How to Handle Comments About Your Accent in English | Why Do We Care About Accents Anyway?

As a non-native English speaker, you’ve probably been in a conversation with someone who made an observation about your accent, whether positive or negative.

Even though accents are a fact of life – we all have them, even in our native language – the topic can make us feel sensitive, defensive, frustrated, or discouraged.

For most of us, talking about accents is a loaded topic, which means it can cause a lot of different emotions.

Recently, a member of this community asked how to handle comments about their accent:

How should I respond to people who keep making the remark, “Oh, you have a little accent”?

There are two issues we need to address when people make observations about your accent.

First, we need to talk about why you feel sensitive when hearing feedback about your accent.

Second, we need to talk about other people’s perceptions of your accent.


Why You Feel Sensitive When People Comment On Your Accent

The truth is we can all quickly identify when someone has an accent, including regional accents or dialects.

This means when someone comments on your accent, they’re identifying you as different.

This can feel really personal, even deeply unsettling.

As human beings, we’re biologically programmed to panic if we feel like we’re outside of the group. We need each other for safety.

Back in the day, being in the group was how we survived attacks from big animal predators as well as attacks from other outside groups.

In other words, we want to feel like we belong.

Personally, when someone comments on my accent in Spanish, or worse, imitates it, I can get really frustrated, to say the least.

Unless I can catch myself, I might say something that’s not as polite or patient as I usually am, especially if they’re not the first person to make this comment.

As it turns out, researchers have done a number of studies that prove these points.

Let’s look at a few excerpts from an article called “Language Attitudes in the Americas,” an excellent summary of the extensive research on the topic:

When lacking visible cues to distinguish ingroup from outgroup members, we use language and accent to detect the distinction.

Even when visible cues are present, we nevertheless turn to language, not appearance, to categorize people as either belonging to our group or not.

Research shows that in fact we are extremely sensitive to cues of foreignness detecting non-native speech in milliseconds and in speech played backwards.

Fascinating, right? Our ears are able to detect even the most minor, tiny clues that the person is a non-native speaker.

As we can see, accent and identity are complex.

That’s why most of the non-native speakers I work with tell me that they want to reduce their accent because they want to fit in better, blend in better, not stand out quite so much.

If this is why you care about your accent in English, please know that this is completely normal.


Why People Care About Your Accent in English

Now, let’s talk about how people perceive an accent.

As I mentioned a moment ago, we can immediately detect a foreign or regional accent.

If the person you’re speaking with is more comfortable with non-native speakers, this may not be such a big deal.

It may be an interesting fact or a conversation starter. They might bring it up just like they would talk about the sky being blue or cloudy.

You’re going to have to read the situation in order to know how best to respond.

Unfortunately, we also need to talk about negative perceptions of non-native accents.

As mentioned in “Language Attitudes in the Americas”:

The sensitivity to others’ linguistic backgrounds has real consequences for speakers and listeners alike.

People’s attitudes to those who speak differently tend to be negative and result in stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination in all aspects of everyday life, including education, employment, and the media.

In fact, a recent study asked, “Why Don’t We Believe Non-Native Speakers?” Here’s what they discovered:

While participants rated statements with a mild accent as just as truthful as native speakers, they rated heavily accented statements as less truthful.

The accent makes it harder for people to understand what the non-native speaker is saying. They misattribute the difficulty in understanding the speech to the truthfulness of the statement.

Interestingly, having a mild accent is seen as just as trustworthy as someone with a native accent.

This is why I often encourage you to focus on communicating clearly and confidently, rather than having a perfect accent.

Please understand that I’m not sharing this information to discourage you.

You probably already feel this way when considering non-native speakers of your native language.

I just want you to understand what may be happening in the person’s head, whether they like it or not.

Consciously, as sensitive human beings, we all know that accents shouldn’t matter; but unconsciously, they do.

Please note that comments about your accent may be a form of accent discrimination or linguistic racism. I encourage you to consult with local legal professionals if you need additional support or guidance.


How to Handle Comments About Your Accent in English

So how should you handle comments about your accent?

The simplest way to handle these comments is to acknowledge that yes, you are a non-native speaker, but you speak well.

