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Why People Judge You Because of Your Foreign Accent YET Heavily Accented Native Speakers Get Away With It?

Foreign Accent Prejudice

Have you ever thought about the fact that people often equate fluency to correct pronunciation?

I mean – if you speak with a near-native pronunciation, people will say:

Yeah, this guy is really fluent in English!

Yet, if you say the SAME EXACT sentence in accented English, it’s not generally perceived to represent a fluent English speaker’s speech…

To me, it doesn’t make any sense at all!

Just think about all those heavily accented regional English language accents from all over the world – the simple fact is, some of them are VERY difficult to understand.

I live in the Republic of Ireland, for example, and some banks and utility companies have located their customer support staff up in the Northern Ireland. Guess what happened when I rang one of those support lines a few years ago and got to speak with a native English speaker who was speaking with a heavy Northern Irish accent?

That’s right! I couldn’t understand ANYTHING ❗

Over the years I’ve gotten quite good at understanding Northerners, so it’s not a problem now; however, it hasn’t alleviated the sense of injustice at the slightest.

Why is it that when a native English speaker speaks with an accent, nobody would ever think of accusing them of not being fluent, yet foreigners are judged by their accents the whole time and many of us are thought to speak broken English while in reality it’s not the case?

If this unfair treatment is bugging you, I warmly suggest you read the rest of this article where I’ve tried to shed some light on the issue!

Reason #1: Logical Fallacy

Logical fallacy is a wrong statement and it’s a result of combining two correct statements. The problem is – you can do it sometimes, but not always.

Let’s take, for example, the following statements: “Birds can fly” and “Ostrich is a bird”. Now, if I were to combine those statements, I would draw the following conclusion which is quite obviously wrong: “Ostrich can fly” (If ostrich is a bird, and birds can fly, then common sense dictates than an ostrich should be able to fly as well, isn’t that right?).

The problem here is the very definition of the first sentence. While generally speaking, birds can indeed fly, we have to be more specific than that when it comes to drawing logical conclusions.

Here’s the equivalent reasoning involving fluency and foreign English speakers:

“Beginner English speakers (who are not yet fluent) speak with a strong foreign accent”

“You speak with a strong foreign accent”

“You’re not a fluent English speaker!”

Again, the problem lies within the very definition of those statements, and we have to be more specific when defining fluency. Yes, it’s true that beginner English students possess strong foreign accents; however, haven’t we all heard of foreigners who speak with strong accents YET they’re 100% fluent English speakers?

I guess nobody would dispute that movie actors Antonio Banderas or Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, aren’t fluent English speakers just because their speech is still accented!

Basically the logical fallacy lies within the fact that people generally tend to assume that just because on most occasions heavily accented foreign English speakers aren’t fluent, the opposite also holds true on 100% of occasions.

Can you blame the average Joe out there for judging you for your accent, however, if 9 foreigners out of 10 they’ve met in their lives have indeed NOT BEEN FLUENT SPEAKERS?

It brings us to the next reason:

Reason #2: Real Life Experiences

I guess we just have to be realistic: most foreign English speakers who speak with hard foreign accent are INDEED not fluent English speakers.

That’s why the misconception exists, and the average native English speaker (or any other person, for that matter), doesn’t even analyze the whole thing in the very depth like I was doing in the previous sub-section of this article.

People in general are quite simplistic and biased in the way they go about making instant decisions about others, and I have to admit that I’m pretty much the same in so many ways.

We all have stereotypical views (no matter how hard you’re trying to deny it, we both know it’s true, isn’t that right?), and it’s not necessarily a bad thing; it merely illustrates how our brain operates and it’s actually an important part of our cognitive build-up.

Let’s say, for example, you’ve been bitten by a dog previously in your life and you’re encountering a massive Staffordshire Terrier while having a stroll along the beach. The dog’s owner is nowhere to be seen, so quite obviously your real life experience tells you that the dog is probably going to attack you.

It is a generalization; there’s no hard proof that the dog is just as ferocious as the one who attacked you 5 years ago – same way as you can’t really tell from the first couple of seconds of meeting a foreigner whether he or she is a fluent English speaker judging by their accent alone.

THE MOST LIKELY situation is, however, that the foreigner speaking with a hard accent isn’t as fluent as someone who speaks with a better pronunciation, so that’s what you ASSUME.

Yes, sometimes those assumptions are totally wrong, but we are living creatures and we wouldn’t be able to function properly if we didn’t have such mental mapping in our brain.

Call it a generalization, call it a bias, but it just exists for as long as we get to know that person better.

So, next time a native English speaking person makes assumptions about your level of English because of your accent, ask yourself the following question before you get too angry: “Am I not biased myself in other situations in life?”

And most importantly – ask yourself is it not only human to feel a subliminal dislike towards something that would be considered as out of ordinary?

Reason #3: Subliminal Dislike Towards Anything Out of Ordinary

If you’re a native English speaker and you’re used to hearing English speaking people speaking to you with a certain accent your entire life, it’s only natural that a foreigner speaking in English with a foreign accent would be an exemption rather than a rule.

It would be something out of ordinary, something odd.

Fair enough, nowadays native speakers should have gotten used to all sorts of odd things considering how freely people can move around the modern world; a foreign accent shouldn’t even merit a second glance!

At a deep emotional level, however, we modern humans are still very much like Neanderthals!

