As Nancy Navarro, a county council member in Montgomery County, Md., discussed racial equity in vaccine distribution during a meeting, some in the audience were less focused on what she was saying than how she said it.
“I love how her accent comes out and (how she) pronounces words like she thinks they’re pronounced,” a voice can be heard saying. It’s so “cute,” the woman later adds. A man calls the accent “interesting.”
The voices were from two people handling the technical aspects of the virtual meeting. Navarro’s staff, along with reporters and the general public, could hear the voices speaking under her.
“We were talking about a global pandemic here, and somehow the focus was on how ‘cute’ I pronounce certain words and how funny it was,” said Navarro, the first Latina council member. “That disconnect was pretty startling to me.”
Navarro’s experience, reported by The Washington Post’s Rebecca Tan, was a high-profile example of what many people with nonnative accents encounter everyday. With studies showing that those with certain accents might be viewed as less trustworthy and less employable, some nonnative speakers are seeking accent modification instruction. Others question why they should be expected to change to accommodate those with biases against nonnative English speakers.
“I just feel like for me I should not have to modify something like my name or the way I pronounce certain words unless, for some reason, people just don’t understand at all what I’m saying,” Navarro said.
The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association does not consider accents a type of communication disorder. But of the more than 100,000 Asha-certified speech-language pathologists, about 1,200 list “accent modification” as an area of expertise. That number does not account for everyone who offers such services. English as a second language teachers, as well as accent “coaches” also offer similar instruction.
Those seeking the services have reason to believe they may encounter bias. Studies have shown that people with heavy accents tend to be perceived more negatively.
Rahul Chakraborty, an associate professor in communication disorders at California State University, Fullerton, said what a listener thinks about an accent is often wrapped in existing perceptions about a particular group.
While some may feel as though they are losing a piece of themselves by working to lose their native accent, they have to prioritize professional success. In broadcast media, for example, news anchors and reporters tend to speak in a “General American” accent devoid of regional flair.
“Survival is probably a better, more powerful instinct. That’s the reason some people say that, OK, ‘I’ll change my linguistic identity,'” Chakraborty said.
Some tech entrepreneurs like José Cayasso see accent modification as an integral part of their work. Cayasso, who is based in his native Costa Rica but frequently travels to the United States on business, is chief executive of Slidebean, a company that teaches other tech entrepreneurs how to pitch to venture capitalists.
The company hosts many of its tutorials on YouTube. Cayasso said he has to be cognizant of his pronunciation, or he is met with negative comments from viewers.
“I’ve realized I have screwed up the pronunciation sometimes … they hear me mispronounce a word so maybe they think I didn’t know what the word was or that I have a first-grade reading level,” Cayasso said. “And I understand why they would complain about that.”
In 2015, Cayasso attended a program which hosts events where entrepreneurs can pitch ideas to potential investors. On the last day of the program, Cayasso attended a session to help international investors with their pronunciation skills.
“In my head I’m not trying to change my accent,” Cayasso said. “I’m just trying to pronounce the word the way it’s supposed to be pronounced, at least in the American English way.”
The session was hosted by Angelika Blendstrup, who helps Silicon Valley entrepreneurs with pitches. Blendstrup has offered pronunciation coaching as part of her business in the past and speaks five languages.
“I can’t tell you how often I walked out of an event here in Silicon Valley and someone returned to me and say, ‘Did you understand them?’ instead of saying, ‘Would you mind saying this again I didn’t understand you,” Blendstrup said.
Sometimes pronunciation slip-ups result in embarrassing consequences. Blendstrup recalls the time when an entrepreneur speaking in front of a 100-person audience pronounced “bitcoin” like the name for a female dog and “coin.”
From a venture capitalist’s point of view, some say accents can negatively impact a speaker’s ability to raise funding. In 2013, venture capitalist Paul Graham told Inc. magazine he reacts negatively to entrepreneurs with accents. Graham said in the interview “anyone with half a brain would realize you’re going to be more successful if you speak idiomatic English, so they must just be clueless if they haven’t gotten rid of their strong accent.”
Graham faced a backlash from critics who said his comments were exclusionary. Many pointed to highly successful entrepreneurs with accents, including the late Andy Grove, a CEO at Intel who had a Hungarian accent, and Arianna Huffington, who has a Greek accent.
Blendstrup said amid today’s ongoing national conversation about racial equity, it is rare for anyone to ask or disparage a person’s accent.
“I think people are more and more afraid, especially in this country, of making mistakes, of not being politically sensitive, of making sure they’re not hurtful,” Blendstrup said.
Those who study languages say that one’s accent can be an aspect of their identity that they want to hold onto. Amber Franklin, an associate professor of speech pathology and audiology at Miami University of Ohio, works with clients who ask for help improving their comprehensibility to native speakers.
“Sometimes there is some introspection that happens in the process where they’re not owning this different way of speaking, and they’re sometimes uncomfortable with it,” Franklin said. “I’ve had other clients who are fine, and they just see this as something that they’re doing so that they can be better understood in a certain setting.”
For Veranda Camire, who took a diction class in the 1970s to lose her thick Kentucky accent, the course was “one of the best things I ever did.”
“I’ve basically got two voices, and I can use the other one. And whatever the situation can be, it’s just another tool,” Camire said.
Camire said that to succeed in her job as a sportswriter, she did not need another aspect of her identity to set her apart. The field was and continues to be a male dominated, and adding an accent on top of that would just compound her sense of being an outsider.
“I wanted to be taken seriously, and it was hard enough to be taken seriously to be a short, slight female in an all-male industry filled with athletes,” Camire said. “When you have a certain sound, especially back in those days when people weren’t very sensitive, it was very easy to be called a hillbilly.”
Studies have shown that if exposed to an accent for long enough, the listener is better able to understand the speaker.
“When two people are talking, there’s a burden on the speaker to try to be as clear as possible. But there’s also the burden on the listener to pay attention and to put a little effort into understanding the other person,” Franklin said.
“Some of the reasons why people seek these services is because they’re exposed to discrimination,” Franklin said. “And so perhaps if there wasn’t as much discrimination, then the desire for some of these services would lessen.”