S1 E5: Accent Positivity – Dr. Ella Jeffries

Episode 5 – 26 November 2020

In this episode, we are joined by Dr. Ella Jeffries, a lecturer in linguistics at the University of Essex, and her research interests lie in the field of sociolinguistics, with a particular focus on regional accent variation. Her PhD research looked into children’s developing perceptual awareness of phonological regional accent differences. She is currently Principle Investigator on the BA/Leverhulme Small Grant funded project ‘Accent the positive’ which investigates the development of implicit attitudes towards regional accents among primary school-age children.

Ella is also collaborating on a project which investigates language variation in change in Worcestershire and Herefordshire. Her work incorporates approaches from different fields of linguistic research including language variation and change, sociophonetics, language acquisition and psycholinguistics. She is part of a team of researchers working on collaborative projects within the Centre for Research in Language Development throughout the Lifespan (LaDeLi) at the University Of Essex, which also hosts the Bilingualism Matters East of England branch.

We invited Ella to talk about our recently launched campaign called Accent Positivity. Our volunteer Maria was inspired by the Hashtag #BodyPositivity, challenging society’s ideas and views of physical appearances. That is why we want to empower speakers of all languages – be it in their native language or a foreign language, to be proud of their accents. Our campaign aims to challenge people’s perception of accents and hopefully start a conversation of acceptance and respect – because all accents are beautiful.
Follow Bilingualism Matters (and the Hashtag #AccentPositivity) on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to never miss an update!

Listen here!

Episode Transcript

[Eva-Maria] Hello and welcome to another episode of our podcast Much Language Such Talk. Today you are hearing from me, Eva-Maria, and another Bilingualism Matters volunteer, Dr. Maria Dokovova. Welcome Maria.
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[Maria] Hello everyone. I’m Maria. I have recently finished my PhD in Phonetics at Queen Margaret University. And now I’m doing a master’s in Speech and Language Therapy there. I’m also a volunteer with Bilingualism Matters, and we have recently launched a campaign called Accent Positivity. I had the idea of Accent Positivity thanks to the Body Positivity movement this summer. I was inspired by their central message, which is that of respect. I think for way too long society has tolerated belittling people based on surface characteristics and for no good reason. That may be that may be people’s bodies, but also their accents when they speak. One of our volunteers Kat Brown, who is also an amazing artist, has created a mascot for this campaign. It’s a chameleon that you can find on our website and social media channels. Chameleons are highly adaptable, just like accents often are.

[Eva-Maria] We’re also planning on publishing blog posts and interviews and videos within the campaign, so make sure to follow Bilingualism Matters on social media. That is @bilingmatters on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And you can also post yourself using the hashtag #accentpositivity. To talk about accents, we have invited Dr. Ella Jeffries from the University of Essex. Ella is a lecturer in linguistics with her expertise in the field of sociolinguistics. Coincidentally, Ella has recently started a new project called Accent the Positive, that we were unaware of when we named our campaign, so that’s just a nice coincidence. The project investigates children’s developing awareness of regional accents, and we are thrilled to welcome her to the podcast. So welcome, Ella.

[Ella]  Thank you. Thank you very much for having me today.

[Eva-Maria] Well, thanks for joining us, we’re excited to talk with you about accents and everything that comes along with that. So, just as a as a general introduction, how did you develop your interest in languages and in sociolinguistics in particular?

[Ella]  Yeah, well, I think there are kind of a couple of different sides to the story. And so just a little bit of background about me. I grew up in the north in Yorkshire, in the UK, and, but with southern parents, parents who were from the south, from sort of near London-ish. So I was always kind of aware that my parents spoke quite differently to people in my community. And as a result, I ended up kind of playing around with my accent quite a lot when I was younger. So I think that maybe not sort of… I wasn’t necessarily aware of my interest at that point. But looking back, I can see that I was very much sort of intrigued by the fact that I would say sort of /da:ns/ and /pa:θ/ and /ba:θ/, whereas my parents would say /dæ:ns/ and /pæ:θ/  and /græ:s/ because they were their southern pronunciations. So I kind of I had had a bit of awareness of this. And when it came to actually studying linguistics, though, that was more a little bit more by accident, really. And I was interested in languages, but I also kind of had a bit of a sciency brain so I enjoyed sort of studies, investigating things, and experiments. So, I think linguistics for me, studying linguistics for me, was that was that perfect combination of the arts and the sciences, kind of that hybrid. So looking at something like language in this sort of scientific kind of way. And yeah, and so I did my undergraduate in linguistics, in which I sort of during my dissertation became focused on sociolinguistics. So it came back to that to the accent variation that I’ve kind of been intrigued by as a kid and looked at some features of Yorkshire accent. And, and then that kind of took me forward during my MA and during my PhD, where I focused even more on regional accents, and in particular on children’s developing awareness of them, which I’ll talk about a bit later.

[Maria] So you’re kind of hinting at what your PhD was about, can you tell us in a bit more detail what that was?

