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Every Person Has an Accent (Religion & Race)

Written by Eun Jin “Jinny” Kim, a 2022 intern for the General Commission on Religion and Race, and a student at Garret-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston Illinois. 

Often, when people born and reared in the United States refer to difficulty with another person’s “accent,” we may be showing implicit bias toward a person whose first language is not U.S. English. Or we may assume that a person who “looks foreign,” based on our limited experience, is not proficient in speaking English. The following phrases demonstrate such biases: 

  • “Your English is so good! You don’t have an accent!” 
  • “Where did you learn English?” 
  • “I can’t understand you because of your accent.” 

It is possible to listen to and understand people who speak with an accent unfamiliar to you. It is imperative, however, to first recognize and address your own biases. Do you assume that People of Color who speak with an accent closer to yours are smarter and more relatable? How comfortable are you in settings where you are in the racial/cultural minority? Do you respond with openness and acceptance to pastors, teachers, co-workers, and customer-service workers who speak with an accent that is different from yours?

To improve your ability to understand and engage people of different accents:

  • Re-examine your biases 
    • Remember, there is not just one “correct” way to speak a certain language (everyone has an accent).
    • Consider that the English-speaker with the “accent” knows at least two languages and may help you expand your language base.  
    • Don’t ask people with “accents” different from yours to “speak English” when you hear them speaking their first language to friends and families. If they prefer speaking in another language when addressing others, don’t take offense or assume they are talking about you.
    • Don’t feel compelled to compliment a person’s “good English.”
  • Clarify and engage 
    • Do not say “I can’t understand you because of your accent.” 
    • Politely say, “I didn’t catch that, could you repeat/spell what you said?” 
    • If there is a misunderstanding, focus on your mistake; don’t blame the person for their “accent.”  
  •  Be open minded 
    • Listen with intention, rather than hearing differences.  
    • Train your ears to understand “accented” English. 
    • Resist the temptation to leave a congregation, social group, workplace, or group because of the leader’s “accent.” Hang in there and adapt.