“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.

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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.

“Where are you from?”

I am a European Philosophy graduate student at a US institution. I was teaching an undergraduate class where we were discussing a case study about the education system of a Nordic country. After I answered a couple of questions of clarification regarding said country (economy, demographics, etc…) one female student raised her arm and asked “Where are you from?”. The students suddenly became more attentive; they seemed more interested in this question than in the philosophical material.

I have been asked the same question before by undergraduate students and I have answered. That happened in informal settings, outside class time and mostly during one-on-one interaction. This time I was being asked in front of my entire class and there was no accompanying qualification (“if you don’t mind me asking”). Just a lot of staring. I replied “not from this country, if that’s what you’re asking” but I continued to receive intense stares by virtually everyone in the room. I ended up saying the name of my country of origin and calling an intermission right away. I found both the casual way in which the student thought she was entitled to know more about me and the timing of the question really undermining of my authority as a teacher.

“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).

logic skills, german language, and being jewish

I come from Israel. I studied Philosophy in Berlin, Germany. After successfully completing the obligatory Logic course, a Student came to me and told me in the presence of other students that I had a good note simply because I do not speak native German. He maintained that it was somehow easier to me. After I told him I think it has nothing to do with it, he told me that it is because I am Jewish.

“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.

“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.

“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.