A stereotype is when we elect to concentrate on a very small and specific set of characteristics. Which invariably are not factually correct. Yet we assign these “traits” and “roles” to an entire group of people. A stereotype has the ability to positive or negative. However it is the negative stereotypes that are the ones that are more common, more widely spread and persist with greater longevity than those of a positive nature.
Stereotypes can have great influence on how many of us processes and retrieve information. This anonymous quote is a prime example.
Heaven is where the police are British, the cooks are French, the mechanics German, the lovers Italian, and it is all organized by the Swiss. Hell is where the chefs are British, the mechanics French, the lover’s Swiss, the police German, and it is all organized by the Italians.
So, I am in Italy, I meet an Italian (would be strange if I didn’t being in Italy). I make the assumption the Italian I meet is an excellent lover, but a lousy organiser, purely because he is Italian. No disrespect to any Italian readers. How do I know that the Italian that I met is not a brilliant organiser and a terrible lover? Or a mediocre organiser and an average lover? The truth is I don’t. All I have is “anecdotal” information, if one can even call it that. I have no facts. But I have gone ahead and overlaid a set of attributes onto an entire nation, on the basis of one anonymous “humorous” quote. Rather a ludicrous thing to do wouldn’t you say?
Stereotypes more often than not open the dark doors to prejudice and racism. Allowing us to perceive an entire group solely founded on stereotypical beliefs. Our history is littered with examples of prejudice and racism, based on nothing more than stereotyping. The globe may be shrinking, we may now easily travel great distances in a matter of hours. The internet has now enabled us to accesses people and lands far away. But has it bridged the gap traditionally filled by stereotypes and caricatures? Sadly I’d say not. Non-native English (you can substitute any language for English, I chose English because I’m in the UK) speakers not only have to deal with physical group stereotyping and prejudice, but also vocal prejudice.
You’re speaking English with an accent and sometimes even though you might speak perfect English, you’re still assigned an accent that you don’t have because of the way that you look! Research over the years has shown that there are many negatives associated to speaking a language with an accent. In other words being a non-native speaker.
It appears to go like this. Native speakers look upon those who speak their language with an accent as foreigners, outsiders, therefore non natives who are:
- Less intelligent
- Less educated
- Possessing poor English skills
- Being unpleasant to listen to
I am only too painfully aware of the accent stereotypes in the media. Here is an example, being given on purpose, of an East Asian accent, by the irrepressible and always instructive Dr. Steve Robbins.
For those in society who have extremely strong accents life can be tougher and very “uncomfortable.” People with non-native accents tend to be viewed by the indigenous society with even more intolerance and prejudice. A strong accent seems to be viewed, or taken, as the person’s refusal to learn the language correctly. That is to the say the non-native accent is used deliberately by the “foreigner” as a way of insulting those who consider themselves to be true natives of the country. The inference being that if the “foreigner” really wanted to get on, to integrate then they would get rid of the accent.
This in turn enables the native speaker to feel justified in their feelings of hostility, anger and prejudice because they can’t even be bothered to speak the language properly.
Foreign accents also stigmatise a group of people as being different, being outside of the realms of those that belong. It marks the group as migrants and therefore separate from mainstream accepted society.
Accent serves as the first point of gate keeping because we are forbidden, by law and social custom, and perhaps by a prevailing sense of what is morally and ethically right, from using race, ethnicity, homeland or economics more directly. We have no such compunctions about language, however. Thus, accent becomes a litmus test for exclusion, and excuse to turn away, to recognize the other.
English With and Accent Lippi-Green, 1997, p. 64.
People who cannot communicate in the native language without an accent are more likely to experience prejudice and discrimination socially and culturally.
They are unlikely to be treated in the workplace in the same manner as a native speaker. Ending up with the more menial tasks. People with non native accents are less likely to be assigned to positions of overall responsibility. Applications for accommodation are more likely to be a challenge. Research has shown that landlords tend not to respond very well to messages left by prospective tenants who have strong non-native accents.
As Dr. Robbins pointed out the world of academia is not free from accent prejudice. There is no proof, that I am aware of, that educators with strong non-native accents produce students who under-perform in comparison to those being taught by a native English speaker.
Can we eliminate such prejudice, is that even possible given the fact that prejudice based on appearance and religion (to name just a few “grounds) is still rife in modern-day communities around the world?
You add accent prejudice and stereotyping to someone who is visibly different to the politically and culturally dominant, what hope do they have of being treated equally?
In the same manner that racism, bigotry, bias and prejudice are designed to demean, to ostracise and to dehumanise those who do not conform to the majority; so too does accent stereotyping.
It is another tool in the box of those who seek to divide and destroy. Those who fear, for no rational reason, other than perhaps, pure hatred and because they can.