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‘The accent tells where I'm from, the accent tells my story': OU International students discuss accents, struggles they face in everyday life

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Students sit and talk at a table while one international student feels isolated from the conversation.

Back in Pearson College UWC, Joy Nath, a linguistics and economics sophomore at OU, discovered a fascination for linguistic diversity as he gathered in the cafeteria with his friends and heard a multitude of languages coming from different tables.  

Nath’s interest in diverse communications was formed as he grew up in India, where he continued to encounter new cultures and different languages during his education. He attributed himself with the title of “big language nerd,” as the cultural diversity he encountered in high school sparked his interest in languages and the way people speak.

His exposure to different cultures, however, led him to notice how people would tend to focus on one aspect of multilingual individuals — their accents. 

“People will be like, ‘Oh my God, your English is so good’, and I'm like, ‘Did you expect it to be bad?,’” Nath said. “Most people don't mean any harm, but most microaggressions are only that.”

Nath said he and other OU international students and faculty face continued discrimination based on their accents. Some said this mostly comes from a misunderstanding and alienation regarding their identities. 

‘I feel like what people here don't understand is that curiosity can sometimes be really harmful’

Members of the university’s international community said microaggressions are common in certain conversations, which often causes them to feel like outsiders. 

Tanzil Fatima, a community and human health and biology major and an international student from Pakistan, also studied at UWC Pearson College in Canada. It wasn't until she arrived at OU that she said she started feeling conscious of her accent.

“The first two weeks were a roller coaster,” Fatima said. “Every time it would be a lot of different things about me — my skin color or the country that I come from, my accent or just a variety of different things. People were like, ‘Oh, where are you from? You have a unique accent,’ (and) I'm like, ‘Okay, I don't know what that means.’”

Patterns emerged in people’s comments regarding Fatima’s accent, including phrases like “you speak English very well.” She said she became aware of the different connotations it had — from someone being genuinely interested in her to simply being microaggressive. 

After frequent conversations with other international students about accents and racist remarks during her freshman year, like being told she “came from a terrorist country,” Fatima said she decided to conduct a study about accent stigmatization on campus.

The study, which was conducted between April 4-8, had around 45 participants from several countries. 51 percent of the participants said they had felt discriminated against at OU, 33 percent said they may have but weren’t sure and 15 percent said they hadn’t experienced discrimination. 

The survey results also reported that most respondents said they feel like they have a foreign accent or sound like a foreigner. Fatima said she really wanted to include it in the study because international students often don’t know why people ask the question.

“For some people, (it) is just a compliment, for (others, it is) like, ‘Oh you speak English well for the race you come from, or for the country you come from, or you speak well compared to other people who look like you’,” Fatima said. “So, it depends if it's a microaggression or not, and I feel like this is one of the biggest indicators of discrimination in language.”

Neira Kadic, a United World College admissions counselor on OU’s International Admissions and Recruitment team and an adjunct faculty member from Bosnia Herzegovina, said it is difficult when conversations with international students are often reduced to comments about their accents. 

“I feel like what people here don't understand is that curiosity can sometimes be really harmful, (as) it ties into microaggressions,” Kadic said. “It's completely okay that people in the state of Oklahoma don't really encounter that many people with different accents, (and it is) expected they will be curious and will want to know where you're from, but I feel like with a lot of international students, myself included, when I got here, every conversation was reduced to that.”

Kadic said in certain spaces and conversations, curiosity about international students’ accents can be “really dehumanizing” and sometimes come from a space of xenophobia and racism, depending on where the student is coming from. 

“It's important to talk about intentions versus impact … Their intentions are probably just to get to know us and where we're from, and curiosity is okay, but the impact is that we just get so tired because that's the only thing that keeps getting mentioned over and over again,” Kadic said.

Kadic also said implicit biases and pre-conceived notions about people’s identities can occur through linguistic discrimination.  

“People will meet you, and they're like, ‘Oh, you're an international student?,’ and then the fact that your English is good is a surprise to them, in a lot of cases. To me, that's a bit offensive,” Kadic said. “I'm like, ‘Why are you so surprised that my accent is not strong, or why are you so surprised that my writing is good? I (have written) in English since I was a child too.’”

‘The accent tells where I'm from, the accent tells my story. I shouldn't be ashamed of it.’

Tomma Bambara is an economics, management and information systems junior from Burkina Faso, West Africa. Also a Pearson College alumnus, Bambara said it was tough for him when he first started in Pearson because of his extremely limited knowledge of English. 

After feeling left out in certain conversations and in-class group activities, Bambara said he eventually overcame language barriers when his peers and teachers helped him learn English.  

Bambara said he experienced accent stigmatization more in UWC than OU since he was fluent in English by the time he arrived.

