Accent Shaming – When Your Accent Becomes A Tool For Discrimination

I’ve been staring at the white screen thinking about how to start this post. The mere thought that your accent can be used as a tool for your downfall is ridiculous, but alas, it happens.

I’m an Igbo girl from the eastern part of Nigeria. Growing up, we all spoke the Igbo language at home and even in school. This is not unusual in most parts of the country. To many people, and myself included, English language was not our first language.

Not that we didn’t speak English, of course we did. English language is the official language in Nigeria, and as you would expect, it is a compulsory subject in schools. For some of us that attended the not-so-modern schools, the English teachers would also use the native tongue to teach the language.

With this background, it is to be expected that we would all have a distinctive way of speaking any other language, not necessarily English. It is very easy, in Nigeria, to identify a person’s ethnic group by his accent.

So, why all the fuss, you ask? It is obvious that there is a “slight” discrimination against people with non British/American accents. I use the word “slight” because a lot of people tend to think such discrimination does not exist. But it does.

It is all fun and games when you hear someone speak and you burst into laughter because of his/her accent. We subconsciously think that anybody who speaks fluent English, albeit with an accent, is not really “literate“. I can’t count how many times I’ve been called “Igbo girl” just because of the way I sound, or pronounce some words.

Initially, whenever I hear such phrases, or when you stop me mid-sentence to correct my pronunciation, I’d just laugh over it. Now, I find it quite irritating. And the most nauseating fact is that, it is your fellow countrymen that make such snide remarks.

Case in point: I attended a finance conference last year in London, and we had so many attendees from all over the world. Every speaker that stood up to address the delegates had some form of accent. We had representatives from the UK, Italy, Greece, Nigeria, Rwanda to mention a few.

During the networking breaks, we all made connections and spoke at length with each other. No one made a crack about how anyone sounded. The most important thing was that we were able to communicate with each other regardless of where we were from.

Contrast that with my day-to-day activities at the office. A few months ago, I was having a discussion with one of my colleagues. Can’t quite remember what we were talking about. We were having a debate over one of the government policies that had just been passed. As I was trying to explain my point, I referred to the Late Obafemi Awolowo.

Now, the name Obafemi Awolowo is a Yoruba name, and as an Igbo girl, I pronounced it as spelt. Imagine my surprise when one of my colleagues stopped me mid-sentence and said “say that again“. I was like, “say what again?” And he said, “the name, pronounce it again“.

At that point I was already getting irritated. Like, how do you stop me mid-sentence only for you to ask me to pronounce a name again? Well, I did. I pronounced the name again, and he burst into laughter. After laughing (for close to 2 minutes with tears running down his face), he said “Igbo girl“!

When I asked him what was funny, he then mentioned that I pronounced the word with my Igbo accent. Mind you, my pronunciation was not incorrect. What he found funny was the accent.

This may not be a big deal to many people. But it begs the question, who said having an accent was wrong?

Accent Shaming - When Your Accent Becomes A Tool For Discrimination

This accent issue is very real in Nigeria. We have been brainwashed to think that, if you must speak English, it has to be with either a British accent or an American accent. Any other accent is wrong. If you put on the radio or the television (but the OAPs are the worst culprits), everybody is speaking with a foreign accent. Even people that are yet to leave the shores of the country.

In my interview with OAP Tosyn Bucknor, I mentioned that she was a refreshing change from the white-washed OAPs currently manning the radios in the country. Listening to them is so cringe-worthy. It got so bad that I stopped tuning in to some of the radio stations.

Apart from that, let’s talk employment. Do you know that some employers give preference to people who have either British/American accent? I’ve had to review employment contracts for some schools in Lagos where it was stated (in black ink) that so and so teacher must not have a Nigerian accent. They even go as far to state that having a British/American accent is an added advantage.

The question is why? Why should my accent be subject to ridicule? Why should you deny me employment or other benefits because of the way I sound? There are over 500 languages in the world, and depending on where you’re from, you will definitely have an accent to someone.

A friend said that they have speech schools where you are taught to speak with the preferred accent i.e. British/American accent. How silly is that? Isn’t this some form of identity crisis? Even the Americans and the English have different accents, so which one are you teaching your students?

I was reading an article by biltong101 on accent shaming and she said;

You have an accent” is the most ridiculous statement I’ve ever heard. Everyone has a fucking accent! Just say it straight, you arrogant buffoon, that my accent does not agree with what you consider to be “proper”. “You have an accent” is meant to be negative and read as “I can hear by the way you speak you’re not from here”. Guess what? I’m not!

The funny thing is that most times, we tend to imitate the “ideal accent” so that we don’t sound different. I’ve often times had to speak with some sort of foreign accent. Not for any reason, but just so I don’t have to hear or start explaining why I speak different for a Nigerian.

Sometimes, that doesn’t even work as I’ve had a lady from Scotland ask me where I was from just because of the way I spoke. When I said Nigeria, she said “you speak well for someone from Nigeria. Did you school in the UK?” *sigh* We just can’t win with you lot!

In conclusion, I think that the most important thing is communication. If you can understand what I’m saying to you, then you need not worry about my accent. It also speaks more of you if you, as a Nigerian, have a problem with your fellow Nigerian’s accent. Like, you must be taking a piss.

Also, shame on you if you do not encourage your children to speak your native language because you feel that they will end up having a “Nigerian” accent. This is the reason a lot of people I know do not teach their children their native language. I will dedicate a full post to this issue.

Love,

Endi

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