Should we all learn to speak ‘properly’?

We hear from a young writer and a professional linguist about the implications of accent discrimination.

Current issuesFriends and relationships
By VoiceBox ·
images: deagreez/stock.adobe.com

Lucy (not her real name)

Young author

Our accents are our identity – don’t change who you are

When people tell you to speak ‘properly’, they’re asking you to be someone you’re not. Speaking properly means disregarding your ethnicity, culture and family. In the UK, asking someone to speak a certain way completely undermines our faux belief in social mobility. It highlights the racism, classism and sexism that underlies much of our society.

I’m the first generation of my family to go to university, and I’m the first one who’s headed into a world of media and white collars. My family are all nurses – they have been for generations, which I’m extremely proud of. However, it meant that at my disadvantaged state school, I was considered ‘posh’. On the contrary, entering work experience, employment, and higher education quickly confirmed to me that I was, in fact, the opposite.

Yes, I sounded like my middle-class, privately educated peers, but I quickly learned I couldn’t relate to their lives. So why did I sound like them? Well, my grandmother hated the local accent, even though she had it herself. So, after completing my education at a school which strengthened my regional accent like no other, I was told to discard it.

During my A-levels, the closest we got to mock university interviews was a teacher telling us to ‘poshen up or drop out’ of university, in fear that we’d get ostracised for our West Country accents. Interning at major media companies meant a lot of shadowing – of their work, their accents, and their dialect. I truly don’t think I’d have gained work experience if I hadn’t diluted my accent down to what we define as ‘respectable’ estuary, and banned slang from my internal thesaurus.

At the time of being shaped and pressured into adopting acceptable speech patterns, I thought it was normal; a step which had to be taken to wave goodbye to my old life and enter a professional world full of opportunity. My accent was never as bad as my peers, so I wasn’t subjected to as many scoldings as them. I’m also a white British citizen, so my condoned use of slang wasn’t whitewashing my identity. However, it was enough to make me believe I wasn’t good enough, and looking back now, that’s not acceptable. If I felt this way, I can’t even imagine how my peers, less privileged than myself, were made to feel by this policing.

Schools shouldn’t be telling children that they’ll never get anywhere in life due to their speech. This is telling them they don’t deserve the same opportunities as others, simply because they’re born and raised in a certain place. Accents and slang can strengthen relationships – and this should be celebrated. Schools should acknowledge that accents vary, and the reality is that specific regional accents are preferable among young people, on a national scale. They should encourage young people to lessen their accents in specific situations – not eradicate them, just lessen, and teach them when it’s appropriate to adopt certain language.

Working for an international organisation, I understand the value of generalised speech patterns in a professional environment. Slang, for sure, should be left outside of the workplace – with new jobs, come a glossary of business-critical words, and slang only complicates things further. A standard (ish) accent leaves less room for confusion, especially when speaking to those from another country over a static video call. However, it’s not necessary for people to completely lose their accent. Simply winding it down during work or in the classroom makes your speech more inclusive, and easier for others to understand.

My advice to young people would be to practice softening your accent, and to avoid slang in professional or educational environments. However, don’t listen to the scare mongering as you set off for university or work – regional accents don’t alienate you half as much as you might believe. Be authentic and have confidence in yourself. Times are changing, and one day society will realise it’s irrational to judge a person’s abilities on their speech. Until then, adapt as much as you feel comfortable, learn the tricks of the trade, but don’t compromise your own identity to reassure closed-minded folk. After all, when you’re older, you can encourage younger generations to speak properly. And by properly, I mean authentically, and without shame.

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