[Ella]  Oh, yes, indeed. (laughter) I will talk about it now. Okay. So yeah, so, my PhD looked at children’s developing awareness of regional accents. So I carried out my PhD again, up in the north of the UK, this time in York, which is fairly close to where I grew up in Leeds, but in Yorkshire, and, and so very much focused on the local children there and their particular awareness of regional accent distinctions. But I was really intrigued by what happened at quite a young age, because there’s quite a lot of studies with infants, sort of looking at those very early stages and sorts of hearing sounds and what kids do with that. And then there’s been quite a few studies on slightly later, so primary school and above age children. But there wasn’t really anything in between or not much that I was aware of. So I’m really interested in what happens at that kind of age of three and four, when we know kids are becoming more socialised, they might have started nursery and things like that, but they still got that… primarily the input from their parents or caregivers. So, I was intrigued as to what’s happening there and when children start to become aware of regional accents. And I think, again, this kind of, this intrigue started back in my own childhood, it kind of took me back to my own understanding of what it meant to say /ba:θ/ versus /bæ:θ/, and that kind of thing. So my mum gives an example that I used to say, when I was little, I used to say /bæ:θ/, because I associated that with being at home. And that’s how they would pronounce it with the long [æ] sound. Whereas I’d say /dans/ with [a] short sound, because that’s how people in my local community and the kids that I went to nursery with would say the word, so I had this kind of a bit of, a mixture of an accent. And then eventually, it kind of leveled out to me saying, /baθ/ throughout, but we’ll talk a bit more about accent development later on. But, yeah, that… so I’m interested in, in sort of how kids are dealing with that variation and be able to kind of differentiate people based on the way that they speak. And, I indeed, found that actually, even three and four year olds, so quite young, young kids, before even school sort of age, were able to categorize to group speakers, according to quite distinctive North-South features of their accent in the UK. So this is all within the UK, but saying things like /baθ/ versus /bæ:θ/, or saying something like /ɡɔ:t/ versus /ɡəʊt/, which is another kind of North-South feature. So yeah, I found that there’s these quite young kids were able to do something with accent, but also that their own experience and exposure to variation really played a role. And again, based on my own experience, of having these parents from outside of my local region, and I, you know, could kind of empathize with that. And the kids who had parents from outside of the local region, and we’re mainly talking monolingual children here, because this was a small community of kids within York, who were mainly monolingual. But even kids who had parents from outside of the local region from somewhere else, but wasn’t York or Yorkshire, and seem to be better at differentiating people based on their accent. So there seems to be something going on in terms of exposure to variation and how that plays a role in awareness. So that’s kind of where my conclusions kind of led me to in the end.

[Eva-Maria] That’s very interesting.

[Maria] I think, for me also is really interesting from the point of view of speech and language therapy, because we’re studying so much about children’s development of language in general. So it’s really interesting to learn how they’re actually also aware of the regional differences. Which actually leads me to another question, if you could maybe clarify for us from the start. What is the difference between a dialect and an accent?

[Ella]  Yeah, a good question. And something we explore with first year undergrads right from the beginning of their sociallinguistic education. And so, we generally think of an accent in spoken language as being based on how we sound, how we pronounce our vowels and consonants. So I’ve given a few examples of saying /baθ/ up in the north and /bæ:θ/ down in the south, is often so often evolves based on the region that we grew up in. But it can also reflect other aspects of our background, social class or ethnicity, that kind of thing. And whereas a dialect is a bit more than a bit more than this, basically, so it involves using different grammar, different words as well. So, it might be sort of as a kind of more independent language variety, you might say. But the key thing is there’s no sort of concrete rule or definition really, that can draw a line between accents, dialects, and even language. So, what kind of what forms a dialect versus what’s a language is often a very contested thing and is often more of a kind of political question or an ideological question than anything primarily linguistic. You know, it might revolve around a country’s history. It might revolve around the relevance of the particular language varieties to certain populations. There’s all sorts of things kind of really interesting things, but nonetheless, sort of, not very easily categorized things and sort of bound up in that but primarily accent is to do with this kind of pronunciation when we’re talking about spoken language.

[Eva-Maria] Yeah, that’s very interesting. And a very, it’s very highly debated, especially in linguistics, because, you know, we’re students in Edinburgh and there is a discussion about Scots being a language or not, and it is a minority language in Scotland, but there’s still a lot of people that say it’s just a dialect of English. So, it’s a very political debate, as you mentioned, and we’re probably going to do an entire episode on that later on. Yeah. So that basically brings me to my next question, because I don’t know if you ever watched American talk shows or the late night shows, because as soon as the hosts have guests from abroad, they comment on their accents. And some talk show hosts have referred to them or to Americans not having an accent at all. Is that even a thing? Is there even a person in the world…

[Ella] As American?

[Eva-Maria] Yeah, like the American accent is… I guess is just like a standard.

[Ella] Default.

[Eva-Maria] Yeah, exactly. But is that even a thing? Like, does a person exist that does not have an accent?

[Ella] No, that’s a myth. That’s another thing we dispel with those poor first year undergraduates, when we tell them everything they’ve ever known is wrong. Only joking, but yeah, everybody has an accent. And, and when people declare that they have no accent, or that someone has no accent, this is usually because the person they’re talking to or talking about, or if you’re talking about yourself, either, it’s because they have some sort of standard accent. So yeah, in the American case, I mean, people don’t really talk about a standard American, but a general American accent wherever that might be. Or in British English, it might be something like received pronunciation or Standard British English, as we often refer to it now. So usually, it’s because the accent is more in line with some sort of standard variety, or it’s because and/or, it’s because the person, the speaker sounds like oneself. So, you kind of you hear someone, they don’t sound that marked, they don’t sound that different to you, because they sound like you or the people you know. So, you don’t really think of them as having an accent, because it’s not that… it’s kind of like turned into a sort of othered thing to have an accent. And so but yeah, these are all accents, they’re just not necessarily reflective of things that we might think an accent reflects. So, they’re reflective, perhaps of social class or education or upbringing, and maybe not region or where a grown up, or maybe a combination. But yeah, so everyone has an accent.

[Eva-Maria]  Yeah, so you basically already hinted at what I was going to ask next, because how does how does someone develop an accent? Now, you already mentioned upbringing, and the region and all of that, but what, what other factors play a role in that?

