“What is so funny about someone pronouncing the name of their native city in their native language?”

I’m international junior faculty at a university in the United States. I often get comments about my foreign accent, and every time I get them I become so aware of it that I speak worse and even forget grammar (after all these years!). This is one recent episode. This is my first year as a tenure-track faculty, and in my third day in the new department I saw in the hallway two faculty members I hadn’t met before. I approached them, they smiled, I introduced myself, and one of them said “so you are from ….” and smiled widely with a small inclination of his head. It took me some seconds to realize what he was doing  “you are from….. how do you say it? You say it differently, right?”. I realized he wanted me to play circus animal and say the name of my native city in the way it is said in my native language, because here in the US that sounds funny (I learned that). The other faculty member joined the conversation commenting on my accent, too.
This is not the first time I’ve got this, but it is disappointing to see it in my new colleagues. They seem insensitive to how harmful their attitude is, and I don’t know how to communicate this to them (knowing that they were trying to be funny and welcoming makes things more difficult). It made me feel very uncomfortable and, as usual, awfully aware of my accent and of my being a foreigner. Their comment annoyed me and made me feel frustrated and insecure, and did so in a space where I need to feel comfortable and connected to my colleagues in order to do my best in my job. And anyway, what is so funny about someone pronouncing the name of their native city in their native language?

“Your accent is so cute”

I’ve been living in the US for several years. I’m not American. I went on the job market this year for the first time, and was worried about my accent in English (I have a very strong accent that like a sticky stereotype, I cannot get rid of) . Things went generally well except for this episode. It happened after my teaching demo in one of my campus visits. When I finished, excited and happy after having students participate and engage in a lively discussion, one faculty member approached me smiling and told me “your accent is so cute”. Although I wasn’t completely surprised, I could hardly hide my disappointment. I managed to freeze the smile I had the second before he opened his mouth, and didn’t say anything in return. I almost said “thank you”, for seeing him approaching me with his smile, I anticipated he was going to say something nice about my teaching skills, and was ready to thank him for that. I know I should have said something, that his observation was completely out of place, that he had just reminded me, after an hour of teaching bliss, that my accent is a handicap, that I have an accent, that I am a foreigner.

privileges of passing

I am a German, got my Ph.D. in the US and I currently work in Sweden. I was fortunate to almost completely lose my German accent during my time in the US, so that to most non-native (and many native) speakers of English, I sound American now. This more or less accidental “language setting” has a number of undeserved benefits in academic contexts. Because of the lack of an accent, I’m likely to be perceived as more confident and more competent. I actually feel more competent when I can speak English (rather than Swedish, and even rather than German). Listeners will find it easier to follow my train of thought. I might seem more approachable in post-talk situations, because speaking American English (rather than Swedish, and rather than German) will make my demeanor more jovial.

I am lucky to not have to worry (much) about students or conference participants finding themselves unable to focus on the content of what I’m saying because of how I sound to them. I am lucky to have that piece of professional authority simply handed to me. (And on a lighter note, I get to amuse myself with confusing people when they can’t quite figure out why I sound the way I sound, work in Sweden, and complain about German politics.)

I am grateful, on the other hand, for the challenge of conversing and teaching in Swedish, because it makes me (sometimes painfully) aware of the limitations of my own language skills, and it hopefully provides a corrective to judging my peers merely by what sort of accent their English happens to have.

the fear of being an outsider

I had an interesting experience during my first teaching job at a university in the United States. Note: I am in an important sense a foreigner in this country, and I speak English with an accent. The first day of classes the classroom was crowded, with at least 15 students sitting on the floor or standing up. I asked the department for a bigger classroom, but it took time to find one, and during two more sessions the situation persisted. In the meantime, I had to figure out what to do with those students in the waiting list (I finally added all of them to the course). During the second class, a student raised her hand and suggested that I should ask students in the waiting list to stand up, for registered students are the ones who have the right to a chair. I responded that it was not my position to ask anyone to stand up. The same student then asked me from her chair “can I ask you a personal question?”. Before I had time to say “we can talk at the end of the class”, she asked her question in front of the class “is this the first time you teach here? Because this never happens here”. I felt so nervous that I think my hands starting shaking. My accent, my language skills, my appearance, my teaching skills, my knowledge, my authority as an instructor, my capacity to organize and run a course,…. Everything felt suddenly threatened, questioned, and I had to defend myself in front of a room with 80 people staring at me. I didn’t know what “here” meant, if she meant “here in this university” or “here in the United States”. I felt so disempowered by her question, so vulnerable and annoyed and confused.

