Accents and Discrimination

Accents and Discrimination

A client told me she’s recently seen a TV show about accents and discrimination in professions.  I didn’t see the programme, but it doesn’t surprise me, because in a recent poll, 27% of the population believe that they’ve been discriminated against because of their accent.

Accent and dialect are part of who we are, where we came from, where we’ve lived.  Some places retain a distinct accent and the families and community in the area are recognized by the way they speak and use the language.  In this way an accent and dialect could be described as being tribal.  It is a way of staying close.
My client told me that there were examples of people not being able to enter a profession (the legal profession of barrister) because of their accent. Legal language and legal terms are complex.  The job of a barrister is to speak for others and be dexterous with the language. I have coached people with accents who have been accepted for pupillage.  One person came to me having been turned down 9 times.  They were extremely bright, had good degrees, but their speech was not clear.  This was mainly because of key consonants sounds that were hard for them to achieve because these sounds were not in their mother tongue.  They wrote notes of these sounds and stuck them up around their flat where they could see them, so they practiced them all the time.  Others found the meeting of everyone in chambers, which is a necessary step for acceptance for pupillage, daunting.   You need to practice and work on yourself, your worth, your confidence, your fluency.

There is a tribal language in chambers.  They are all in there to get the work and yes some accents can be a barrier.  A strong south London or cockney accent may appear to be too bullish for when you are presenting an argument.  It is not difficult to soften a strong London accent, but when you are happy with the way you speak, why would you?   It’s more difficult to get a defined cockney accent when you speak RP (standard English).   I’ve done it with an RP speaker on a BBC documentary about London accents.   He went around Shepherd’s Bush market buying fruit and veg and then the market stall holders he bought from, were asked where they thought he was from. They all said, “from around here”, which was great …and a relief.

Everyone likes accents, as long as they are clear. They give colour and personality to the speaker. In professions where the terminology and vocabulary is complex, it’s important to be clear.  If you put stress and intonation on a word or phrase that differs from standard English, then it can be confusing and in the legal and medical professions it’s crucial that there can be no mistakes.

There are groups of lawyers in charities, who sponsor talented young people of school age, who would not normally be given the opportunity to go to Oxford or Cambridge or enter the bar.