Remember, they may be asking themselves, “Do I understand this person?”

Some people may simply decide that they don’t understand you, even if they actually could, if they tried.

Not everyone has their ear trained to understand non-native accents, or they may be more familiar with certain accents than others.

For this reason, it helps to be prepared to respond when someone mentions your accent.

You can try a number of approaches.

First, you can make a joke about it. You can say, “Oh, I didn’t notice,” and wink and give them a big smile.

Or you can use a common idiom to show insider cultural knowledge: “You can take the girl out of France, but you can’t take the French out of my accent.”

Or you can make a joke like, “I wish someone had told me how hard it was to get an American accent when I started learning English.”

Humor helps everyone in the interaction feel more relaxed.

Remember, most people who comment on your accent probably haven’t learned another language to fluency themselves.

They don’t understand how much work it is, or how complicated it can be to change your accent as an adult.

Or if they do understand, they’re trying to make themselves feel better than you, and that’s a whole other problem that’s not your responsibility to fix.


Help People Feel More Confident They’ll Understand You

Other times you want to consider the context: Are they worried they won’t understand you? Are they worried they can’t trust you?

As we discussed, people don’t feel this way because they consciously want to, and they probably wouldn’t want to admit how they feel to themselves.

In this case, be proactive.

Invite them to let you know if anything you say is hard for them to understand.

Ask them to help you if you stumble over tricky technical words.

You’re inviting them to be part of the solution, so they’ll feel more invested in the conversation.

Don’t forget, native speakers also say, “How do you say that?” and admit when they don’t know how to pronounce a word.

Another thing you can do is make an effort to repeat yourself in other words for clarity.

If the other person is pointing out your accent because they feel mean-spirited, you can choose to simply exit the conversation, or just acknowledge it with, “Yes, I do.”


How to Describe Non-Native Accents in English

Last but not least, I want to clarify the language that we often use when talking about accents.

If you have a minor or mild accent, the person might say that you have a slight accent or a little accent.

If your accent is more obviously non-native, they may say that you have a strong accent or a heavy accent.

These are polite, if uncomfortable, ways of acknowledging your accent.

And sometimes they may be indirect ways for the other person to signal that they’re having trouble understanding you.

If someone wants to be rude, they may say you have a bad or a terrible accent, and I hope you never hear anyone say that.

If you do, it’s probably not worth your time trying to change the other person’s mind.


You Don’t Have to Completely Eliminate Your Accent to Communicate Confidently

In the end, whether or not you choose to work on your accent is up to you.

After all, accent is a marker of your identity, and you should feel proud of where you come from.

You don’t have to hide the fact that you’re a non-native speaker.

You should feel proud that you speak another language so well.

You’ll notice that my guidance and advice focuses on how to express yourself clearly so that people understand your meaning and your message.

For what it’s worth, I have an obvious American accent when I speak Spanish, and I understand that it may not be possible to completely eliminate my accent at this stage in my life.

I don’t believe that complete accent elimination is necessary or the best use of your time, so that’s why I encourage you to focus on clear communication instead.


Your Turn

I would love to have a conversation about this topic in the comments:

  • What have people said about your accent?
  • How did it make you feel?
  • How did you react?
  • Do you feel better prepared to handle these situations now?

I can’t wait to hear your perspective!

44 thoughts on “How to Handle Comments About Your Accent in English | Why Do We Care About Accents Anyway?”

  1. Wow Kim these are such great explanations as to why we get so bothered about the accent question. I really just want to blend in and I hate having to make small talk about where I’m from, even though it would probably come up at some point in the conversation anyway!

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing your perspective, Cara! The research helps us interpret our own reactions to these inevitable comments, and be prepared to not react so strongly (in my case). I completely relate – I don’t want the story of where I’m from and why I speak Spanish to be the very first thing we talk about. I always appreciate when people hold off and ask later in the conversation, even when you know they’re curious as soon as they detect your accent. 🙂

      Reply
  2. Living in Australia, people here will ask you first how long have you been living here, and if you say more than a year, bang, straight ahead how come your accent is so strong! Blablabla gibberish hatred non sense.
    This really frustrated me, and I don’t want to talk to people anymore, I really feel dimunish as a human being, racially abused, and totally discriminate. I DO NOT WANT TO HEAR THIS EVER AGAIN!!!!!
    I think telling someone about their accents is extremely rude, and should be punished by the law, same as when you discriminate a gay person.

