by the Coast article. One was the distinction between language proficiency, fluency, pronunciation and accent, all of which came up in the article and all of which come into play in terms of social attitudes and potential discrimination, but not all of which are dealt with by the Accent Clinic. The other was the assumption by both the author and several of the people interviewed, that the Accent Clinic uses an approach based on Canadian native-speaker models of English. I don’t know what approach the Clinic uses, but there are many approaches to pronunciation that aren’t based on emulating native speakers, such as English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), or approaches that centre around concepts of mutual intelligibility and functional load. 


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