Kamala Harris as US Vice Prez: Go Away, America’s Accent Bias!

Harris has described her Indian mother as a “woman with a heavy accent” who was “overlooked”.

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Opinion
6 min read
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Kamala Harris has made history, stepping into the global spotlight as the first person of Indian descent (and the first Black woman) to be an American vice-presidential nominee – and she has not shied away from describing the struggles faced by her immigrant parents.

“She was a woman with a heavy accent,” she described her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, a biomedical scientist from Tamil Nadu. “She was a woman who, many times, people would overlook her or not take her seriously. Or because of her accent, assume things about her intelligence.”

British & French Accents More Likely To Be Perceived As Sophisticated, As Opposed To Asian Accents

Ze Wang’s team from the University of Central Florida found that American participants trusted the British accent over the Indian. They found that, in the US, those with a British or French accent were more likely to be “perceived as sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and well-educated.”

Those with Asian accents? Perceived as “poorer communicators and less effective.”

Matt Goldrick, Chair of the Linguistics Department at Northwestern University in Chicago, simplifies the phenomenon of accents. “You can't really turn off your other language… you can't completely push one language out of your mind,” he explains. “So, every time you hear something, you hear it sort of through the lens of your other language.”

“You can get better over time, at reducing the amount of influence that it has, but particularly when it’s your first learning, it’s very strong... You take English sounds and map them on (to native sounds).”

In his Bay Area workplace, Japanese engineer Michi Yamamoto found that his accent was hindering communication after he moved from a coding-based role to a people-facing one.

“I noticed myself being asked questions about things I had already spoken about,” he explained. People could apparently only understand about 30 percent of what he said. He approached Kate DeVore, a voice training coach in Chicago, to help modify his pronunciations using the International Phonetic Alphabet.

A Catch-22 For Indian Americans – Shamed For ‘Code-Switching’ Accents, Shamed For Being An Immigrant

Three-fourths of Kate’s accent reduction portfolio consisted of clients working on accent for a professional reason. “I've worked with executives who’ve found that they needed to make a change to be perceived in the way they want to be perceived in the culture of their corporation,” she said.

“I would say definitely, people do feel [...] that they're overlooked. And that they're not as impactful as they would like to be in their communication. And they often feel that it's the accent.”

Shibani Gokhale finds herself navigating murky accent territory as she produces on-camera content for different media outlets as a broadcast journalist based in Canada.

“I got bullied for my accent in America,” she says, speaking of her time in LA as a digital producer for ATTN. “Why are you having an immigrant deliver the news?” the comments against her would read.

“Go back to your country,” they’d say to her.

But she is accused of being ‘ashamed of being an Indian’ if she code-switches to a North American accent while making videos. This accent comes naturally to her – Gokhale spent a chunk of her childhood in Canada.

Accent Biases, Rooted In Racial Bias, Arise Even In Early Childhood

She feels like she can’t win either way. “Are you listening to what I am saying?” she asks exasperatedly.

Not being listened to is the natural fallout to having an accent. In an episode of NPR’s Code Switch podcast, Northern Arizona University professor Okim Kang describes reverse linguistic stereotyping (RLS) – where a speaker’s perceived membership of a group had a negative impact on evaluating their speech.

Kang, in a 2009 study, played the audio of an astronomy lecture in an American accent while projecting two sets of photos – a white man’s photo the first time, and an Asian man the second.

She revealed that students found the same sample more accented when there was an Asian face on the screen. They also said the lesson was harder to understand, and scored less on listening comprehension tests than when it was a white face projected on screen.

A 2009 study by Katherine Kinzler, Elizabeth Spelke, Kristin Shutts and Jasmine DeJesus showed accent biases arise even in early childhood.

White English-speaking children from the Boston area had to choose between a picture of a white person, paired with an accented clip, and a Black person, paired with an American English speech extract. The children showed an enthusiastic preference towards people who they shared an accent with, explains Jasmine DeJesus, assistant professor at UNC, Greensboro.

