03 November 2022

Man who changed accent to fit in was asked if he was from ‘desolate wasteland’

03 November 2022

A man from Stockport who changed the way he spoke to fit in at university said he was once asked if his home town was “one of those desolate wastelands where the factories used to be”.

Ben Jones, 28, now a senior leader at a school in Bolton, became aware of how his accent influenced people’s first impressions of him when he arrived for freshers’ week at university.

The Sutton Trust’s Speaking Up report, which examines the impact that someone’s accent has on their journey through education and into the workplace, said public attitudes to different accents have remained largely unchanged over time, with the standard received pronunciation accent, French-accented English, and “national” standard varieties (Scottish, American, Southern Irish) all ranked highly.

It said accents associated with industrial cities of England, such as Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham – commonly stereotyped as “working class accents” – and ethnic minority accents (Afro-Caribbean, Indian) are the lowest ranked.

Mr Jones said: “I was hyper-aware of my accent at university. It is certainly something that people judge you on, they assume that it means you are not well-educated or cultured.

“The minute you open your mouth – literally – you have a disadvantage.

“Someone I had just met once asked me whether my home town was one of those desolate wastelands where the factories used to be.

“All this ultimately led me to modify the way I spoke at university to fit in.”

Katie Zacharczuk, 26, a solicitor who was born and raised in Liverpool, said it was quite a “culture shock” when she went to university as she had never really been around people who did not talk like her.

She said she was worried about judged as being “less intelligent” or “not as valuable to an organisation”, but she has never changed her accent and has never felt like she needed to, adding that she feels accepted for the way she speaks.

“I would encourage students to not change the way they speak because that’s an integral part of who you are as a person, the journey you’ve been on and the experiences that you’ve had,” she said.

Here are comments from people from various places who took part in the research for the report.

Student experiences:

– Northern Irish student

“I want to go into academic research and I am scared even with a more ‘posh’ regional accent I would be hindered.”

– Scottish student

“Medicine feels very elitist, and my working class Scottish accent will not fit that narrative.”

I feel as though my work won't be taken seriously if I don't change my accent

– Derbyshire student

“I am at medical school and very few doctors I have met have regional accents.”

– Liverpool student

“I don’t hear my accent when I watch videos of scientists giving talks and I don’t hear my accent from lecturers in the field. I feel as though my work won’t be taken seriously if I don’t change my accent.”

– Cockney, age 18

“It is not something I feel insecure about, however, I know that others with similar accents to myself do. I also believe that it is a disgrace that people should be ashamed to speak in the native accent.”

– Black Country, age 19

“For a couple of weeks, I did have a group of other students mimic an extreme version of a Black Country accent every time I spoke (about anything).”

– Newcastle student

“A lot of times people mock my accent, but that doesn’t particularly bother me. At interviews, I remember one boy from London asking a large group of people if they could “actually understand [my] accent”, which was pretty awful and not a nice first impression of university.”

Law and civil service experiences:

– Liverpudlian

“In a work context I was told ‘Ha, you’re not a typical civil servant, are you?'”

– Nigerian

“I am glad you are raising awareness of this issue. Because a major problem we have is that, if we experience accent bias and raise the concern with our managers, we are seen as trouble­makers.”

– Received Pronunciation

“I hate to admit it, but I’m sure that almost every week my assessment of people I have only just met is affected by their accent. I will assume that someone with a posh accent is better educated, more intelligent and reliable than someone with a less smart accent. I should emphasise that I don’t think it’s right to do this, it’s just one of a series of snap judgments I make about people I meet.”

Teacher experiences:

– Edinburgh

“The accent I most see criticised by students is South Asian, and I see students in London giving those teachers a hard time. I have seen students make fun of teachers with West African accents, and bully teachers with Eastern European accents. And I have seen my colleagues be incredibly disparaging towards women with working class Essex accents.”

– South London

“I felt as though in school people would be able to tell I was poor from the way I spoke so I changed the way that I spoke to try and sound less common.”

– West Midlands

“My accent became a lot milder once I left home and the area I grew up in. It is not considered a socially acceptable accent. As a result my accent has been neutralised.”

– Stoke-on-Trent

“My accent and its depiction in national media is very heavily related to social class and social deprivation. It is an accent that makes people sound ‘thick’ and ‘poor’ and these are enormous barriers, reinforced by the mainstream media and its depiction of places like Stoke-on­ Trent and the people who live here.”

– Southern Irish, on whether she has encountered discrimination

“In a meeting with management or other teachers. Never in the classroom with the students. The multicultural students I teach understand my accent perfectly and never mock me.”

– Estuary English

“My accent comes from my family and my community. To ask me to modify it is to ask me to deny my heritage. I have learned in this accent and have taught with this accent. I can demonstrate other accents – and have taught in standard English for the sake of pronunciation in ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) classes, but I will not code switch for some classist outdated concept of elitism. It’s my least favourite thing about living in England.”

The best videos delivered daily

Watch the stories that matter, right from your inbox