U.S. linguists say 'accent-uate' positive, not stereotypes
San Jose Mercury News
Apr. 22, 2007

Mike Swift SAN JOSE - Two decades after emigrating from Taiwan, Sean Chang found his accent remained a barrier to friendships with Americans. English speakers found it too much work when conversation went beyond small talk, the electrical engineer in San Jose said.

Luis Ramirez, a home inspector born in El Salvador, developed a case of the mumbles when speaking English during inspections for Anglos. When he spoke to Asian real estate agents with strong accents, the Fremont, Calif., man would catch himself wondering, "Did they pass the licensing test?" before feeling a pang of guilt about stereotyping.

Doug Fong, on a business trip to New York, realized that his angry clients were blaming him for a problem product because they couldn't understand his Hong Kong accent. "From that time on," said Fong of Alameda, Calif., "I knew that I needed some help." Linguists who study the interplay of language and society say most Americans believe there is an objective, dominant standard
- a right and a wrong - for language and accent.

Coping with accents is part of everyday life in the United States. In a way that no longer fully applies to race, accent endures as a marker of social identity, an audible flag for who is a native and who is not.

Accents can make us see someone as alluring or suave ("Bond. James Bond") or as unqualified. Accents can turn a simple home repair job into a confrontation, or a vulnerable request for directions into smoldering resentment.

For one Silicon Valley woman, accent reduction is a successful business opportunity. Accents can both unnerve native English-speakers and become barriers to career advancement for highly educated immigrants.

This is especially true in Santa Clara County, Calif., where 2005 census data show that English is not the native language for 50 percent of adults.
Which suggests that roughly half of the adults in the county speak with what native speakers hear as an accent.

Americans categorize people by how their speech measures up to a dominant standard, linguists say, even though often the listener is really applying beliefs about race, gender, class and culture, even religion at times.

"You don't have to have a foreign accent. If a blond woman comes up to you and starts talking to you in a strong Southern accent, tell me you don't have preconceptions," said Rosina Lippi, a linguist and the author of English With an Accent: Language, Ideology and Discrimination in the United States. "We all have these ideas of 'good' and 'bad' language, which are all wrong."

Linguists say objective English pronunciation is a myth.

A person from Peoria, Ill., they say, does not speak better English than someone from Australia, Ireland, Alabama, Jamaica - or, perhaps, Taiwan.

Still, most of us can't help but stereotypes by accent.

"If somebody speaks with a heavy Mexican accent, that's viewed as a negative," said Carmen Fought, a sociolinguist at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif. "If someone speaks with a heavy French accent because they are from Paris, it's not viewed the same way."

What's really in play, Fought said, are stereotyped beliefs about France (the Louvre, Sorbonne) and Mexico (undocumented immigrants to the United States).

Still, many immigrants want to change their accents. Rebecca Linquist says her "English by the Hour" accent-reduction classes are so busy she hasn't taken a vacation in more than a year.

That everybody's accent is OK "is a beautiful message, but in reality it doesn't work," she said. Clients tell her: "I want to speak clearly and effectively in American English. I don't want people to accept my accent."

While accents often do cause complications in daily lives, people also learn to deal with them.

"It's not a huge hindrance in my life," said Serena LoConte, a facilitator for a non-profit agency. "I grew up in San Jose, so you grow up with all that."

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