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Do accents matter?

How do you say bath? Short A or long A? Bath or barth? And what do you call a bread roll? A barm? A bap? A cob?

How we talk is a unique reflection of our backgrounds, our families and the disparate regions that have shaped our identities. However, recent research from the Sutton Trust has found that accents can prevent individuals from accessing “prestigious” careers and social circles. Discrimination based on how people speak remains an unchallenged bias within British society and represents yet another barrier which young people from working-class backgrounds face.

Speaking Up: Accents and Social Mobility, a research paper funded by the Sutton Trust, was released earlier this month and builds on 50 years of research which consistently found strong correlations between regional accents and lower socio-economic status. It has become a widely accepted - if unspoken - belief that ‘BBC English’ or Received Pronunciation (RP) indicates a higher level of intelligence, professionalism and authority. However, this stereotype unjustly punishes those with accents connected to traditionally industrial areas of the country, such as Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool.

There is similarly a racial bias at play when it comes to how people talk, with research uncovering that minority ethnic accents - such as Afro-Caribbean and Indian - rank lower in terms of prestige than compared to “standard” accents.

The most worrying aspect of the research was the inevitable impact this would have on young people from regions of the country which have a rich working-class heritage or a culturally diverse population. As teenagers, accents are a key indicator of social-identity - they allow young people to create clear bonds with those around them and from the areas they live in. It is a tool for socialisation and defining themselves in relation to or in opposition to others.

Yet, it is also at this time in their lives where their accents are scrutinised within schools. The research found that young speakers of non-standard English begin to lack confidence, feel that their voice has less authority and can even be reprimanded during secondary education for using colloquial dialect; the education system ostensibly now serves to place young people into the hierarchies of an outdated British class structure simply by expressing their specific culture. All of this can result in lower educational attainment, due to young people being made to feel that their achievement has been predetermined by how they pronounce certain words.

The ideology of “proper English” in schools is so pervasive that teachers have even had to tone down their regional accents in their teaching practice, “with mentors instructing trainee teachers to adopt a ‘professional’, standardised accent.” With the push on British Values in schools and the overhaul of the National Curriculum by Michael Gove in 2014, schools have become a space which forces young people to adopt a singular notion of Britishness which disregards the multicultural reality of our society. This dismissal of local voices seeps into young people’s perception of their own backgrounds, a process which is continued beyond the walls of secondary education.

Accent anxiety was found to be at its peak in young people during their time in university. This is often the first moment that young people experience life beyond their regional background and as a result are not prepared for the prejudice displayed by their peers who speak with a standard English accent and feel comfortable in the prestigious environment of higher education. University comes to represent a “microcosm of wider society” and normalises the inevitable discrimination young people with regional voices will experience in the world of work.

One interviewee from the research, who was described as having a Multicultural London accent, explained how, during their first year at university, they felt that their ideas didn’t have any value due to the way they spoke. Another interviewee from Scotland stated “My accent is an inescapable indicator that I am ‘not their sort of person’.”

A young person from Lancashire illustrated the assimilation most students feel they need to go through in order to be accepted into wider society: “After being discriminated against by other students and staff for a sustained period (3/4 years), I consciously minimised my Lancashire accent into a more standard English accent, hoping to be perceived as more intelligent.”

What’s more, as those young people then attempt to enter into the world of work, they remain haunted by these stereotypes and the bias towards particular voices. The Accent Bias Britain project found that Northern-industrial, working-class and minority ethnic voices were commonly associated with lower competence and professionalism in job interviews, despite giving identical responses to peers with standard, RP accents.

The classism within Britain is scarcely more evident than in the discussion surrounding how people talk. How we view accents is undoubtedly exacerbated by the fact that those we see in positions of authority - news presenters, politicians, judges, schoolteachers - are overwhelmingly associated with received pronunciation. What’s even more concerning is that young people are being made to feel continually self-conscious about their regionality rather than seeing it as a unique selling point.

How we dismantle these institutional biases will be vital in tackling the inequality that people from specific class, social and racial backgrounds continually face. The first job is highlighting the very presence of it in everyday and professional life and calling it out when we see - or, rather hear - it. Then, we must celebrate all voices and champion excellence however it sounds.

And the correct answer is cob.

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