Credit: GG Illustrator Emma Garcia-Melchor (@emmitagm)

Speaking out against accent discrimination at uni

By Jasmine Urquhart

Softening of regional accents is rife at universities, but you should never need to change yourself to feel like you belong.

This article may be about accent softening at university, but I’ve been working on my accent for much longer. At 11 years old, I knew that all the rich and successful people on the TV had one thing in common: they were “well-spoken”. I immediately decided to work on changing my accent to sound more like the people I heard on TV, in order to become rich. Though I haven’t yet achieved my goal, the “well-spoken” accent has stuck with me till today. Accent reduction is rife at universities, with many people adopting a homogenous, posh accent to come across well. A quick Google search shows up endless results for so-called “accent softening” classes, which promise greater “clarity of communication” and sell it as self-improvement.

The rise of this new industry doesn’t sit right with me. Accent softening classes are selling people something that they shouldn’t have to, or want to, change about themselves. There’s a pervasive attitude that being “well-spoken” is synonymous with sounding like you’re from Made In Chelsea. Someone’s ability to communicate clearly and their accent are two things that should never be conflated. The amount of businesses trying to make money from this industry tells me that the demand for “accent reduction” is really high. But somehow, I don’t think people are spending money on this because they really want to: instead, they want to fit into a mould of what a “well-educated” person sounds like, and may be afraid of being judged for having a strong regional accent. The amount of students adopting a different accent at university is symptomatic of this. 

Rebecca, a student from the west of Scotland, told me how she has had to change her accent since coming to university: “A lot of my peers in Geography were English and privately-educated, which meant they sounded a lot more posh than I did, and I worried I wouldn’t be taken as seriously as them with a broad west coast accent… which I now realise is daft, of course, since the University itself is in the west of Scotland, and I shouldn’t have to change for the benefit of others.” 

But the problem didn’t end there: “Now I have this weird hybrid accent of West End x West Coast, where back home I get ripped into for people calling me posh, and in the West End I have people telling me I sound “hard done by” whenever I get angry and the well-spoken front slips away momentarily. It’s a weird tightrope to balance on, where I feel like I don’t fit in with the posh accent but have betrayed my more working-class roots by adopting a new accent in an attempt to be taken more seriously.” 

Rebecca’s experience highlights another problem for students: when you change your accent at university, you have to inevitably deal with people at home who will judge you and label you as posh when you go back to visit. On one hand, we have to find a way to fit in at university, but on the other, you feel a bit out of place back at home, as if you don’t belong there either. It’s good to feel like you’ve improved your social and educational standing, but this shouldn’t come at the cost of feeling abnormal in the town you grew up in.There is a positive aspect to all of this. In recent years, I have seen more presenters speak in their regional accents on the TV, instead of in the homogenous received pronunciation which was mandatory for so many years. Up until very recently, broadcasters were expected to talk in the clipped vowels of the Queen’s English, even if they were from the other end of the country. However, the fact that so many still try and modify their speech at university tells me that we still subconsciously conflate social standing with accents. It’s still the status quo that people from a tiny square mile in London are richer than everyone else, and who can blame people for trying to emulate that? But it’s not just about how you talk: there’s something wrong when the message to students who come from outside the establishment is to try and change themselves, when we don’t have to do that. We need to send the message that it’s not about how you talk or about being “well-spoken”: you can change your accent if you want to, but you don’t have to have a homogenous voice in order to elevate yourself. “Well-spoken” doesn’t really mean anything, and the fact that you’re at university is enough proof that you deserve to be here.


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