[Ella] Yeah, I see through a combination of means and yeah, I did hinted that when I was talking about how my own accent developed, I’d say /ba:θ/ and /da:ns/ and then it kind of levelled out to saying /dans/. So essentially, first of all, we kind of because primarily we only interact, or primarily interact, with caregivers, we end up kind of starting to speak like them. But then usually, when we join nursery or school, and we’re kind of socialized into our community, we end up speaking much more like our peers than our parents. That’s what people often say it’s kind of peers rather than parents. So that’s why people might sound quite different. So, I sound quite different to my parents, because they’re southern, for example. So, I ended up sounding more like my northern friends than my southern parents. But there were lots of other things kind of bound up in that too. So attitudinal factors and ideological factors. So how kind of invested we are in our local community or how much we want to stay attached to our hometown. And so our accent can kind of change and develop as well. And that might depend on again, how sort of how much we want to reflect where we’re from, or how much we don’t. And we’ll talk about that as well. But, um, but yeah, essentially, we kind of got that mixture of input from our caregivers, and our community, generally speaking.

[Maria] And you’re talking about how highly individual that could be, the process of developing your own accent and how it depends on so many actually internal factors. So I think this is probably a good place to maybe talk about, what is the difference between an accent and an idiolect?

[Ella]  So, idiolect might be something of the kind of language that an individual uses, which is quite unique to them, in comparison to an accent, which they might share with other people. So there’s features of saying /ba:θ/, I keep coming back to that example, but it’s an easy one to draw upon. And so the way that you pronounce that vowel in a word like /ba:θ/, is you know, perhaps a feature of your accent, but then lots of other things that you say in the way that you say them. And the combination of features that make up how you speak, is going to be idiosyncratic to yourself, so it’s going to be an individual. So, despite us all speaking languages, and language varieties common to other people, too, we are essentially all different people. We all have our unique backgrounds, experiences and influences. We have our own internal thought processes. So, this is bound to influence the way that we use language and none of us speak exactly the same as each other, and what, so what makes up this unique way that we speak individually? Is our idiolect. So, it’s quite hard to kind of pinpoint particular features or you know, what exactly is makes up an idiolect? Because it’s kind of everything. And yeah, so it is interesting to look at what makes us unique as well, as well as what makes us similar to each other.

[Maria] That actually brings me on to the next thing I was wondering about, you mentioned that you ended up developing quite a different idiolect, I guess, or different accent compared to your family. And that is probably due to their displacement and you growing up with your own local peers. And that led you to have a different accent from your family. I’ve now in my course, in speech therapy, I’ve become aware that sometimes a similar thing might be observed, but for local families. So for example, if someone has a child with autism, they may sound different from their family, because they might pick up an accent from TV that is different from their community. Are there any other examples of members of the family having different accents? And what could be reasons for that?

[Ella]  Yeah, that’s a really interesting example, that you just brought up there, not that I don’t have much of a background in speech language therapy, but I can see where that where that might come in. Yeah, so absolutely. For family moves around, for example, which I’ve already kind of said, with my own family, but, and, you know, if so, I’ve got another personal example of a friend of mine who I know from school, so know her from Leeds, but she moved up to her with her family from the southwest. And when… the southwest of England, maybe when she was about 12, or 13, with her younger brothers, who were maybe eight or so, and maybe even younger, I’m not entirely sure. But anyway, they, she kind of kept a lot of her southern features. So she has a very different accent to her two brothers, because they sort of assimilated to their northern surroundings much, much more easily, oh, you know, they just adapted more, because perhaps they were a bit younger, and that kind of thing. So, they ended up sounding quite northern, quite Yorkshire, where she kept quite a lot of her southern vowels. And, you know, so she sounded quite quite different to the rest of to the rest of us northerners. And so yeah, it might be to do with the age in which you move around with your family, it might be to do with the kinds of groups of friends that you get. So again, you might have two siblings in the same family, who have, you know, not moved or whatever. But one of them gets a certain type of group of friends who, who speak in a certain way, and another gets another kind of group of friends, or, you know, they’re involved in different kinds of social activities, which involve a different kind of way of speaking. And basically, depending on the kind of people you hang out with that might end up determining to some extent, your accent. And so yeah, there’s all sorts of reasons that, there might be reasons that people want to actively sound in a certain way to kind of purposefully try and change the way they speak. And, and that might play a role in how you might sound different to members of your family as well.

[Maria]  Yeah, that’s actually a topic that I would probably be asking you a little bit later. So considering how many things go into the mix of what your accent ends up sounding like? Can we use the same procedure to kind of backtrack and learn something about the person based on what accent they have? Is that a legitimate thing? What can we learn about people from their accents?

[Ella] Yeah, yeah, we often can. So we can often tell where someone’s from, or at least, where they’ve grown up. And because they might not have changed how they speak much since they kind of grew up into adolescence. So you can often tell why someone grew up based on their accent. So if I hear someone say /ba:θ/, I know they probably grew up in the North, for example. Also, even more specifically, you might hear some so, in again in the UK context, but if you have someone don’t how well this will come across on the recording, but if you say /bux/ with that kind of [x] pronunciation, you might think, okay, that’s from Liverpool because that’s quite a specific pronunciation to people from Liverpool. Or if you hear someone say /noi/ for now, you might think okay, this person is from Northern Ireland. Sorry for my bad pronunciation for anyone who’s from those places. And see, you might get an idea of where they grew up, you might also know different places they have lived. Some people have these kind of amazing hybrid sort of accents, where they’ve got a little bit of this, a little bit that depending on where they’ve lived, and you might be able to pinpoint some of those places based on how someone sounds. And you might be able to tell, or you might think you’d be able to tell, someone’s educational background. So you know, we’ve got in this country in particular, we’ve got a very kind of private school educated way of talking with a kind of received pronunciation accent, you might be able to tell that or think, think that you’re able to tell that. And but also things like your social class, background, ethnicity, where someone’s parents are from, perhaps these are things you can tell perhaps they’re things that we make assumptions about, and then there is a bit of a sort of blurry line between those things. So you know, it’s sort of being a bit careful with the kind of assumptions you make, but inevitably, we hear someone’s voice, we start to make kind of social assumptions about them so.

