Do Accents Matter?
While listening to a radio interview of Vancouver mayoral candidate Meena Wong the other day, an acquaintance commented that her accent was going to be a problem for her during the campaign. Meena was born in China but came to Canada as a young girl and speaks perfect English. She does have a hint of an accent, but is that really a problem?
Valuing World Englishes
I am an advocate of recognizing and appreciating World Englishes – that is, ALL of the varieties of English spoken around the world. While there may be some people out there who claim that British English is the only correct form of the language, I think that most will agree that we cannot objectively rate the Englishes spoken in different countries (like Canada vs. Scotland), nor the different dialects and varieties spoken within English-speaking countries (like coastal vs. southern states in the U.S.). We may have our subjective opinions based on where we were raised, how we were socialized, and what “sounds nicer” to us, but who is to say which English is better or worse?
But my argument goes farther than valuing different varieties amongst countries where English is the first language. I believe that those who speak English as an additional language, and who speak with an accent, cannot be said to be speaking “worse” English either. I think the millions of varieties of Englishes spoken by different speakers from all over the world are beautiful! Of course it is important that we understand each other, which means that speakers must learn to pronounce and organize words in a fairly specific way, but it also means that listeners must be willing to share the communicative burden with patience and open ears. This is ever more important in the age of globalization and technology where English plays a key role in international communications.
Accents in Politics
When it comes to politics (as well as the job market) some people do judge a candidate based on their accent. They may want a candidate who they feel “represents” them, someone who has the same accent as they do, or they may want a candidate who they think “sounds” smart or sophisticated. In my opinion, this is similar to judging a candidate based on their gender, skin colour, or hairstyle. Can a person only be represented by someone who shares their gender or ethnicity? Do smart and sophisticated people all wear their hair in a similar fashion? My opinion is no – judgements based on such external factors have no place in politics. A person’s accent, like their gender and ethnicity, has nothing to do with their policies or their ability to govern.
In the case of Vancouver and many other multicultural cities around the world, a candidate with an accent may actually be more “representative” of the population as a whole (in fact, in Vancouver 52% of the population do not speak English as their first language). But, again, a candidate shouldn’t be chosen or rejected based on these kinds of characteristics. I hope my fellow Vancouverites, and all voters in all elections, will look past the accent to the actual policies and abilities of the candidates.
I also hope this post will get you thinking about what counts as “good” English – feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below! And as a starting point, you might want to explore some of the many beautiful English varieties from around the world in this interactive audio map from the International Dialects of English Archive.