    Reply
    • I’m sorry to hear you’re having that experience! I completely agree that people should not comment on accents, especially when the other person can communicate well. I’ve found that people who have learned another language are much less likely to make that kind of comment – it’s only people who speak their native language and nothing else that think accents are easy to erase. I’ve had a lot of frustrating experiences like yours as a non-native Spanish speaker, including someone who told me he would sound much better than me in English if he’d lived in the US for as long as I had lived in his country. I hope that some of these tips help you feel more confident next time someone says something about your accent!

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  3. I decided never to talk to Australians and never go to the place where all Aussies gather. I mix and feel at ease only with immigrants. The moment I relax and slip my guards, an Australian comment bluntly how come your accent is so thick/ huge/etc? I stopped going to the church, physically afraid to open my mouse in the public. Deep inside I hate this country and the majority of Anglo-Saxon people for treating immigrants like this and planning to move back to where I came from.

    Reply
    • I’m sorry to hear you’re feeling so frustrated about the comments about your accent. Unfortunately, some people simply don’t understand or don’t care how upsetting it can be to remind you of how strong your accent is. As I mentioned in the video, I have definitely reacted negatively to observations about my accent in Spanish. Although one option is to avoid interacting with native English speakers, I feel that you may be missing out on the possibility to connect with people who don’t care about your accent and truly want to get to know you and hear your story. I hope that hearing more reasons why people care about accents helps you understand that most people react to accents without thinking about it. If you can move past that initial reaction, interactions get a lot easier and a lot more interesting and inclusive. Take care.

      Reply
    • Totally relate to you,
      Australia is so rude with people with accents…
      I have been living here for 12 years now, my accent is really tiny now, and I still have those comments how strong my accent is, when you try to engage in a conversation with people they make you repeat the words, seriously like you are a retarded so humiliating, no respect at all.
      So now I just engage at all with Australians, most of my friends are Asians, Indians, migrants.
      They really make you feel you don’t belong.
      They truly understand you very well, believe me, this is just call pur racism!
      And they should be punish for that, same like you said saying to a gay he’s getting a duck sound!

      Reply
      • Thanks for sharing your experience. I’m sorry to hear that people still feel the need to comment on your accent even though you have worked so hard. It must be frustrating to be asked to repeat yourself even when you know that you’re speaking clearly. I find that people who make these types of comments have not learned another language themselves. I wish English speaking countries put more emphasis on foreign language education.

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      • Hi guys,
        For being in Australia for a year now, it’s like being on a rednecks planet to be honest, unbelievable racist country.
        I come from France, where everyone there has an accent, even french depending part of France. The difference we are smart enough to recognise straight away where the accent is from, we get the country straight in our head without never asking… how rude is saying to someone first of all where they are from, pur stupidity. We found people speaking more than one language as smart, and we love to know about their cultures, it makes our life richer, attractive. We love diversity in France, we love mixing with different races, beautiful babies get born from those marriages. Respect my brother wherever you are from, you live on the same planet as all of us, God makes us, humans same blood…
        The anglosaxon culture ignorance needs to die, even in England it’s all diverse now, about time for Australia to stop that non sense.
        Next time someone ask me my accent is super strong, why I don’t have an Australian accent, I will said this: Churchill said himself, the Australians accent is an abomination of the English language, coming from a bunch of drunks chasing flies! Bonsoir.

        Reply
  4. I just came here to say to all the people suffering the abuse from Australian racists, I hear you and this is not right. It is wrong and evil. And I’m not going to justify those actions with, they don’t know another language or the school system is not doing enough. I’m really sorry you are in the situation you are in. I’m a foreigner but here in the US. People here are rude but not blatantly racist. So, now I know I have it easy. Don’t give up! Chances are we’re never going to sound native, but maybe we can learn how to communicate some wisdom to our new neighbors, and be a light in a dark place.

