What is in an Accent?

By Zhaoyang Liu

Sociolinguistics is the study of language in regards to a variety of social factors. It explores the role that languages play in society and how people build their interactions and attitudes around it. Language can influence the way others perceive someone’s education, social status and family background, especially if that person is a non-native speaker. Since there are societal links between language and identity, it is only natural for individuals to be concerned about aspects of their speech. For instance, mastering the standard accent of a language is viewed by many people as a hallmark of integration. This relationship between accent and quality of speech has more implications than just in the field of education; it filters down into the way people form their understanding of others.

The standard accent — the one usually depicted in media — is normally held in higher regard than others accents, including both non-standard native dialects and non-native accents. This causes people to believe that there is a singular “correct” accent, one which is perfect and thus almost inaudible. On top of this, non-native speakers are often evaluated on the basis of their accents; some foreign accents can be seen as being more charming, exotic or educated than others. Consequently, a number of immigrants pursue the standard accent in order to be accepted and reduce assumptions about themselves. However, accent is only one of the many aspects of language, which begs the question: how important is it?

Roberto Rey Agudo, the language program director of Spanish and Portuguese at Dartmouth College, believes that accents should not play such an important role in our perceptions of people. He holds that everyone speaks even their native language with a unique accent, influenced by the various social factors in their lives. Since accents are, universally, both natural and unavoidable, society should not value people, especially immigrants, on how they speak. Agudo also adds that a person’s accent does not dictate their syntactic understanding of a particular language. He states:

“Accent by itself is a shallow measure of language proficiency, the linguistic equivalent of judging people by their looks. Instead, we should become aware of our linguistic biases and learn to listen more deeply before forming judgments. How large and how varied is the person’s vocabulary? Can she participate in most daily interactions? How much detail can he provide when retelling something? Can she hold her own in an argument?”

The entirety of Agudo’s proposal can be read at the following link: 


Reflection Questions:

1. Immigrants can struggle with mastering the standard language and accent of their new countries. How does the way in which they speak the dominant language affect the way they are perceived? Keeping that in mind, what reasons might cause some immigrants to feel an impetus for learning the standard accent?

2. What role does media representation play in our perception of accents? What causes certain dialects or accents to be viewed as more acceptable or preferable than others? Is it possible for non-standard accents to gain acceptance within a society? What will it take for societies to value their linguistic diversity? What gets in the way?

3. In the article, Agudo mentions how accents can interfere with how well a person is understood, which is why they became a focus of language learning. How can the necessity of having an understandable accent be reconciled with the inevitable variation in people’s speech? More broadly, how do the methods of teaching language affect our understanding of its role in society?

4. Many people do not recognize that, they too, have accents until someone else tells them so. Why do you think people are able to hear other’s accents, but are often unable to hear their own?