Tuesday, May 05, 2009

English without an accent

Imagine yourself in a conversation. You open your mouth and they say. “Oh, you have a ‘beautiful’ accent.” What they’re saying is: “You don’t know how to speak English.”

If you speak English with an American or British accent, then you have mastered the language without an accent. But if you happen to interchange your vowels and consonants such as f and v or e and i, as they are frequently interchanged in the Filipino vernacular and the various Philippine dialects, then you are speaking English with an accent.

When you hear a Filipino shamelessly bragging about someone, a fellow countryman, who speaks English without an accent, that’s like rubbing salt to the wound. Especially if he’s reminding you that speaking perfect English like a native-born American or Canadian will help you land a job or go up in the career ladder.

For immigrants to Canada and the U.S., accents still do matter. Sounding foreign can hinder careers and has led to accent-discrimination lawsuits. People with accents have often been ridiculed or not taken seriously outside of their social circle.

That’s why the Ontario Human Rights Code states that it is a public policy in Ontario to recognize the inherent dignity and worth of every person and to provide for equal rights and opportunities without discrimination. The primary purpose of these provisions of the Human Rights Code is to create a climate of understanding and mutual respect for the dignity and worth of each person so that he or she feels a part of the community and feels able to contribute to the community.

While the Ontario Human Rights Code, like most other provincial human rights legislation in Canada, does not explicitly identify “language” as a prohibited ground of discrimination, complaints of discriminatory action or behaviour are allowed under a number of related grounds such as ancestry, ethnic origin, place of origin and, in some circumstances, race. In other words, language is considered as an element of a complaint based on any of these grounds.

At present, Quebec and the Yukon Territory are the only Canadian jurisdictions which specifically state that language is a prohibited ground of discrimination in the area of employment.

Similarly, many courts and governmental agencies in the United States also consider language discrimination to be a form of discrimination on the basis of race or national origin, which is prohibited by well-established laws such as the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and state laws like the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.

The first language we learn growing up is usually the language spoken by our parents or those who take care of us as children. Inevitably, there is a direct link between the language we speak or the accent with which we speak a particular language on the one hand, and our ancestry, ethnic origin or place of origin on the other.

Our accent is also often associated with our mother tongue or place of origin. Thus, a Filipino will always have an accent that is related to the way we speak English back home. Traces of Tagalog, Ilocano or Visayan dialects will always be with us when we speak English. For those of us who speak it as a first language, which is only common to the Filipino upper-middle class, their English has a rhotic accent, heavily influenced by American pronunciation, meaning that the phoneme /r/ is pronounced before consonants and at the end of syllables, and the “r-coloured vowel” is used as a syllable nucleus. Like the “Arneow” accent of the more articulate graduates from the Ateneo de Manila University or graduates of the University of the Philippines who speak English with an American affectation.

Thus, the Human Rights Code can be infringed when someone is denied employment, service or housing because of his or her accent because in these situations, the underlying discrimination is often actually based on ancestry, place of origin or ethnic origin.

There are also situations where a single incident that is not substantial enough to constitute a breach of the Human Rights Code may nevertheless create a “poisoned environment” for some individuals. A “poisoned environment” can arise when a person or a group of people are treated differently for reasons related to the language they speak.

Consider, for example, the remarks of a law professor who tells his class that those who speak English with a foreign accent do not make good lawyers, and should not be admitted to law schools in Ontario to occupy spaces that should be held by Canadians. This kind of remark may sufficiently poison the environment for those students in the class whose first language is not English and who speak English with an accent.

Or a career development seminar where the instructor or mentor tells his class that speaking English with an accent will not enhance their careers in institutions or workplaces where English is the only spoken language allowed. This comment targets new Canadians, many of whom immigrate from other regions of the world where English is not the official or native language.

There are, of course, legitimate exceptions. Proficiency in English may be a reasonable and legitimate requirement for employment, as long as it is established as a bona fide occupational requirement. The requirement for English proficiency must bear an objective relationship to the essential requirements of the job and that it is imposed in good faith.

In the United States, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), an employer may require the employee to speak English when there is a business necessity, but any requirement that employees speak English all the time is discriminatory. If an employer believes the English-only rule is critical for business purposes, employees have to be told when they must speak English and the consequences for violating the rule. Any negative employment decision based on breaking the English-only rule is considered evidence of discrimination if the employer did not tell employees in advance about the rule. Employers must also show a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for the denial of employment opportunity because of the applicant's or employee's accent or manner of speaking. Employers should consider whether an applicant's accent or manner of speaking would have a detrimental effect on job performance.

In her book, English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States, Ros Lippi-Green scrutinized American attitudes toward the English language, and exposed the way in which language is used to maintain and perpetuate social structures and unequal power relations. The author said that American employers discriminate on the basis of language use, and the judicial system also uses language to protect the status quo.

All this talk about multiculturalism is of no use if we cannot actively embrace others and the differences among us. Whether an employee or a job applicant’s ancestry is Mexican, Ukrainian, Filipino, Arab, Chinese or Indian, or any other nationality, everyone is entitled to the same employment opportunities as anyone else.

After all, even the English language in itself has a wide range of accents that developed and persisted for a long period of time. In England, there is the prestige or posh English accent known as Received Pronunciation that has its roots in the educated language of southeastern England. East of London, there is the Cockney accent. Liverpool also has a unique accent of its own called the Scouse accent. Other parts of the country have distinctively different accents. By and large, the Queen’s English has survived and no one is complaining why there are so many weird accents.

North American English is quite the same, which is the collective term for the dialects of the United States and Canada. There are also certain traditional accents found in eastern New England, New York City, the Southern United States and among African-Americans. Three major dialect areas can be found in Canada: Western/Central Canada, the Maritimes, and Newfoundland.

In Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School Children, et al v. Ann Arbor School District, the U.S. federal court found that it was appropriate for the school board to take steps in helping teachers to recognize the home language of African-American students and to use that knowledge in teaching them reading skills in standard English. The main issue in this case was alleged discrimination against children whose home language was “black English,” or what is now more popularly referred to as “ebonics.”

Language discrimination is committed when a person is treated differently for the way he or she speaks. People who are discriminated against for the manner they speak may find it difficult to get a job. Some people have even lost their jobs for the way they speak. When we condone language discrimination, such as perpetuating the notion that Filipinos must speak English without an accent in order to survive and be successful in the workplace, it becomes a primary cause for social inequality. Worst of all, it also amounts to an unforgiveable denial of our own ancestral roots.

This last weekend, I read a letter to the Toronto Star where the reader expressed his opinion about an article that he found highly offensive of the former federal Liberal Party leader, Stephane Dion. The article has suggested that Dion, who is from Quebec, would be remembered for his “fractured English.”

The reader was appalled that English Canada, in this day and age, would not accept that a non-anglophone could speak English without an accent or without "fractures."

“That attitude is highly condescending and insulting, not only toward francophones, but also all other Canadians whose mother tongue is not English,” he wrote.

1 comment:

Art Pozdnyakov said...

Good post. Thanks! Little has changed since 2009 though. Language discrimination is still the reality of Canada.
Ontario Human Right Commission on Employment states that
“If you believe you have been discriminated against because of your “language” or “accent”, you can make a human rights claim based on a number of grounds, such as ancestry, ethnic origin, place of origin and race.
An employer can require that you speak English fluently if it is a genuine job requirement. An employer cannot use language or accent as a way to screen out racialized people or people of particular ethnic origins where language fluency is not really essential to the job.“ Well, then this means that “Where language fluency is really essential to the job, an employer can use language or accent as a way to screen out racialized people or people of particular ethnic origins.” Pretty cool...