Accentism in education

Accent discrimination is particularly dangerous in educational settings. For instance, if instructors negatively evaluate students based on an accent bias, students may suffer lack of motivation and low self-esteem.

So far, research on accentism in education has been mainly conducted in English-speaking countries. For example, in a recent UK survey of university students and university applicants (Levon, Sharma & Ilbury 2022), a significant number of respondents (30% of the student sample and 29% of the applicant sample) reported having experienced regional accent bias and feeling mocked, criticized or singled out because of their accents.

According to Levon and colleagues (ibid.: 19), “[r]esearch has shown that standard language ideology is enforced both implicitly – through instruction and the requirement of the student to use ‘fluent’ styles of speaking (often equated with elimination of regional traits) – and explicitly – through educational policies”. 

Thus, “[m]any university students report a pressure to change their accent against their wishes”, which “places added cognitive pressure on a subset of social groups who tend to already be facing disadvantage of other kinds” (ibid.: 25). The authors further point out that “students report hesitancy to speak in class, speak up in tutorials, or ask questions, which can impede learning and the acquisition of public speaking and communication skills crucial for social mobility and career advancement” (ibid.). 

As for schools, two recent UK studies have shown that the evaluation of pupils’ performance by both teachers (Snell & Cushing 2022) and inspectors (Cushing & Snell 2022) is affected by stereotypical assumptions about accents. 

Moving to a non-European context and considering languages other than English, Olko et al. (2023) have examined the acculturation processes of Indigenous people speaking Nahuati in Mexico. They found that linguistic discrimination, of which schools are a primary space, is an important predictor of poorer self-rated health and higher levels of depression in the Nahua communities. Recent studies have focused on the attitudes of teachers towards students’ accented speech in Italy (for an in-depth look at the situation of accents in Italy and attitudes towards multilingualism in schools, click here) and on attitudes of German high school students toward different varieties of English.  

Overall, accentism in education is still an under investigated area of study and one that deserves greater attention by the public opinion and decision-makers alike. CIRCE’s main objective is precisely to raise awareness of this form of discrimination and develop resources promoting greater tolerance towards accent variation.

What is the impact of accent discrimination on school children?

Accent discrimination can have a significant impact on school children in several ways:

1. Bullying and social exclusion: Pupils who speak with a different accent from the dominant or perceived “standard” accent may become targets of bullying or social exclusion by their peers. They may be ridiculed, mocked, or isolated, which can lead to feelings of shame, low self-esteem, and a negative school experience.

2. Academic performance and confidence: Accent discrimination can affect a student’s academic performance and confidence. Pupils who are constantly subjected to negative reactions or biased treatment based on their accent may feel discouraged from participating in class, speaking up, or expressing themselves. This can hinder their learning, academic engagement, and overall educational outcomes.

3. Language development: Accent discrimination can also impact a pupil’s language development. When students are discouraged or silenced due to their accent, they may hesitate to practice speaking or engaging in verbal activities. This can hinder their language fluency, vocabulary acquisition, and communication skills, potentially affecting their educational progress and future opportunities.

4. Cultural identity and belonging: Pupils who experience accent discrimination may struggle with their sense of cultural identity and belonging. They may feel pressured to modify their accent or suppress their cultural background to fit societal expectations or avoid discrimination. This internal conflict can result in a loss of connection to their cultural heritage, leading to feelings of isolation or identity crisis.

5. Psychological well-being: Accent discrimination can have a negative impact on the psychological well-being of school children. Persistent experiences of discrimination can contribute to increased stress, anxiety, and depression. It can create a hostile school environment that affects the overall emotional health and happiness of students.