Back in the Stone Age any stranger was most likely an enemy with an intention to harm as, so I believe that our DNA is wired to make us suspicious of anything foreign and strange at subconscious level.

Don’t get me wrong please, I’m not trying to make some outrageous claims and say that all native English speakers plain hate all foreigners – that would be indeed a totally stupid thing to say.

All I’m saying is that there’s a TINY part of some deep-rooted dislike towards everything out of ordinary ingrained in us all, and in the case of a native English speaker hearing a foreigner speak in English, they’ll be friendlier disposed towards the foreign if he or she speaks with a more native-like accent.

Basically it’s about people liking something they recognize; to a native English speaker their own accent would evoke positive emotions, and that’s why they’d prefer to deal with foreigners who have eradicated their native accents.

Now, is it clear to you why most people will judge you because of your foreign accent?

Now that you know the reasons behind it, I hope you’ll have it easier to deal with the psychological pressure such judgmental and condescending attitude often brings along!

Thanks for reading,

Robby 😉

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • http://accentadventure.com/dont-tell-me-not-to-learn-accent/#more-335 Yevgeniy Savelyev

    It’s a pity that only the old people in Britain can preserve the RP accent.
    If too many foreigners with broken tongues invaded Britain to speak with broken language does not mean the RP should not exist. They came with their own language and culture disregarding the RP and telling everywhere it is a vogue to speak illiterate. If people destroy and poison nature, contaminate earth and water with radioactive and chemical wastes, kill one another and break the civilized language of the British culture does not mean they are right. It is because there are too many of them, that’s why.
    What is Robby doing is for thousand times correct whatever anybody would say.

    • accentrobby

      It has to be noted as well that the Received Pronunciation is changing “from within”, it’s not just because of outside influences! Everything in life changes, and languages and accents are exempt from that rule! 😉

  • Pierre Alexander

    …..here is a link for a video where a lovely english teacher explain why you MUST NOT try to learn RP accent. I’m just trying to help you. RP is a very old accent. Don’t get me wrong, I’m really just trying to help you. Please, don’t waste your time. RP is a dead accent. People don’t speak like that anymore.


    • accentrobby

      The thing is – she’s speaking from a native speaker’s point of view. Yes, the standard RP mightn’t be that prevalent in the modern day England, yet when I as a foreign English speaker learn to speak with a British accent I don’t think I’m getting it wrong by trying to resemble RP speakers.

      And by the way – true RP speakers might argue my RP isn’t as distinct as it should be, so let me reiterate once more – I’m learn to speak like a British speaker, not necessarily like an RP speaker.



  • Pierre Alexander

    …….I forgot to say Received Pronunciation (RP) is only being used by less than 2% of the population in the United Kingdom. Just older people use it. Even the Queen no longer speaks the Queen’s English or RP.

  • Pierre Alexander

    Hi. Please, stop trying to speak as a native English speaker. Your RP accent is not that closed to what is spoken in England. It’s a little archaic and forced. It’s not natural as it should be. Accents in ‘England’ alone can change where ever you live in the country, they are hundreds if not thousands of accents and of course that also includes the rest of the countries in the UK, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have many British accents. London alone has a multitude of accents depending on what part of London you’re from as well as the ethnicity of the individual speakers and their peers from which accents are influenced. Trying to pretend to be who you are not and trying to copy any British accent may be impressive where you live but in the UK people would think there is something wrong with you and many would think you are trying to mock them and they could take offence as it comes across as false. You’re trying to learn the archaic RP. The best thing you can do is move to London and try to learn the modern version of RP. Estuary accent is a really great option too. Estuary is the accent spoken by Rupert Grint, David Tennant (in Doctor Who) and has become the new “Standard accent” for England. Good luck and be yourself.

    • accentrobby

      Hi Pierre Alexander,

      Thanks for your well-intended advice, but with all due respect I totally disagree with the points you’re making in your comment.

      First of all, I’m not trying to be someone I’m not.

      Trying to speak with a native-like accent is EXACTLY who I am; it’s part of my identity and it’s the main purpose of this blog.

      Secondly, I’m fully aware of existence of thousands of local accents all across the UK, but I really fail to see how it’s any relevant to what I’m trying to accomplish here on this blog. I’m trying to learn a British accent – not some local one!

      Next up – RP being archaic and because of that I shouldn’t learn it. Well, you can call it whatever you want – RP, British accent or whatever, but as part of this blog I’m learning to speak with an accent characterized by certain sounds and speech patterns used by almost all Brits – with the exception of Scottish and Welsh speakers I would imagine.

      YES, any native speaker in Britain would immediate recognize I’m a foreigner.

      YES, some people won’t probably like it.

      The point is, however, by mastering this accent fully I want to be able to have conversations with other people and speak with the RP fluently thus proving that accent acquisition isn’t only reserved to native speakers.

      Basically the bottom line is – while the classic RP might be changing, its main characteristics is pretty much alive to this day and with small corrections down the line I’ll be able to adjust for any local pronunciation needs.

      It’s not as if I’ll have to COMPLETELY re-work my whole British speech; RP isn’t that dissimilar to the Estuary accent by the way and if I ever want to sound like that, it’s not like I’ll have to totally re-wire my mouth.

      I strongly believe RP lays a great foundation to my ability to speak like a person from the UK, and I stand by this belief no matter what others might say! 😉