Embrace diversity through voice and accent

As we finally start to celebrate different body shapes and skin colors in the mainstream media. I think we should also make an effort to celebrate and encourage different voices and accents.


We watched "My Fair Lady" this Saturday night. Usually, I would fall asleep halfway through a musical like this since it's always so long, but I watched the whole movie this time. The movie is about how a snobbish phonetics Professor Henry Higgins believes that the accent and tone of one's voice determine a person's prospects in society and agrees to a bet that he can make flower girl Eliza Doolittle presentable in high society. I was intrigued by so many aspects in this movie - language, accent, class, society, custom design, set design, love language, etc.


Today, I want to talk about accent since it's something on my mind lately. Also because at the beginning of this year, I set an intention to work on my relationship with my voice. Why? Because I used to think my voice and accent are holding me back from achieving more in American. And I want to change that negative relationship I had with my voice, stop shaming myself, and start celebrating and owning my voice as it is.


Not all accents are created equal. Some accents are superior than others, and accent bias is existing everywhere in the world. I think the best example is British English. I've learned that in England, your accent identifies you very strongly with class. In American, there are many accents throughout different regions as well. Some distinctive accents including southern accent, New Yorker accent, California accent etc. I definitely didn't know that when I first came to the U.S. or studied English in China.


Remember back in the '90s, we were taught either British English or American English, and both are the standard English we hear on TV and Radios - "the proper" ones. I didn't even get the difference between British English and American English back then! After years of living in the U.S., I slowly recognized the different accents people have even though they are native speakers. I slowly realized that I understand someone better than others depends on if they are speaking "the proper" English I learned in school. If they have some accent, it's slightly harder for me to understand as a non-native speaker.


Accent bias exists in China too. We have so many different dialects; almost every city has its own. Yet some dialect represents the higher class to people than other. In China, we all speak standard Mandarin Chinese (普通话) in school, but most of us speak our own city's dialect (方言) at home with our families and friends. We get judged by our accents in public all the time. For example, if you have a Beijing accent, you'll be more likely to speak your Beijing dialect in public than people from a smaller city.

"We live in an atmosphere of shame. We are ashamed of everything that is real about us; ashamed of ourselves, of our relatives, of our incomes, our our accents, of our opinions, of our experience, just as we are ashamed of our naked skins." - George Bernard Shaw

Due to the recent #stopasianhate movement, I've seen so many second-generation immigrants sharing their stories on why their parents didn't teach them their native language. They regretted that they can only speak English and lost the opportunity to learn the other part of their identity growing up, where their family is from. Parents always wanted the best for us. I believe when they came to this country, they've experienced so much bias against their accent, so they don't want their children to have the same negative experience.


Study shows that our accent can limit our professional opportunities; our accent can make us sound less trustworthy; our accent can make us sound less intelligent (What does your accent say about you?). Why we hide our accent? Maybe because we are ashamed of where we come from? We want to hide our old identity and only show the world what they want to see? We need to put on that mask because it's not safe to show our authentic self? Maybe because we need to hide our accent to get to where we want to be?


I read an article somewhere that says a study found that people judge your intelligence level based on your voice. I know many ESL people were thought of as not as intelligent because they have a foreign accent. I don't consider myself that smart sometimes because of my accent. I feel like once I open my mouth, people will know where I am from, think I'm a fraud, and not as interested. I used to feel that I'm less than others because I don't speak perfect proper English.


"Because I had an accent, people had this impression that I was dumb." - Wilmer Valderrama

As we finally start to celebrate different body shapes and skin colors in the mainstream media in today's world. I think we should also make an effort to celebrate and encourage different voices and accents. We need to recognize that our voice is part of our history, part of our identity. Stop shaming, start owning. If we all build more awareness and build a better relationship with our voice, I believe we'll create a more diverse and collaborative society with less hate.


Psychologist Nathaniel Branden said, "The first step toward change is awareness. The second step is acceptance." Be aware of the judging thoughts of yourself and others. Accept your voice for what it is. Own your voice, your accent, and your dialect. That doesn't mean you should just give up and stop learning. We can all learn more about communication and have more clarity when speaking. In my opinion, clear communication is more critical in a human relationship than accent and dialect. You can speak perfect and proper English but still communicate poorly. Well, that's another topic.


Be aware, show acceptance, and take action. Hope we can start to embrace diversity through accent, build a better relationship with our voices, and create a better community for everyone.