A small research project from the University of Manchester has found that some teacher trainees from the North of England are being advised to tone down their accents so they’ll be understood more easily by students.
Dr. Alexander Baratta interviewed 23 teacher trainees that included 11 from the North of England. Of those 11, all but two claimed that they had been advised to adjust accents linked to Manchester, Liverpool and Yorkshire. Of the 12 trainees from the South, only four were advised to make an adjustment.
Dr. Baratta, who is a lecturer in linguistics in the University’s School of Environment, Education and Development, says that the advice constitutes a “culture of prejudice” in an education sphere that not only commits to diversity, but also condemns strongly any discrimination based on racial or ethnic grounds.
Baratta told Javier Espinoza of The Telegraph that:
“There is a respect and tolerance for diversity in society, yet accents do not seem to get this treatment – they are the last form of acceptable prejudice.
One teacher told me that it makes no sense that teachers have to sound the same, but teach the children to be who they are.”
Sally Weale of The Guardian reports that one teacher trainee from Leicester was told that if she wanted to engage in phonics instruction, she should “go back to where [she] came from.” Her accent was self-described as Midlands, and she was reportedly given the advice in front of a large group.
Baratta’s past research included in a 2014 examination of how adjustments to an accent made participants feel about themselves. A significant finding was that tweaking an accent to sound more refined or ‘posh’ led to a more negative self-perception. In short, participants did not like having to change who they were.
In 2014, former Minister for Employment Esther McVey advised Britons not to change their accents for the sake of getting a job. McVey, from Liverpool, which was determined in a ComRes poll to be the ‘least friendly’ accent in Britain, said, “Has my accent held me back? I don’t believe it has at all, I think it can be a colourful accent.”
But survey data shows that accent still matters. Peninsular, a law firm, found that 8 in 10 of those surveyed admitted that they factored regional accents into hiring decisions, and another poll found that roughly one in four Britons felt that they had been discriminated against based on their accents.
Baratta told The Guardian that the mismatch between accents from the North and those from the preferred Home Counties could have an effect on teacher morale.
“The trainee teachers I spoke to believe that they are being judged for how they speak and not what they say and asking them to modify their accents made them feel inferior.”
Linguistic discrimination — or linguicism — has been of one kind or another is well-documented in English-speaking countries. In the 1980’s, linguist Tove Skutnabb-Kangas’s work on discrimination helped bring the issue to prominence, with Kangas defining the problem as:
“… ideologies and structures which are used to legitimate, effectuate, and reproduce unequal division of power and resources (both material and non-material) between groups which are defined on the basis of language.”
The United States has struggled with linguicism targeting African-American and Hispanic populations, and Canada continues to lessen tension between French and English speakers in Quebec.
The Department for Education has not yet commented on Dr. Baratta’s research, which he will present at the British Education Research Association conference in September.