“I really didn't like my accent, so I started working on it, but at some point, I realized, ‘You know what? The accent tells where I'm from, the accent tells my story. I shouldn't be ashamed of it’,” Bambara said. “(It) will hopefully intrigue (people) to know more about me. From that moment, I started to realize I don't care anymore. I don't want to speak like a native. I want to speak like I do, as long as I'm proud of the way I speak.” 

Jessica Reynolds, a director of English training and certification services at OU, said she has seen had students who are so focused on trying to sound like a native speaker become discouraged in their language use. 

Reynolds said it is important for individuals to establish goals that are “reasonable and attainable” to them. Second language acquisition studies from Cambridge University indicate that sounding like a first language speaker of a language is an unlikely outcome for most people. 

“An accent indicates one’s connections with certain places and people, which I think makes their voice a unique picture of who they are,” Reynolds said. “So, I would say to someone who is wanting to cover their accent, ‘Is that a useful and reasonable goal? Why not embrace the way you sound as uniquely identifying you?’” 

Reynolds said an accent usually refers to “native-likeness” in speech sounds and can be judged based on negative or derogatory stereotypes. She said an accent is paramount when learning a new language if the person's goal is to try and sound like a native speaker.

If the goal is to be comprehensible when speaking a new language, she said the accent becomes far less important in learning and using the language than comprehending linguistic features such as vocabulary range, pronunciation patterns and grammatical accuracy.

Kadic said although she doesn’t feel embarrassed by her accent, having individuals constantly say her accent is “barely noticeable” makes her feel anxious she will mispronounce a word or speak in a certain way that makes people say “are you not from here?”

“It's like an identifier. You have to kind of navigate that space of ‘Are you comfortable with that always being the point in the conversation or not?,” Kadic said. “So, I wouldn't say embarrassment, I would say anxiety and just fear of not being heard and not being understood.” 

‘We shouldn't be tailoring ourselves for the comfort of others.’

From conversations with international students, Kadic said many have told her they are “tired of repeating themselves,” especially in classroom settings when the professor continuously asks students to rephrase their questions. 

“You know that they're not saying it to be rude, but the fact that they are not exposed to our accents can be really harmful, because then you're either embarrassed or anxious, or you don't want to speak up because you're like, ‘You're not going to understand what I'm saying,’” Kadic said. 

Nath said the effort to understand international students should also come from others. He said some professors will often speak fast without understanding that there are international students who are afraid to ask for help. 

“I think we do a lot of things for the comfort of the other side, and I've (heard) a lot of international students (say) they do that just because ‘they won't understand me,’” Nath said. “We shouldn't be tailoring ourselves for the comfort of others. This is our natural accent. If the other side is having trouble, they should make the effort, not us.”

A study conducted on international students in English-speaking universities have confirmed how their adjustment and academic achievement are influenced by English language proficiency, culture, academic skills and educational background. 

In the study, some international students said they felt the most difficult areas to adapt were in “building a social network, language and familiarity with norms, rules and regulations.” In the classroom, some students explained they prefer sitting next to students who speak the same language to ask questions about the lecture or assignments, if necessary.

Bambara said some professors don’t take into account that not all students — especially incoming freshmen — have the same level of English. He said they should try to simplify things to the bare minimum instead of “giving the information as is.”  

“So maybe having a program (for) the people who have a hard time understanding (where professors) allocate time to explain to them very slowly, or in very simple terms, (so) they can really understand what's happening,” Bambara said. “Because, whenever we talk, we assume that there's a basic knowledge that everybody understands, but I don't think when you're new (in college) you always know (certain) words.” 

Reynolds said one of the crucial ways the university community can do better in tackling accent-based discrimination against international students is by spending time to get to know people who sound different than them.  

“I’m not talking about a brief interaction with someone at an event, I’m talking about long-term, close connections with people who are multilingual or who have learned English as their second language,” Reynolds said. “Normalizing compensation and active decoding on the part of listeners is another way we can do better. The tendency is to place all the responsibility on a speaker for being clear when the listener should be a co-participant in communication and making meaning.”

Ultimately, international students said professors need to be more conscious of international students who may not understand English at the same pace and level. 

Fatima said “making a conscious effort” to address each international student’s needs could “change everything.”

“Our language is talking about our background, religion, economic status, nationality, ethnicity, race, our everything,” Fatima said. “And our accent essentially is what gives that information out about us. And people who are discriminating (against) international students or other people who are non-native speakers based on accent are very unethical because they're expecting us to Americanize our accents, (which) equals going back in time and changing our background (and) nationality. These are things we cannot do.”

Gabriela Tumani is an international student from Brazil. She is majoring in journalism with a minor in international studies and works as a junior news reporter for The Daily.

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