Is it possible to speak a foreign language without an accent?

Wingyellow   Saturday, August 09, 2003, 12:51 GMT
A Northern California marketing research firm agreed this month to pay $55,000 in lost wages and damages to a Chinese American interviewer who said a supervisor forced her out because she spoke English with an accent.

¡§I felt terrible,¡¨ said M. Chow of Pinole as she recalled the supervisor whose behavior led her to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union. ¡§It was stressful because he monitored me every day, telling me that I did something wrong here, didn¡¦t say certain words right.¡¨

Speaking with a discernible but understandable accent, she requested that she be identified by her first initial, and neither the supervisor¡¦s name nor that of the firm was disclosed as part of the settlement. However, the ACLU attorney who represented her talked at length about what she had endured and what her victory may mean.

¡§Employers should be on notice,¡¨ said Ed Chen, who directs the group¡¦s Language Rights Project. ¡§An employer may not harass or terminate an employee solely because the employee speaks with an accent or uses a foreign language at work. Those that do are at risk of having to pay for their actions.¡¨

Chow, 40, has lived in the United States for 15 years. From 1992 to 1994, she worked at the marketing company. During most of her stint there, she received raises along with favorable reviews; the comments in her evaluations included, ¡§Excellent all-around job! Keep it up!¡¨ and ¡§Congratulations... you qualify for a raise in all categories.¡¨

But Chow¡¦s last supervisor, who came on six months before she left, gave her less than satisfactory ratings and subjected her to daily ¡§tutorials¡¨ to correct her enunciation, according to the EEOC¡¦s findings.

¡§Every day, he asked me to sit with him for half an hour to practice reading the questionaire,¡¨ Chow recalled. ¡§I felt terrible.¡¨

Eventually, he told Chow, hired as a bilingual English and Cantonese interviewer, that because ¡§she didn¡¦t speak English so well,¡¨ she should work only one hour a day and focus only on Cantonese interviewing assignments.

¡§I was hurt...I was hired as a bilingual,¡¨ Chow said. ¡§If they didn¡¦t think I could perform, then they shouldn¡¦t have hired me.¡¨

She decided to quit and to take her case to the EEOC, which is handling a growing number of accent discrimination cases as the population itself diversifies. One in three California workers speaks a foreign language at home; the national ratio is 1 in 14, according to U.S. Census figures. More than a quarter of residents of Asian descent speak limited English, according to the Census.

¡§So long as she could be understood, there were no communication problem, she could ask questions, get information for her survey, she was qualified,¡¨ Chen asserted. ¡§We saw no documentation that anyone ever had difficulty understanding her. Her supervisor wasn¡¦t pleased with her enunciation, her tone, sometimes the choppiness of her pace, as he described it.¡¨

Employers generally are prohibited from discriminating on the basis of accent, Chen said, adding that workers cannot be fired simply because an employer or customer does not like the sound of an accent.

¡§Employers cannot rely upon prejudices of customers,¡¨ Chen explained. Just as an employer cannot hire only men just because clients want it to, he said, ¡§if customers prefer to deal with someone with no accent, simply because of those preferences, you can¡¦t give into that either.¡¨

Chow has waited five years for the decision, the first three spent in part-time work. Eventually, she said, she landed a full-time position in telecommunications. She declined to provide more detail about the job.

Chow said she feels ¡§great¡¨ about the settlement, though she admitted she had hoped for a larger award given the length of the investigation.

¡§This will signal that they have to be very cautious in making judgments about accents, according equal opportunity to people,¡¨ said her lawyer. ¡§There is monetary and legal liability when you make a wrong decision in this area.¡¨
Tom   Saturday, August 09, 2003, 13:32 GMT
That's ridiculous. If I had a business, I should be allowed to hire employees according to my judgment. If my judgment is that a person speaking with a nonstandard accent will make an unfavorable impression on my customers, I should be able to refuse to hire that person.
wingyellow   Saturday, August 09, 2003, 14:29 GMT
But it seems that Cantonese accent is a big problem for native speakers.
wingyellow   Saturday, August 09, 2003, 15:06 GMT
The point is that the firm should not have hired her in the first place.
And I believe that it is close to impossible to "learn" how to speak an impeccable accent. I think my accent is one of the best among Hong Kong people (native Cantonese speakers), but native speakers can still tell I am not one of them.
On the other hand, Hong Kong people are very obtuse when it comes to their accent. "It doesn't matter as long as native speakers can understand." That is their excuse.
Tom, I would like to hear your accent too. Could you upload it in the forum? And why are all successful learners in your site Polish?
mjd   Saturday, August 09, 2003, 18:01 GMT
Well...Tom is from Poland so the majority of people he interacts with are probably Polish.
Ryan   Saturday, August 09, 2003, 18:21 GMT
Tom, that is against American law and is considered downright bigoted here. With the same logic, someone could not hire ethnic minorities because they might make "unfavorable impressions" on customers. In the United States, equal opportunity is the law. If you don't provide equal opportunity, it's called RACISM and this applies just as much to language as it does to skin color.