    Reply
    • Thank you for the thoughtful comment. I’m sorry to hear that people in the US have been rude to you about your accent, but I am glad that you have decided to view it as an opportunity to connect and shine some light. I would like to be clear that I am not justifying blatantly racist or rude behavior by mentioning that many native English speakers do not learn foreign languages or learn about other cultures in the education system. I mention this because it is important to consider where and why the other person may have developed these xenophobic beliefs and to realize why they do not understand your experience. From there, you can decide if it is worth your time to try to connect with these people and help them understand where you are coming from. As many wise people have said, it is hard to hate up close.

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  5. I’ve visited Brisbane & Atherton, Australia. One of the things that I enjoyed the most was the welcoming spirit of the Australians. Not even one person ever asked me about my accent or where was I from. Actually I felt inviting to articulate and enunciate my consonants even clearer thanks to the British inflection of their accent.

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing your perspective, Oscar. I’m happy to hear you had a positive experience traveling in Australia and felt comfortable interacting with Australians.

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  6. I work in a call centre in Canada and people keep telling me I have a strong accent, some will be rude and will say can you speak proper English, where did you learn English. I would get mad and upset. Sometimes I would reply back saying I am speaking English. It’s really upsetting when you’re an immigrant, working hard to have a better future for yourself and your kids and at work clients insult you because you have an accent.

    Reply
    • I’m sorry to hear you keep getting rude feedback on your accent. I also find it frustrating that people feel they have to comment on how you sound, even though you’re communicating clearly. Working at a call center is a really tough job, and I respect and admire your efforts to create a better a future for you and your kids. If you’re interested, this video is designed specifically for people who work in a call center, and perhaps it will help: https://englishwithkim.com/communicate-clearly-customer-service/

      Reply
  7. Thanks for your article. This is great advice Kim.

    I have been personally trying to improve my accent for years. I have a thick one and comments made me regularly feel bad.

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  8. Hi Kim,
    I really enjoyed your article and the comments following. I completely understand the anguish of some of the commentators.
    I am a native English speaker and have lived in Italy for 20 years. I’ve worked so hard at perfecting my Italian but still feel limited in some areas mainly my accent and coping with context when people speak fast. It distresses me greatly when Italian speakers criticise my language skills and I’m left feeling quite invalidated and diminished. The effect it has on me is to avoid speaking to these people as I become so aware of any mistakes I make. I clam up. It’s stupid I know but it’s just the way I am.
    I try to look at it this way…..when a person criticises another for either accent or speaking skills they demonstrate how parochial, they are. They are usually non travellers and have never mixed in the wider world. I try and console myself that I have been fortunate enough to travel widely and have tried to speak many tongues and treat language as communication rather than a box to put people in.

    Reply
    • Thank you for sharing your perspective as a non-native Italian speaker. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been speaking the language, or how integrated you are into your adopted culture – comments about your accent can still affect how you feel about how you sound. As you’ve observed, it really is a privilege to be able to learn another language and to travel beyond the borders of your home country and meet people whose lived experiences are so different than your own. (Having worked with refugees early in my career, I also know this is not always a choice.) Native English speakers are fortunate that their language has become a global language of communication, but they also miss out on all the benefits that come from learning other languages, and through that, learning about other cultures, experiences, and perspectives.

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  9. I recently had my first racial discrimination incident as a working professional in school counseling in the United States – “parents asked my school if someone else can lead their kids 504 annual meeting due to my accent as they find it hard to understand it. School responded saying someone else would lead the meeting and I will discuss the progress as I worked on the plan.”
    I am feeling hurt, angry, all mixed emotions- but keeping my calm as I have so many students and work to do. I am just wondering how a school counselor responds in such situation. I will be ok, Nichole. I surely will let you know if I change my mind. I had to share my feelings about this to my supervisor as my accent is an important part of who I am. I don’t want to feel embarrassed for my accent. I really want some guidance on how to advocate against such discrimination without losing my job and dignity.

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing your story with me. I’m glad that you mentioned how you felt about this decision to your supervisor. I encourage you to reach out to a legal professional with experience in workplace discrimination for guidance on how to advocate for yourself in this situation.