The day after the same student emailed me with an apology, but interesting enough, she added three paragraphs of recommendations of how I should manage the course, extend the deadlines and organize the readings (!!). I cannot be sure that it was my accent and my obvious non-native status what triggered her distrust, it could have also been my apparent youth and friendly manners (features that in some students do not motivate respect and trust). I suspect there was a little bit of both. But anyway, it is interesting how her question triggered a persistent fear in me, the fear of being an outsider in that university, of not belonging there (here) with all those (these) Americans.

“nobody speaks English in Spain”

I am originally from Spain, and I speak English with an accent. During my PhD in philosophy, I had the opportunity to be a teaching assistant at a Canadian university. I was very excited about that. As I was going to the first class, I kept remembering a recent episode with someone I met at my arrival to Canada. This person told me how disappointed she was during her trip to Spain when she realized that nobody there spoke English, so she had a hard time getting around. At the time of the event I didn’t take it seriously (who would take that silly comment seriously? Who would let that silly person, surprised to discover that people in Spain speak Spanish instead of English, stay in their minds for more than the few seconds the episode lasted?). But on my way to the classroom, her “nobody speaks English in Spain” kept resonating and I started panicking, anticipating that students wouldn’t be able to understand my accented English. Maybe the notion of stereotype threat could help describe what happened to me. It is perhaps an old trauma of many spaniards of my generation that we don’t speak English, or we do so with strong accent; that day I felt my confidence, and my English proficiency, were dropping with each step I took towards the classroom.

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the accent obstacle

English is not my native language. When I started teaching philosophy at a university in an English-speaking country, the language obstacle was a big concern. I should rather say “the accent obstacle”. I write and publish in English, and I enjoy conversations with colleagues and navigate the everyday life issues with no problems attributable to language. But I still have an accent. In the first student evaluations I got a few negative comments about that, and it was very distressing. After reading them, I started loosing confidence, and we all know how that ends (i.e. performing worse in the end). Even though I go to class thinking that accent is not an obstacle, I always end up blaming myself for having a strong accent every time a student asks me that I repeat what I just said (it is difficult for me to distinguish now when they are asking for a content clarification rather than a better pronunciation).

invisible behind stereotypes

I have plenty of anecdotes to share concerning stereotypes related to my homeland and the way in which they were tactlessly brought up by colleagues in informal and formal contexts alike: a colleague imitating my accent in the attempt to be funny; a director telling me “be sure not to do that [some procedure] the way people usually do in your country”; improvised “trials” in which I was supposed to explain the behaviour of this or that politician; a senior colleague explaining to me and two more locals how corrupt academia is in my homeland;  and even the patronizing tone in which I was often told, with a smile, how nice a place my homeland is for a holiday, after all.

My homeland DOES have many shortcomings (for instance it did not give me a job!) and I am a very self-ironic person but, especially from colleagues who are supposed to be “intellectuals,” one would expect to be just treated as a peer and not as the representative of some (more or less stereotypical) national traits.

“I immediately felt like an unwelcome intruder in my own classroom”

I am from the UK and work in the US. Recently I was setting up display equipment before a class started. Two students were chatting quietly about how hard it is to understand the accent of a foreign professor they have for a class. One started imitating various examples of this professor’s pronunciation of certain terms and complaining about how confusing it was to have them pronounced differently. I couldn’t decide whether they were referring to me, or to someone else on our faculty who is also from outside the US originally. When the imitation started, I couldn’t help looking up, and they could see I’d heard. While I was debating whether or not it was worth saying anything or simply ignoring it, the student who had been doing the imitating said (loudly, and obviously for my benefit), “Oh, but I like having a foreign professor, it’s very interesting.” The point is: even if it wasn’t me he was complaining about, when I heard this, I immediately felt like an unwelcome intruder in my own classroom. I had to stand and think about whether or not I should say something and risk alienating those students or stay quiet and fail to defend the professionalism of myself and my colleagues (which should be clear anyway, regardless of accents). Then I had to teach the class, and support those students’ learning, without letting my anxiety and discomfort show. People talk about the burden of discrimination: what that means at least in part in the case of foreign academics is that simply turning up to teach is more exhausting and stressful than it is for non-foreigners.