[Maria] Yeah, that’s an automatic process, almost. The assumption making.

[Eva-Maria]  I think so. Yeah.

[Ella] Definitely

[Eva-Maria] And not just for accents, but for a lot of other things as well. I think that’s just how our brains are, how they work, right? So, since you mentioned some assumptions. Since we often have assumptions based on people’s accents, or even how they use language in general, what are some situations in which we might be wrong about a person’s accent?

[Ella] Do you mean wrong about the judgments we make or wrong about anything to do with their background? Or both? Both things?

[Eva-Maria] Where our assumptions could be, yeah, just wrong.

[Ella] Just wrong. I mean judgments we make are wrong all the time, right? So we might think, you know, we might hear a voice and go ‘Oh, that person sounds a bit horrible’ or, you know, ‘They sound a bit stupid’, or ‘Oh, they sound very intelligent.’ And that could be completely wrong. And it’s likely to be, not necessarily right at all. So yeah, the judgments that we make, and in terms of social judgments and stereotypes that we develop around people, and based on how they sound, definitely ones that are often seen as wrong. And so, people are vilified all the time for pronouncing things in a sort of non-standard way. Especially high profile people, you know, you see, kind of, all you have to do is search online, and you’ll find in the press kind of people being written about all the time, you know, having a thick northern accent or something like that thick in the sense of sounding stupid rather than fake in the sense of having a strong accent. But I guess they kind of mean both. But yeah, I think also, we can make wrong assumptions based on the other stuff as well. So we might not be able to, so you might hear someone who sounds like from a certain place, but actually, it’s because I don’t know they’ve, they very much accommodated to someone else who was from that place, and ended up speaking a bit like them. So that’s maybe a bit rarer. But you do get the case where someone just really does end up talking like someone else. And so, it doesn’t necessarily reflect their background, but it’s kind of reflecting the people they hang around with more or something like that. So, there are instances in which we get the kind of background stuff wrong as well.

[Eva-Maria]  Also, if you think about it, especially from a very early age, if you watch Disney movies, or if you watch television, you’re exposed to different accents, foreign accents, as well. And you know, the Russian accent is always like the criminals and the Italian accent is the mafia. And then the French, always very romantic, and the Spanish are very passionate. So, from a very early age, we’re all exposed to all of these, you know, accent and language varieties that prime and of course, kind of later influence us in our assumptions about people from those places, or with those accents.

[Ella] It can be quite dangerous. Yeah, I had a personal, not a personal example, but an anecdotal example from someone who’d watched, whose kids had watched The Lion King where the hyenas have, the old one, actually, because there’s a new Lion King now, which is probably a better accent represented, but the older the hyenas, or at least one of them has an African American accent. And, you know, they’re the evil characters. And a kid was walking past a group of African Americans in the street and heard just one of them speak and was actively kind of scared by this person, because they associated the accent with being evil, because of the hyenas and the Lion King. So it can literally be that sort of, that specific kind of association that kids might make and anything more where does that go then, how does that manifest into, you know, kind of these dangerous negative stereotypes.

[Eva-Maria]  Exactly. That’s, that’s almost heartbreaking. That is very dangerous. So, have you come across people or do you know of any cases where people hated their own accents? And they might want to desperately, you know, they might want to change how they sound. Or you… maybe the opposite, that people are very proud of their accent, like, do you have examples for that?

[Ella]  Yeah, I think there are examples of both. Sadly, a lot of people do hate their accent, and, or, you know, want to sound different, or, you know, don’t like the way they sound. And that is quite worrying, because it’s often based on the fact that they think people are judging them for the way they sound, and/or, that they will somehow do better by sounding differently or speaking in a certain kind of way. It’s quite difficult to change your accent completely, as so many different things contribute to the way that you sound. And so there are certain aspects, which might be easier to sort of mimic or change, but other aspects, which are much harder. And so there are ways in which people try to do so. But it’s, yeah, it’s a common thing for people to kind of try and attend classes to change their accent, to change the way they sound. And, you know, that’s a bit sad, really. I mean, I mean, we all, I guess, we all have these kind of negative biases around the way we sound anyway, no one likes listening to their own voice particularly, well maybe some people do, but not so many. And but we’re kind of getting to the root of why someone might particularly hate their accent, as opposed to anything else particular about their voice, you know. It’s probably bound up in distinctions of what sounds intelligent, what doesn’t, you know, what that sort of expectations of how someone should sound are. And that is, you know, something that is quite negative. On the other hand, people might be extremely proud of where they’re from, they might therefore love their accent as a reflection of that. So usually, when you uncover someone’s insecurities around, you know, how they might do their accent, underneath that there might also be this kind of level of element of sort of pride in there as well. So, we often have this kind of what we call covert prestige this kind of hidden, sort of ‘Yeah, I’m proud to be from Yorkshire’. And so yeah, you know, and so you might have had that aspect as well. So yeah, you can get both I think.

[Eva-Maria]  Yeah. Is it even possible now that you you’ve kind of touched upon that, is it even possible to change your accent? I know, you’ve mentioned that some people, like actively, consciously try to influence how they sound, but I’m guessing that it also has to do with a form of phonological awareness, because you would have to hear the difference to be able to even try to pronounce it. And then also, I guess, there’s a lot of individual variation of how people are even able to produce different accents. Because, I guess that’s, there’s a lot of factors that play a role in that.