Guofei Ma   Saturday, August 09, 2003, 21:19 GMT
Yes, I would certainly like to hear Tom's accent. Perhaps we all should upload our own accents and let everyone comment on them. Can someone propose a script that we all may read and record in our own accent?
Tremmert   Sunday, August 10, 2003, 12:42 GMT
Ryan, why then do people fail interviews if they can't speak English properly? An accent could be seen as an extension of that...
Tom   Sunday, August 10, 2003, 16:52 GMT

In my example, I (the business owner) am not a racist. I don't mind people with foreign accents. However, suppose my customers have a problem with immigrants. Shouldn't I be able to take that into account when hiring? After all, business is about satisfying your customer's needs. If I don't care for my customers, my business will go down.

The argument applies to skin color, gender, etc. too.
Ryan   Sunday, August 10, 2003, 19:47 GMT
Your point holds when the employee with an accent is not understandable by customers, Tom. Otherwise, that is not how American law works. We have a long history of racism in this country that precludes the usual "The customer is always right" idea that runs through capitalism. All businesses must satisfy equal opportunity requirements, so it's not like one business is going to lose out to another business just because they hire more "undesirable" minorities.

Actually, hiring minorities is becoming a good thing in this country as it brings in "minority business" and makes it appear your company is progressive and open-minded. It actually increases business, not decreases it. Of course, this might not apply in places like small-town Southern diners, for instance.

The controversy in the United States now is not whether to hire minorities to begin with, but whether they should be given preferential treatment over non-minorities in order to "uplift" their economic status. This is called "Affirmative Action" and is a strong dividing line between liberal and conservative groups in this country.

As long as an accent is understandable, there should be no reason why an employer should not hire qualified applicants. The United States and Canada are probably the two countries most open-minded about foreigners and their accents in the entire world, and it reflects in their laws. It's still important to train to get your accent down, though, as I know plenty of foreigners at my university who are still barely understandable when they speak English.

I apologize for my harsh tone before but I forgot that you are not American and I believe the kind of thinking I describe is common sense to most Americans.

Jay   Monday, August 11, 2003, 01:10 GMT

First - *everyone* has an accent, even in their "native" language(s). I believe (err, I took a survey of linguistics course once upon a time) each person is considered to speak their own version of a language, known as an "idiolect" (spelling?)

Anyway, about certain forms of job discrimination being illegal, companies get tax breaks and "corporate welfare" in exchange for following laws that communities have agreed upon. Sounds fair to me.
Clark   Monday, August 11, 2003, 02:31 GMT
You spelled it correctly, Jay.

I like to think that no one can tell anyone else that they are pronouncing a word wrong because of the fact that each person has their "own" language, if you will.
Tom   Tuesday, August 12, 2003, 16:48 GMT

Do you think it is appropriate to discriminate against people who stutter when hiring telemarketers?
Ryan   Tuesday, August 12, 2003, 17:08 GMT
Stutterers are sometimes well-understood and other times not well understood depending upon the severity of their condition. In the story above, the words specifically say "speaking with a discernable but understandable accent." If the person is understandable in English, then you cannot discriminate against her just because there is the presence of an accent. Do you think Wingyellow should not be able to get a job in the United States because he still has a Chinese accent even though he is completely understandable? How would you feel if somebody still felt you had an accent, Tom, and denied you a job? Wouldn't that make you mad, when you and everyone else on here think you have a great accent?

Obviously, the jury thought the woman was perfectly understandable and realized that she was discriminated against.

Wingyellow   Tuesday, August 12, 2003, 23:42 GMT

Why do you have to pick on people with an accent? It's outright discrimination. And one thing is clear--though your accent can pass as native, your value, culture and belief are far from being American.


If people have to discriminate against someone, it has less to do with an accent than race and skin color. But I believe that the lady should have spoken with an accent worse than mine, because technology nowadays gives me a great advantage. Good news is that she managed to get a job later.
I am not worried about getting a boss to recognize my accent. I am working in an international trading company. I have to talk to a lot of foreign clients. And my English has, so far, made more than a million dollars for my company. My boss, colleagues and my wife respect me because of this. But it would definitely be better if my accent can improve.