Native vs Accented Bias: A Roadblock For Bilingual Children

Children show in-group preferences for race, age and gender. According to DeJesus, this was one of the first studies to show that they also preferred those who shared their language or accent.

A second study with bilingual children investigated if findings would be altered by more language exposure, focusing on Korean American children and children attending a French immersion school.

“When we presented Korean American children with English and Korean speakers, and children at the French school with English and French speakers, children were really open to both of those groups,” DeJesus explained.

But the native English speaker was still preferred when children chose between a native (American) English speaker, and an accented speaker.

“So, this kind of ‘Native vs Accented’ contrast, is really a roadblock, even among bilingual children,” she added. “If we even observe that babies can form these sorts of preferences… what does that mean for us as a society?”

DeJesus shares something telling about the parents of the kids making decisions about language: “They didn't have any problem with that,” she says. “Sometimes they would kind of feel almost relieved, like ‘Oh my kid is giving you the right answers. They're picking the people who sound like us.’ And when we do the same task about race, people get very uncomfortable. I think it's the only time that I ever had a parent ask us to stop a study.”

Navigating Accents

Clearly the race thing still mattered. But the accent thing matters too.

I investigated my own accent, assisted by my roommate Ashley Haluck-Kangas, a Finnish-American biomedical PhD student.

“I often do struggle to understand your accent,” she said. “I think for you, though, I feel like I can't tell whether it's more the accent or the speed. And the enunciation is very different. I feel you don’t enunciate in the same way an American does.”

It is highly likely that I don’t – both Telugu, my mother tongue, and Marathi, the language I grew up with in Pune, are ‘syllable-timed languages’, where each syllable is allotted the same amount of time while speaking... English is a stress-timed language, which means stressed syllables are spaced equally in time and unstressed ones are shortened to fit in.

As the British Council’s Teaching English website puts it – “Learners whose first language is syllable-timed often have problems producing the unstressed sounds in a stress-timed language like English, tending to give them equal stress.”

The possibility remains, of course, that accent comprehension fluctuates with other, non-linguistic factors.

The Conundrum Of ‘Reverse Linguistic Stereotyping’

For example, when Ashley and her British-Japanese ex-boyfriend visited farmer’s markets, vendors wouldn’t understand when he spoke to them, but could understand Ashley, when she repeated the exact same thing. “They were so confused too, to see an Asian man with a British accent that they really could not understand anything he said.”

It was Kang’s reverse linguistic stereotyping in play.

For all the glamour of the American accent, Ashley’s colleagues at a German internship said that “an Indian accent in English is easier to understand than an American accent. And that I should try to speak more like the Indians working at the research institute.”

They thought the syllables were clearer and easier to understand when spoken in an Indian accent, perhaps due to exposure – most researchers in Ashley’s group were Indians.

My musings took me back to my childhood – like Gokhale, I spent some time Stateside, and had my American accent teased out of me once I returned to India.

Why Do I Feel Like Repeating Her Words Back To Her?

Though I believed I had no American accent left, a sneaky American ‘a’ bided its time in my speech till I read aloud in class in the eighth standard.

My English teacher did not appreciate it.

The offending word? “Class.” She channeled the ‘Received Pronunciation’ spirit and made me repeat “class” with a close-mouthed enunciation 20 times – every time I ‘misread’ it.I never made that mistake again.

My teacher perhaps thought along the lines of the Asian speakers DeVore described –they found the mouth movement in American English “outrageously overdone” compared to Asian languages.

Just as we were wrapping up lunch, Ashley said to me, some regret in her tone, “I do feel bad that I feel like I don’t understand you sometimes, but I don't know how to approach it…. I often feel panic. I’m like, ‘Oh no, why do I not understand what you’re saying?’”

Why did I feel like repeating her words back to her?

(The author is a lawyer-turned-journalist who is interested in stories about the law, immigration, language, socio-cultural challenges, and the environment. Her portfolio can be accessed at ­­­­­­­sruthidarbhamulla.wordpress.com. She tweets @S1Darbha. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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