[Ella] Yeah, definitely. So there are lots of studies in kind of second dialect acquisition, where people have looked at how much of an accent or at what sort of age and accent is able to be changed. So as I’ve mentioned, some examples earlier friends and things moving around, and what age, you know, are you able to or you’re more likely to change your accent based on your new community. And generally speaking, the younger you move, the more likely you are to acquire the new accent more fully, which is probably unsurprising. But it can happen at any age. It’s just the sort of very nuanced aspects of an accent, to use a non-technical term, the aspects of our pronunciation perhaps, that we don’t even know that we use, like you said, if we know we can’t necessarily even hear these things, might be much more difficult to change and might therefore will never be able to be changed. I think there was interesting study that found that only people whose parents themselves were also born in the place that they were, were likely to get the full, if you can use again the non-technical term, accent of that community because there’s just so much to it. There’s so much to what an accent might be and what it might involve, and lots of different factors.

[Maria]  Yeah, it’s this whole thing makes me think of lots of friends that I have, who are from other places and speak English as a second language, and they quite often have negative views about their own accents. And I’ve been, because I’ve been studying phonetics for a long time, I’ve often received the question ‘What can I do to change my accent?’ and all of that. So, I’m often faced with the situation where I have to give some advice to people who think that their accent sounds ugly or not native enough. What kind of advice would you give to people who have this problem?

[Ella]  Yeah, it’s a difficult one. So, I think there’s that aspect of, it would kind of be boring if everyone sounded the same. So you know, we want to embrace variety, it’s quite difficult to tell someone that and make them take that on board when they’re learning a new language. But if I’m using that, I’m going to use the Groove Armada song: ‘if everybody looks the same, we’d get tired of looking at each other’. So, if everybody sounded the same, we’d get tired of listening to each other, presumably. You know, language varies for a reason. You know, variety is a great thing. But the non-native accent thing is, you know, is understandable if we want to pass as such as a native speaker in another language, you know, perhaps you want to sound more native-like. But then I think we have to think about or get people to think about why that is, why do we think it’s any better to be a native speaker or to sound like a native speaker? And what even is, what does that even mean? So, you know, there’s one aspect of wanting to be native enough to understand like idioms and sorts of expressions that you might not get if you weren’t. But in terms of pronunciation, and how, you know, you might not sound exactly like a native speaker. And what makes, you know, the way that a native speaker sounds any better than the way anyone else speaks. And, and perhaps if we didn’t sort of hold up one particular way of speaking of the sort of ideal, and you know, this might, might help us to overcome some of these insecurities. And yeah, when it comes to learning English, for example, anyway, you know, what kind of English are we talking about sounding like a native speaker? Because that could be many things.

[Eva-Maria] Very true.

[Ella] And that’s true for other languages too, of course.

[Eva-Maria] Yeah. But just because English is the most learned second language in the world. I think everybody has expectations when it comes to that, but it does kind of tie into ideologies very quickly. So, I agree that you… there’s no shame in not sounding native at all, but we can come back to that later. So, you recently co-wrote a piece for The Conversation, I think it was published a couple of weeks ago, and it was about students in the UK and their experience with their accent. So what was the motivation behind that? What kind of was the inspiration for that piece?

[Ella]  Yeah, so there was actually a piece in The Guardian… written in The Guardian newspaper, which we were kind of coming off the back cover if you like, sort of writing in response to, which was talking about students experiencing accent discrimination at university in particular. So, in particular, The Guardian article focused on Northern accented individuals kind of not fitting in with their either Southern surroundings, but often not even that because even universities in the North have a… you know, there’s a certain snobbery around not sounding Standard or Standard Southern British English because in this country, the standard accent and Southern accent are kind of interlinked, because the Standard is based on it on a Southern variety that there’s that kind of intrinsic feeling that this variety holds prestige that Northern ones don’t. And so we’re coming off the back of that, but we were also trying to say and this is where my, actually it’s my colleagues’ research more and relevantly comes in. Amanda Cole who works, who is a colleague at the University of Essex. She’s looked at the South and how people who’ve moved from what’s known as the Cockney diaspora, so, people who have moved from East London up to Essex where we are now. There’s a certain stereotype and lots of negative judgments around people with this Cockneyesque, but now kind of seen as an Essex accent, and that people negatively stereotyped this accent a lot. And even people from the Southeast, even people from the region. So, we just kind of wanted to make the point that accentism, so discrimination based on accent, is relevant in the South as well, and is often based on this kind of class, rooted in social class sort of snobbery.

[Maria] Yeah, there’s a lot of, it seems like turmoil in England about the different dynamics between accents. And obviously Eva and I are based in Scotland. So, we’re also aware of similar tensions between different speakers of different accents here in Scotland as well. So, but at the same time, even though we’re aware of all of these tensions, and the great variety of accents that is not only regional, but as you mentioned, of different social class. Outsiders, I guess maybe even insiders as well, but I’m speaking as an outsider, often people talk about ‘Oh, this person has an English accent’ and therefore, they sound cute, or ‘This person has a Scottish accent’ and all of these big generalizations. Is that meaningful? What does that even mean?

