A few months ago, I was speaking to my mother on the phone. She asked me which new Netflix shows I was using to procrastinate on homework, and I mentioned “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.” She, of course, already read some of Kondo’s novels and had many thoughts. But she paused for a moment. “My favorite part is that she speaks in Japanese on her show.”
I didn’t understand my mother’s reaction at first, but over time, I realized how revolutionary it was. Many English speaking countries, especially the U.S., refuse to accept international content — news, media, pop culture — in other languages. Instead, the rest of the world has to learn English to communicate with us. Kondo’s refusal to conform to these norms is radical.
The spread of English is deeply intertwined with historic forces — British and American imperialism — and contemporary economic and political structures, which both contribute to perceptions of English’s superiority. Modern institutions reinforce English’s dominance: global commerce, international development and diplomacy are often conducted in English. In short, it is the language spoken by the elite. Those at the very top of this language hierarchy speak English with a ‘correct’ accent, usually from a Western country.
The language hierarchy affects every interaction we have. Whether consciously or not, we’re more willing to listen to people who speak in this Western ‘correct’ accent. One example is the Turkish astronomer in the French children’s novel “The Little Prince.” When he first presents his findings, he wears traditional Turkish clothing and speaks in an accent, only to receive laughter. But people suddenly listen when he comes back in a suit with perfect English.
This experience isn’t only in children’s books. I have seen my own family, most of whom have Indian accents, have their contributions be dismissed or undermined in American society.
We are taught this hierarchy at a young age. I grew up speaking Hindi and English at home; naturally, I adopted my parents’ accents. When I “mispronounced” words in school, I was ridiculed. I internalized these lessons and responded by correcting my parents’ accents, sometimes quite rudely. It was only in high school when I bonded with other children of immigrants that I realized how wrong I was.
Yale is not immune from these divisions. Although our university celebrates diversity, we alienate those who cannot speak English well, or even those with accents. Sometimes it is explicit: I’ve heard students complaining about their professors who had heavy accents, wanting to have some “American” teachers. More often, it is implicit: I’ve seen snickers and side glances from students when a professor’s accent results in a different pronunciation of a word.
It’s understandable to find an accent difficult to understand. It’s not understandable, however, to refuse to try and understand that accent. We speak with accents, too, even if we find them normal. Most Americans don’t try to learn another language. The least we can do is listen.
Furthermore, we should think about why we have these attitudes towards accents in the first place. We should call out bias against accents for what it truly is — thinly veiled racism.
On a pragmatic level, bias against accents also undermines our university’s mission of Light and Truth. Language is the greatest social conditioner: it literally controls our ability to articulate certain thoughts. Those who have access to multiple languages have access to a wider array of ideas, not less.
So the next time you hear someone with an accent, don’t get frustrated at their pronunciation. Like you would for anyone else, listen.
RABHYA MEHROTRA is a sophomore in Morse College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .