The Stain of an Accent

An immigrant’s take on accents, and how they should be perceived by the average American.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

I’ve been told that Russians speak English like vampires: the “w” in “water” becomes a sharpened “v,”; the double o’s in “look” or “foot” become an elongated “y”; and the “i” in “instead” becomes a rolling “eee.” As an eight-year-old, hearing this analogy made blood rush to my cheeks and my ears turn pink. No child wants to hear her family’s speech pattern likened to that of a monster from a horror movie. Over time, the effect of the vampire joke wore off, but my increased awareness of my family’s accent did not.

As a child, I cringed each time my grandfather ordered coffee, pronouncing black, “blyek.” I would sit him down and repeat the open “a” over and over again, asking with frustration why he couldn't just say it like everybody else. My grandfather would laugh and go on to read his newspaper, oblivious of the scowl on my face. That scowl would re-emerge whenever my grandmother brushed off my quiet corrections of the way she pronounced cold cut orders at the deli, saying that the vendors could understand her perfectly well despite her accent. Even as an eight-year-old, I knew that they couldn’t. The puzzled expressions on their faces and the quiet whispers of “what does she want now” made it clear to me that my accentless English would make me a translator for her—and nearly every other member of my family—for years to come.

This obligation is the unspoken duty of every child of immigrants. I know that now. But as one of two Russian girls at my lower school, it felt like I was the only one who had to carry this burden with me to every grocery store, restaurant, and airport. It felt like I was the only one who flushed with embarrassment each time the vampiric accent of my Russian family reminded me that I was, in some way, unlike everyone else.

Coming to Stuyvesant was the turning point in both my relationship with my heritage and my relationship with accents. For the first time in my life, I had teachers who weren’t white and whose English didn’t fit the cookie-cutter model I so desperately tried to instill in my family. I met students who not only had accents themselves, but also had parents who didn’t speak English at all, much less speak with the accent-ridden pronunciation I complained about. Once more, I felt a wave of embarrassment: how had I spent so many years trying to fix something that was commonplace and hardly even seen as an issue?

Stuyvesant is the first school I have attended that provides principal meetings, college seminars, and parent orientations in more than one language. It’s the first school where many students don’t have to self-advocate due to linguistic or cultural restrictions, filling out family income, blue card, and immunization forms themselves. Stuyvesant is the first place I’ve been to that hasn’t singled me out for being an immigrant.

In this new environment, I stopped agonizing over where my family is from and how they speak English. Throughout freshman year, I confidently told my friends and classmates about my experiences as a Belarusian immigrant and strove to educate those who didn’t know much about my culture. This relationship was both blissful and exciting, and for a while, I nearly forgot that accents could be a point of contention. I didn’t think that accents could make more of a difference than just a puzzled expression at the deli or a request to repeat a coffee order.

I forgot these things until one of my volleyball coaches asked me where my father was from, then gave me a look of pity when I told him, “Belarus.” I forgot these things until I watched a teammate’s parent pretend to not understand my father when he spoke, or met his greetings with cold silence. I forgot these things until I discovered that my father and I were ruthlessly gossiped about by the rest of the parents and players and ostracized for being the only family who didn’t speak flawless English. For the first time, instead of embarrassment over the way my heritage was perceived, I felt boiling rage.

Over time, this rage has evolved into pity and a realization that accents can act as a permanent stain on the public perception of an individual. Research has shown that it takes us less than 30 seconds to first profile people based on how their voice sounds, then make snap judgments about their socioeconomic class, background, and ethnic origin. Such judgments often entail assumptions about an individual's education, intelligence, and social skills, constituting what is known as “lingustic discrimination.” In the work place, research has shown that linguistic discrimination may translate to feelings of exclusion and job stagnation, with direct evidence linking an accent to difficulties in career progression.

Modern sensitivity training typically addresses our implicit biases pertaining to gender, religion, and sexual orientation. But the costs of accent-based discrimination necessitate its incorporation into such curricula. Employees must shift their focus from the delivery of a message to its contents. And if an individual's accent is hindering comprehension, simply asking her to repeat, slow down, or rephrase her message will create a stronger foundation for respect and understanding toward individuals with non-native or regional accents.

In my 16-and-a-half years, I’ve learned to accept my family’s speech patterns and use my own knowledge of English to help them in any way that I can. Yet outside of Stuyvesant, it seems that even a liberal-minded city such as New York is hesitant to do the same. Through minor changes to implicit bias curricula and a work-place emphasis on an individual’s qualifications over their dialect, accents will no longer be a source of prejudice toward immigrant families.