[Ella]  Yeah, that’s really interesting question because, as we’ve kind of touched on before, in the case of English, I mean, in the case of other languages, too, but specifically English, and in this instance, its disputable, whether it’s even relevant to talk about English as being a single kind of entity all together. There are so many different Englishes spoken throughout the world and in so many different ways. And, you know, perhaps we can’t even talk about being English, sorry, having an English accent. And even if we narrowed it down, though, so if we said British English accent, for example, again, there are so many variations on that people might assume you mean RP, so Received Pronunciation, or kind of standard Southern British English accent, because this is perhaps the accent that learners listen to when they’re learning a language, they hear more of that kind of accent. So, I’m learning Italian at the moment, and presumably the kind of speakers we’re listening to, and the kinds of audio we’re getting, it comes from a particular kind of accent, whereas, you know, if I encountered various different dialects in Italy, and I’d probably struggle to understand all of them. So yeah, we kind of get trained a little bit into thinking of a particular language as having a particular kind of accent. And, but it might kind of depend on what context you’re talking about having an accent in. So, undoubtedly, when I’m learning Italian, I speak with an English accent. And I’d be more similar to how I speak Italian to another English person, than I would to a native Italian or someone from another country, perhaps. So there might be a sort of relevance there and saying, okay, that accent is kind of an English accented Italian, because there are certain pronunciations that I haven’t grown up, you know, knowing, or learning. So, I’m having to put my own English sort of take on them, because there are sounds that I haven’t been introduced to before. And it’s the same the other way around. So yeah, I think it’s, it might depend on the sort of context you’re talking about. And, but to think about English as beyond, as beyond just being a British English, or an American English, or whatever it is, it’s probably quite important.

[Maria]  So I guess, we’ve just been speaking about… a little bit of foreign accents. So for example, an English accent in Italian. I think quite often, there might be a positive attitude towards foreign accents, when you don’t expect the person from that specific place to be learning your native language. So you’re celebrating it and you think ‘Oh, your foreign accent, like foreign English accent in our native Bulgarian sounds so lovely’, because you’re actually putting the effort and not many people are learning Bulgarian. And that might be one reason people have more positive associations with certain accents on a foreign accent platform. Why would that be? For example, in a native accent situation. Why would someone need accents be more prestigious, or people would regard more positively than others?

[Ella] It’s a good question. I guess it’s certainly we don’t entirely know the answer to and there’s probably as usual a lots of different factors. But in terms of the standard sort of non-standard thing, so the fact that standard varieties are often held with higher regard and more prestige, and seen as more intelligent and have these kind of positive associations, that’s kind of held up in a whole history of prescriptivist tradition of kind of telling people how they should use language and how, you know, especially written English, but also spoken English in English terms, should be used. So these kind of prescribed ways that were that people should use language. However, this has never really worked, because language has always varied and changed. So, the positive associations of other accents. So, for example, in the UK, people often think of, I don’t know, a Newcastle accent sounding quite friendly or Yorkshire accent sounding quite trustworthy. So, despite having some negative connotations with these northern varieties, often there’s these kind of other positive sides to them as well that people associate so you get that kind of that side. And that might be partly as a kind of flip side to the standard accent sounding intelligent and perhaps a little bit unattainable to actually sounding, you know, somewhat kind of approachable and you know, a bit more, you know, ‘one of those’ sort of things. In the UK there’s…

[Eva-Maria] Yeah, that’s the word that I was thinking of just now, approachable. 

[Ella] (laughs) In the UK, there’s also some other things as well, like caught up in the history of the country. So, the North of England has this very strong industrial association, coal mining in the Northeast, for example. So, there’s that kind of working class, strong working-class kind of pride a bit like I was talking about earlier, this covert prestige, this pride associated with where you’re from, and the kind of background to that. And that those working-class roots perhaps being reflected in that prestige as well. So, kind of in-group identity, reflecting a positivity that yeah, that, you know, for some varieties in particular. But there’s all sorts of interesting nuances that you might think, why is this one preferred over that one? You know, why? I guess there’s multiple factors to look into to investigate a bit more in depth, how they develop, and I think, and maybe I’ll talk about it, and maybe I’m anticipating the question now, but I’ve in terms of what I’m interested in finding out about how those sorts of associations develop in childhood as well.

[Maria] Yeah, I think, as you’re saying, in part, it probably is passed down through the generations and how you’re socialized into specific accent, whether you end up liking it or not, or who you’re prejudiced against. But probably also, as people mature, they hopefully may meet people who speak with these accents, who can maybe challenge some of these perceptions, which would probably also be an interesting research direction. And I think that’s kind of also part of what we are trying to do here with the Accent Positivity campaign. One of the main aims of this campaign is to start a conversation and maybe challenge people’s attitudes towards certain accents, maybe towards even their own accent, if they’re battling with accepting it. Do you think it’s possible to do that at, beyond childhood, to change people’s accents and bias, not accents, people’s attitudes and biases towards accents?

[Ella] I think it’s, at least to be aware of the biases we might have, and to make sure that we know that there’s no objective truth to them. And so many people are just simply not aware that what they are doing when they are judging someone based on the way that they speak is accentism, that is a form of discrimination. So you might sort of think ‘Well, why is that?’ and maybe partly because unlike other sort of protected characteristics, like race, or sexuality, or things like that, the way that you speak is something that you can kind of change and people, therefore think quality can change it, then, you know, maybe you should and rather than think of it the other way around and think well, if it’s something you know, that we’re judging people on, perhaps we should stop doing that. It’s also definitely possible to change the way that accent stereotypes are actively used. And we talked about this earlier, but so, for example, in TV and film characterization, and how Disney or any other, not to just signle out Disney, but any other sort of children’s TV, but also adults as well, play upon these stereotypes to perpetuate certain characteristics associated with a certain accent. So that certainly is not going to help the matter. And so yeah, I think being aware of that might lead to kind of changes along those lines, which will help us to create more kind of accent positivity and acceptance.

[Maria] Absolutely.

[Eva-Maria] Yeah. And we also, if you think about it, we want to take it step by step, right? Like, as we already mentioned, it’s completely normal for us to have assumptions about, not only accidents, but just in general about people when we meet someone. And I’m very much aware that I do that as well, like I do have, I do judge people on the way they use language and the accent they have. But I’m now aware of the fact that that does happen and that I am doing it and then every time I notice these thoughts, I just actively, consciously remind myself, ‘No, that is not okay’. And that is basically the conversation we’re trying to start right to, to kind of start people to reflect upon their associations and the assumptions and the judgments, right? So that was basically the idea behind the campaign. So, it’s a very important point.