“your accent would be an issue on the job market”

I would like to share a story which is not my own. However, it has had a profound effect on my life and has taken on new meaning now that I find myself in academia. My father is Italian and received a Masters (in Literature) and a Phd in Philosophy in Italy. He had recently begun his academic career in Italy but made the daring decision to move to California to be with my mother (a Californian), to continue his academic career, and to pursue his aspirations to be a writer. Upon arriving and being accepted into a prestigious Californian University he was informed that his Italian degrees would not be recognized and so completed (at an accelerated place) a second PhD. Given his level of experience he was offered the opportunity to design and instruct new courses for the department. However, soon after building up what became a popular undergraduate course, he was told that because of his accent it would be preferable that the course be turned over to a local (American) graduate student (who was far less qualified). Despite strong student evaluations, and a very strong command of the English language, constant pejorative references to his accent remained a constant justification for limiting his opportunities (a phenomena that persisted beyond the walls of the academic institution). Advised by “mentors” that his accent would be an issue on the job market, finding only language courses open to him (limiting income and employment options), and with a newborn baby on the way, the thought of relocating to different parts of a country he was just beginning to navigate was overwhelming. He eventually felt compelled to accept a (stable) employment offer outside of academia. While this career has enabled him to provide for and support a family, it has not been fulfilling. He is an inspiring and natural educator, and I have been so fortunate to benefit from this. But I have come to recognize that his departure from academia remains an ever-present hardship for him.

being outed as a foreigner

I am a philosopher working in the United States. It often happens that I am at an academic event and, in the middle of a conversation about philosophy, someone asks me, intrigued I guess by my strong accent, “where are you from?”, as if it was somehow relevant in that context. I feel uncomfortable when this happens, even though I know that my interlocutor is just trying to be nice. I never know how to answer. When I reveal my country of origin, the conversation usually shifts to reports about vacations trips or remote relatives who are somehow remotely related to my country of origin. Or even worse: I am forced to talk about my country, as if I am an authority in its culinary customs or have any wisdom about the political scene in there. When I am discussing philosophy I don’t want to be reminded of my country of origin. It is not that I feel ashamed of my origin; it is rather that I prefer to choose when I want to talk about that country and about the fact that I am a foreigner. In academic events, I would rather be a philosopher, not a foreigner.

“As you can hear, our colleague doesn’t come from here”

Austrian German is different from german German. It sounds differently, and some words are not the same. I was brought up in Austria, but never developed a strong dialect. I fact, I often heard that my language was very ‘German’. Last year, I was a guest researcher at a German university and, amongst other things, attended a seminar. The seminar was focussed on language and the instructor kept referring to me as an example for a different way to talk. “As you can hear, our colleague doesn’t come from here”, he repeatedly said, and the whole class laughed. I laughed as well, but always felt bad afterwards. I felt that I had to make up for a loss of respect, so I started to frequently challenge the professor theoretically in front of his class. Also in other departmental contexts, my language was an important topic. I often heard that my Austrian German sounds sweet and charming. It always felt like I was treated like a little girl. I was invited for evening go-outs with other guest researchers. I felt that the reason was that  Austrians are said to know how to make up for a ‘charming atmosphere’ – as opposed to many German scholars. Why is it more important how I speak than what I say? And how is all that connected to my gender? I often felt that the reference to my language covered hidden gender issues. It seemed to be more ok to refer to my charming accent as an Austrian scholar than to my charming character as a Woman.

a “helpful” reminder of how bad it is to be a non-native speaker of English

I’m a non-native English speaker working on my PhD at a UK institution. A couple of months ago I was presenting a paper at a conference in the UK. As I was waiting for my turn to present, and trying to forget that I was really nervous, I asked one of my colleagues (a fellow PhD student in my institution) about the previous session. He responded that he had not enjoyed the papers not only because they were not very good, but also because they were both presented by non-native English speakers.

“Oh, you mean you’re not married to an American? I assumed that’s why you were here.”

I am English, with an unexceptional English accent, and a PhD from a UK university. I teach in the US. Students here are mostly very decent about accent/cultural differences, and I have been lucky enough to find many supportive and welcoming colleagues. But there is some entrenched xenophobia still out there, and when it appears, it is nasty. Here are some examples:

–A provost at a liberal arts college on-campus interview: “What do you know about the liberal arts? You don’t even have them in your country.”

–A student, on hearing about us potentially hiring a faculty member from a non-US country: “Great, yet another accent I have to get used to.”

–Another student: “You don’t speak English. Well okay, I suppose you do, but not proper English.”

–A colleague: “You know, sometimes I just don’t hear you. It’s your accent.”

–Another colleague, in a meeting, in front of other faculty: “Over the summer, I was reflecting on the difficulties I’ve had in working with you on this project. I decided the problems come down to you being from a different country.”

–During hiring negotiations: “Oh, you mean you’re not married to an American? I assumed that’s why you were here.”

“The lectures should be given in English, not American”

I am an American philosopher, teaching in the UK.  One of my first student evaluations said: “The lectures should be given in English, not American”.  I couldn’t tell whether it was a joke or not, but trying to figure that out and trying to figure out who’d written it made it very hard to concentrate on my lecturing for the rest of the course.