Accents, speaking style bias still at play in modern Britain

Accents, speaking style bias still at play in modern Britain

The Indian accent and working class speaking styles have a relatively low ranking when compared to the so-called “BBC English” or King’s English in the UK, according to new research.

Devyani Sharma, Professor of Sociolinguistics at Queen Mary University London, found that people tend to be biased towards speech styles and give high rankings to received pronunciation, also known as “BBC English'', French-accented English and “national” standard varieties such as Scottish, American, Southern Irish, with the lowest rankings for ethnic minority accents such as Afro-Caribbean and Indian and those associated with “working class” industrial cities of Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham.

In her ‘Speaking Up’ report, she found that BBC English used by the country's leading broadcaster remains the dominant accent in positions of authority across UK society – despite the fact that fewer than 10 per cent of the population have this accent, and those who do come almost exclusively from higher socio-economic backgrounds.

Sharma: “Our work shows that a long-standing hierarchy of accent prestige in Britain is still in place. Accent-based discrimination actively disadvantages certain groups at key junctures for social mobility, such as job interviews.

“This creates a negative cycle whereby regional, working class and minority ethnic accents are heard less in some careers or positions of authority, reinforcing anxiety and marginalisation for those speakers.”


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The research found that 30 per cent of university students and 29 per cent of university applicants (largely 17-18-year-olds) report being mocked, criticised or singled out in educational settings as a result of their accents, while 25 per cent of professionals report the same in work settings.

“It is natural for people to associate accents with social groups – but relying on accent stereotypes to judge professional ability in this way is discriminatory. Indeed, accent bias often becomes a proxy for discrimination against characteristics protected under the Equality Act,” added Sharma.

However, the study also found that recruiters can disregard accent when alerted to the problem in training, as well as when candidates speak confidently and knowledgeably, regardless of their accent.

“In this way, both listeners and speakers can start to tackle accent-based discrimination,” noted Sharma.

Researchers gathered testimonials on experiences of accent bias and anxiety from 178 university students across the UK, many of whom reported pressure to change their accent against their wishes. The study, funded by the Sutton Trust, warns that this adds a cognitive and a social burden to particular groups who have to distance themselves from their own communities, piling pressure on those who may already face disadvantages.

Sir Peter Lampl, Founder and Chairman of the Sutton Trust, said the research provides new evidence on the major role that accents play in social mobility.


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“It is disgraceful that people are mocked, criticised or singled out for their accents throughout their education, work and social lives. A hierarchy of accent prestige is entrenched in British society with BBC English being the dominant accent of those in positions of authority. This is despite the fact that less than 10 per cent of the population have this accent,” he said.

Researchers advise young people worried about their accent to focus on communicating confidently, rather than changing their accent to fit in.

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