[Maria] Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, I also do that I think, as we said earlier, it’s just a spontaneous thing, of, I guess, making assumptions about people and the important thing is to realize ‘Oh, this is an assumption, it might not actually be based on reality’. It’s what I’ve done. And I think that’s probably the main message.

[Ella] Right now, because I’m living in Essex, which is far from home for me, hundreds of miles away from Yorkshire, when, if I hear a Yorkshire person now in Essex, you know, I’m sort of ‘Oh’, I get sort of a little nostalgic, a little… And I feel like sort of drawn towards them. And I mean there might be like, the horriblest person in the world, but because they’ve got that accent and I’ve got that personal connection, I can’t help but feel sort of like warmth towards them. So, you know, some of that, you know, you can’t sort of necessarily train out of yourself. But you just got to be aware of, of where, you know, where that might come from.

[Maria] Yeah.

[Eva-Maria] They sound like home.

[Maria] Exactly. I was gonna say this reminds me of traveling by train from London to Edinburgh. And I think after Newcastle, the staff who works on the train changed and the English staff get off the train, and then the Scottish staff come in. So as soon as we pass Newcastle, I think, and I start hearing the Scottish accent I feel like ‘Oh, yeah, I’m going home now’. So, it’s the same thing for me. Of course, not knowing anything about the people there. But yeah, I guess we have all of these positive and negative associations that may not always be useful.

[Eva-Maria] Yeah, so Maria and I are both non-native speakers of English. And I don’t know if Maria has any experiences with people commenting on her accent in English, but so far, I only experienced curiosity of people asking like ‘Oh, I can’t place your accent. Where you’re from?’. It’s a different story for, you know, speaking German in public in the UK, that’s a different story, but just my English accent, I have not had any negative experiences, at least overtly, nobody has said anything. But do you know about a bias that people might have towards different accents or non-native accents in the UK specifically?

[Ella] I think, there is this kind of idea that sort of more, not the more non-native like, but the more different I suppose to put it. Yeah, to put it like that. The more different language is, or the language variety is from one zone, and therefore the more different sounds, it includes that kind of thing, the more people kind of other it. So, they might, you know, maybe view it, I don’t know, whether it’s negatively but negatively or differently, you know, is not belonging in some sort of sense. There are some languages, you know, that people, English native speakers, might hear, and they’ve got certain kinds of sounds like more fricative kind of sounds. So, you know, people often talk about languages sounding harsh, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard that, but that is what English people say. Because perhaps because they’re not used to these sounds and they sound a bit, you know, a bit different. Or languages where vowels are pronounced, so Italian, back to Italian where like pretty much every word ends in a vowel. So often that transports on to an English… onto when they’re speaking English as well. So, people kind of say that sounds lyrical, and maybe more like song-like or something… melodic.

[Eva-Maria] Melodic, yeah

[Ella] So some of it might be quite harmless. But it becomes an issue when you kind of say ‘Alright, that when that harsh sound sounds a bit ugly’, and you know, you start to kind of judge people based on that kind of those negative assumptions. But yeah, so those kinds of things.

[Eva-Maria] Yeah, different topic, different question. So we already kind of touched upon that a little bit. But our volunteer Kat Brown, who designed the beautiful chameleon that we have as our mascot for the Accent Positivity campaign, she actually referred to herself as an accent chameleon. That’s how she came up with the idea. Because she noticed in herself, in her language, that she kind of adapts to whoever she’s talking to. So basically, to her conversational partner. Is that a common thing to observe for, is that a general thing that people do? Or is it also very individual?

[Ella] It is a common thing, yeah. We talked about accommodation, we call it in sociolinguistics, speaking like the people that you’re speaking to, or speaking with. But it is individual in the sense that some people do it more than others. And so, Kat’s kind of recognized this in herself that she accommodates a lot. Some people do do it more than others. And that might be down to again, these kind of ideological factors of wanting to, I mean, I’m not judging Kat at all, but if they want to kind of fit in to some extent or you know, you want to show your solidarity perhaps with the person you’re speaking to. But we often talk because, again, in the kind of university context, when students come, they come from different countries, they come from different parts of this country. And they are all kind of put together in these halls of residence. And a lot of accommodation happens at university because people are mixing, they’re all starting to sound more like each other, because that’s a natural thing. So, we often get interesting examples of that at uni in particular.

[Maria] And do you think that’s an important thing to do? So, for example, if someone decides to relocate, whether for university or for work, or whatever, should they actively try to sound like the people that they’re surrounded by in the new place?

[Ella]  I mean, I wouldn’t say ‘should’, I wouldn’t prescribe, you know, put a prescriptive sort of tint on it. But you know, it’s up to the individual. People might feel that it’s important because it might feel important to fit in some respects. It might be the opposite. It might be that the person feels like it’s important to actually stand out and sound a bit different. And so yeah, and the other side to it is that so again, I’m a bit conscious of sounding quite Yorkshire, or quite Northern now that I’m down South. And I don’t think many people even realize or even kind of pick up on it to the extent that I think they do, if that makes sense. So, I’m kind of that ‘Oh, God, I sound so different to everyone’ in whatever context it is. And, you know, I think a lot, you know, a lot of the time people maybe don’t even know, or don’t have to pay attention to it that much, so, maybe it’s kind of, yeah, sort of understanding how other people’s… where other people’s perceptions are as well.

