April 20, 2017

Managing Accent Bias and Working with Multilingual Individuals

By Guest Blogger Luciana C. de Oliveira, Ph.D.

Recently, while travelling for work, a driver took me from Boston to Dartmouth for a presentation on immigrant students in the U.S. He asked me a simple – but interesting – question that touches on a topic I’m very close to: being inclusive with people who are multilingual.

He asked me where I was from. I told him that I live in Miami.

“Is that where you are really from?” he asked.

I answered, “No, I’m originally from Brazil but have lived in the U.S. for 20 years.”

“Wow!” he said. “And you still have such a strong accent?”

I don’t usually get comments like that anymore. I was nearly fluent in English when I moved to the U.S. at age 22, and I don’t think my accent is that obvious. I said to the driver, “Have you heard your accent?”

“Good point!” he said.

It was indeed a good point. Sometimes so-called “native” English speakers notice multilingual individuals’ accents more than they recognize their own. The reality is that everybody has an accent! Sometimes the accent is associated with prestige, other times with being from specific regions in a country (any country), and yet others with being international.


What is Your Accent Bias?

Accent is defined as “a distinctive manner of expression . . . a way of speaking typical of a particular group of people.” Notice that it is not particular to multilingual people or so-called “non-native” speakers of a language. However, it is typically associated with such individuals.

How do we deal with accent bias in our lives as multilingual individuals or people who interact with speakers of other languages? First, we need to be aware that we all have accents – and that an accent is not something unique to just bilingual or multilingual individuals. It is actually a common aspect of any language. Even people who only speak one language have an accent, as my driver in Boston did.

Here are a few tips on managing bias and working with multilingual individuals.

  1. Refrain from telling someone that she has a strong accent, especially if that person is a speaker of multiple languages. Why even make such a comment? My advice would be to appreciate the other person’s abilities and skills. After all, that person has had to learn more than one language. In the United States, being bilingual or multilingual, unfortunately, is not the norm, as it is in many other places around the world. So people may notice accents more often here than in countries in Europe, for instance, where being able to speak three or more languages is the norm.
  2. If you sense that a person is multilingual, please don’t shout to be understood. It really does not help and can be seen as an insult. Please be patient and do not get upset yourself. Keeping calm can go a long way towards better communication.
  3. If you are unable to understand what someone is saying – for whatever reason – ask that person to repeat what they said, but never blame the person for it! You can say, “Could you please repeat that? I’m not sure I understood what you are trying to say.” Politeness helps. Put the burden on yourself to understand the other person. Don’t say, “Your accent is making it hard for me to understand you,” or comments like that.

These tips are not just for speaking with multilingual people. As I mentioned before, monolingual speakers have accents too.


Luciana C. de Oliveira is Associate Professor in the Language and Literacy Learning in Multilingual Settings program area in the Department of Teaching and Learning at the University of Miami in Miami, Florida.