One of my graduate student instructors last semester was Asian. Her English was not necessarily perfect, as she carried a little bit of an accent, but I never had trouble understanding what she was saying during discussions. Every now and then, she would get ahead of herself — as we all do — trying to answer questions. One day, from the back of the room, I heard someone say, “I have no idea what she’s saying.” I thought him speaking over her was disruptive, but decided not to bring it up at that moment and instead settled with giving him “a look.” The discussion ended some 20 minutes afterward, and as we were all getting ready to leave the room, I heard the same guy jokingly ask his friend if they should switch to a different section, where the GSI could speak better English.
I’m an international student from Korea who first came to the United States as a high school freshman. Trying to adjust to a completely new environment, I had one major concern: my English. I started learning English at the early age of five, thanks to my wise and perceptive parents. Somehow, I was able to speak the language without much accentuation, and as the years went by, I improved. At one point, I was asked by one of the teachers in my school, a native English speaker, if I was born in an English-speaking country. That felt good. For someone traveling all the way to the other side of the globe for the first time, by himself, as a 15-year-old, I was confident about my language skills and knew I wouldn’t have any problem communicating with the people I was going to meet.
High school was great. Although it was one of the most stressful times in my life, it still remains one of my dearest memories. But there was one thing: I, who spoke almost perfect English, was accepted more as a friend and a student, when compared to my best friend who had a slight Korean accent. This dynamic made me think an American accent was an important distinction that made someone’s English more acceptable than another’s. I luckily never lost the confidence I carried with me to the U.S., a confidence I developed from the validation I felt by not having an accent. Speaking without an accent nearly became an innate quality of mine: I did not have to constantly remind myself that I was not a native speaker.
College is also great. By the time I got to Ann Arbor, I had already forgotten about the whole accent issue. And then I was unexpectedly reminded of the whole thing from that disruptive classmate.
Following that day, I was more self-conscious about my near-perfect English. I had to think twice before I opened my mouth. I was afraid I might stumble through words or occasionally mess up the Ls and Rs, as they are sounds often fumbled by Koreans. I hesitated before saying the word “parallel.” An upcoming impromptu speech in my public speaking class suddenly felt like a nightmare. After spending a couple of days unnecessarily stressing myself out, I began to question the importance of an accent in speaking English. Is it really important or is it just another distinguishing factor that makes certain people sound better than others and nothing more?
There was a brief experiment about the importance of an accent in English, conducted in Korea. Two groups of people, Koreans who only spoke limited English and native English speakers, listened to a speech delivered in English by Ban Ki-moon, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations. After the speech, both groups were asked to give remarks and assess the quality of the speech. Ban Ki-moon’s speech was targeted to a group of diplomats, so it was very eloquent and formal in manner and delivery, with an appropriate level of vocabulary used. The result of the study was interesting. Koreans who only spoke limited English generally thought the speech was a relatively poor one. Given Ban’s accent, they said it was hard for them to make out what he was saying. However, native English speakers responded by saying they did not have too much trouble understanding him and were very impressed by the quality of the speech in general. So, the experiment — at least to a certain degree — proved the accent is of minor concern in evaluating a speech. The experiment also proved that native speakers tend to focus more on the content, not the accent, as much as those who don’t speak the language.
The classmate who made those comments is an American and a native English speaker, I assume. What compelled him to make such comments? Of course, we must be wary when it comes to generalizations. In this case, I cannot assume that my classmate is like the native English speakers from the experiment who did not consider an accent to be of much importance. But the joke toward the end of the class made me think again. It made me reminisce about my high school experience and forced me to be conscious of my English for a while. What is clear, though, is that the comments made by my classmate were completely unnecessary. My classmate never switched to a different section after all.
I don’t want to shed my classmate in a negative light per se. Nor am I writing this piece out of emotional reaction. The University is becoming more inclusive and diverse regarding students and faculty alike. There are a lot of international students like me, as well as professors and instructors from all around the world. Maybe some of them have such unique accents that they can’t go unnoticed. However, whether they have an accent shouldn’t be a central question or focal point. The question should always be how we can be considerate of one another and understand that we come from different backgrounds. As bright-minded young adults, we should all work towards a more inclusive and welcoming environment. To do this, I politely ask that next time you see or talk to someone who has an accent, listen to what the person is saying, not to how the person sounds when they’re saying it.
Min Soo Kim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.