[Eva-Maria]  Yeah, and I guess it’s not just perceptions, I guess. It’s also a lot of expectations that come with a certain accent or when hearing a certain accent. So, I know of some people… some people say that they try to avoid sounding too native, whatever that even means, in their foreign languages because of the expectations that come with it. Meaning that if you sound too native, or too convincing, people would be weirded out or perplexed if you then make grammatical mistakes, or you are missing words, and you can’t think of vocabulary and they would then be confused. It’s like ‘But you sound so convincing. How can you not think of those words?’ And so, there are people that try to avoid sounding too native. So, people would kind of have to, just to kind of manage people’s expectations, I guess. And for me, personally, mastering the phonology of any language that I’m learning was always a natural thing. Because for me, phonology was always part of learning the language just like vocabulary is. So I never really worked on not sounding German. But I always try to get the pronunciation right, if that makes sense. But does mastering a non… basically does mastering the accent of the language that you’re learning, does that have anything to do with proficiency at all? Or is that something completely separate? What do you think?

[Ella] It’s an interesting dilemma, isn’t it? To not want to sound too native.

[Eva-Maria] It is

[Ella] I think it’s perfectly possible to speak very well in another language, but still, not have, but still have a non-native accent. So, you know, it could be absolutely fluent, and you wouldn’t be able to tell that you weren’t from the country or whatever. But still have aspects of your accent. So, I mean, I don’t know if there’s an answer to that. I suppose it might depend on your first language or your native language, and how many similarities it shares with the language you’re learning. If it’s closely related, it might be easier to sound native. I know I’m struggling with quite a few sounds of Italian that I’m learning at the moment that some of my other classmates who are native Spanish speakers aren’t struggling with so much, because they’ve got those sounds where they’re used to those things. So yeah, there’s elements which definitely play a role. Yeah, so I don’t know.

[Eva-Maria] Like a rolled [r].

[Ella] Yeah, I can’t do that. (laughter) I know, I need to train myself.

[Eva-Maria] But that is like an anatomical thing, no? Like, I think, you have to…

[Ella] Well apparently, it is partly anatomical or something. That’s my excuse. Yeah. But yeah. So perhaps some people are just better at mastering those sounds. I think there are certainly people who are very good, like mimickers. Or who can like accurately, you know, in phonetics classes, people who can really produce these sounds that they’ve never encountered before or spoken before in their native languages, but they’re just very good at them. So, there might be a bit of an individual aspect to it as well.

[Maria] Yeah. I think I’m going back to phonetics classes now because of my masters. And I will have an exam doing all of these fun sounds that I have never used in any language or, yeah, before. So that’s coming up for me in a month. That’s fun.

[Ella] Good luck.

[Maria] Thank you. Yeah, so I completely appreciate the struggle of learning a trill, I think that the [r] we’re not going to be doing that, we’re not going to be tested on that. Thankfully.

[Ella] Yours sounded good though!

[Maria]  I’m fine with it. I’m fine with it, because I have too many languages, but other people…

[Ella] …are struggling.

[Maria] Yeah, it’s just generally a really difficult sound. Yeah. Do you have any suggestions on how to be more positive towards different accents and towards different dialects as well? And what can we all do to become more accent positive?

[Ella]  Yeah, I think you mentioned this yourself, actually, experience variation, and be aware of, you know, as much as you can, and be aware of the kinds of judgments we make based on the way that someone speaks. So, I mean, as my research found with the young kids, that exposure to variation does seem to play quite a big role. So, you know, it might be in different forms, but listen to local radio, watch film set in other places, visit other parts of the country or the world when we can, when COVID is gone finally. Encourage future generations to learn about accent diversity and embrace it. So I think there’s definitely a role for education here. And having kind of, you know, let’s have some popular TV programs or children’s programs, where the main characters don’t just have quite a standard accent, you know, let’s make sure that variation is represented. And then just calling people out on their accent prejudices. So, as we hopefully would do with other kinds of discrimination and prejudices too, you know, kind of, politely make people aware of what they do, if they do that.

[Maria] Yeah, I think it’s key to be compassionate when doing that, also, considering that we all do it to a certain extent. But I think also what you mentioned reminds me of the film Anomalisa I don’t know if anyone has seen it. It’s a kind of twisted like a horror film, I think, as far as I remember.

[Eva-Maria] I don’t know if that’s for me (laughter)

[Maria] But everyone in the film sounds the same. They have the exact same voice, apart from one character. And that’s part of well, the main thing that makes the film sound horrible. So, I think that’s, if you want to experience perfect…

[Eva-Maria] Horror.

[Maria] Horror, and perfect similarity of accented speech in voices, see that film to see how that’s compared to the other extreme.

[Ella] Okay, interesting

[Eva-Maria]  Oh, wow. That’s interesting. Yeah. Well, I think we went through all the questions that we have. And I’m pretty sure because Maria and I are both so interested in this, we could probably talk for hours on end. Thank you so much for taking the time and for joining us, Ella we really appreciate it. And we are thrilled to have had you on the podcast!

[Maria] Yeah, thank you.

[Eva-Maria] And also to have launched the Accent Positivity campaign. So, thanks, Maria for the idea, because that’s it’s a brilliant initiative. So yeah, thanks for your, thanks for your time, thanks for your expertise, with you know, the patience with all the questions that we had. And of course, for all our listeners, we hope that you enjoyed this episode and that you learned more about accents and that you might be able to challenge your own prejudices and assumptions. And you might be able to pay more attention to your implicit attitudes as well. But it’s, like I said earlier, it’s baby steps for all of us. If you want, you can learn more about Ella’s projects. You can find the links in the description. You can also follow her on Twitter. And don’t forget to give us a follow on Twitter as well. Thanks for tuning in. And we hope to welcome you back in two weeks. Stay well, stay healthy and…

[Ella] Ciao [‘Bye’ in Italian]

[Maria] Do skoro [‘See you soon’ in Bulgarian]

[Eva-Maria] Tschüss! [‘Bye’ in German][/expand]


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