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  10. Thanks for your information . I speak Spanish and my second language is English , after 12 years in US I continue having problems with my accent , how many time I hear you have strong accent , I don’t like your accent . Are you in other country ? . I don’t want to talk with you . At some point it is really sad , specially when people can understand you but they don’t want to listen your answer . Today is one of those days I don’t want to work anymore , I don’t want to talk anymore other language . 🙁

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing your story with me. I’m really sorry to hear you’re getting these kinds of comments about your accent. This kind of feedback can be so discouraging. I hope you feel better prepared to respond to these comments in the future. I find that knowing what to say helps a lot.

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    • They do understand you, only that people are so rude and close mind that they cannot handle the idea that people of other nationalities work in the US, also its very frustrating that the people that are rude are the ones that fight against racism, I work in a call center for some clinics in Texas, the same Mexican descendents and Afro-American people, its so frustrating that people in the middle of 2021,feel superior and don’t get that people have to be kind to each other

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  11. Hey Kim,

    Spanish is my native language, but I’ve lived in Australia for over half my life. I’m fluent in English, but I have an accent–sue me! People here are very racists–at least that’s my experience. Anyway, today I called to book an appointment to see a doctor and the receptionist asked me to repeat something because she couldn’t understand my accent. That pissed me off. I asked her if she found my accent offensive. She’s like: “no. It’s not that. It’s that I don’t understand you. Your “esses” sound like an “fffs”. I was like: really! I told her that perhaps she needed to learn to listen better. I also told her I found it offensive when people commented about my accent and that everybody has an accent including her.
    Anyway, the whole situation left me very stressed. Last year I had a hysterectomy due to cancer. I recently had a thyroidectomy. I haven’t been receiving the medical care I need, so I haven’t recovered properly. This sort of racist thing makes things worse for me. I went to the endocrinologist two months ago. He read my name and said: oh, are you Filipina? I said, “no”. He was visibly taken aback by my abruptness, but persisted, “so where are you from?” I said, “do you mean ‘originally’? “Yeah!” I told her I was from Puerto Rico, but that I’ve been here for 30 years. Even this answer sounded defensive to my own ears. Why should I have to justify anything to these people?

    Lately I’ve been feeling so angry about this sort of thing. I just want to let it rip.

    Thanks for reading.

    Reply
    • Hi Mar – thanks for sharing your story with me. You bring up a very important point – native speakers have to learn to understand non-native (and regional) accents, too. The interesting thing about the interaction you shared is that she was able to specifically identify why she was having trouble understanding you, which means she actually *did* understand you. I’m really sorry to hear that you’re running into these problems with medical care. When you’re already dealing with these concerns, having to explain your life story to your doctors can be even more exhausting.

      Obviously, my approach here is to help you handle these comments, because the only thing we have control of is our own actions. But I also believe native English speakers need to accept that the world is changing and that there are actually more non-native English speakers than native English speakers. They have to make more of an effort to understand people who sound a little different than they do. You are doing more than enough, and these people you’re dealing with need to meet you halfway.

      Reply
      • Thank you for replying and for your kind words.
        Today somebody mentioned my accent again, and it made me feel self-conscious. My husband was standing there and that didn’t help–He’s a Brit, and he’s very sweet, but I felt really embarrassed.
        I’ve been trying to shake off the “feeling” all day… I’ll get over it, but still.
        Anyway, thank you for letting me vent. Sometimes all you need is someone to talk to.

        Reply
        • You are most definitely not alone! I have to admit, I felt that way a lot when people would point out my accent in Spanish. Sometimes, I was able to move on right away; other times, it took me a little while. Like you said, it can help to acknowledge and name how these comments make you feel.

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          • I’m sorry you’ve gone through those experiences with native Spanish speakers. I’m glad you told me this, though. It shows me the other side. I have a confession to make: I’ve been rude to native English speakers who spoke Spanish with an accent before–many, many years ago, though, not now. I must admit it was petty. I was doing it out of revenge for all the times I was put down and/or ridiculed by native English speakers. I’m not proud of this. I never did this sort of thing before I went to live in the United States mainland, but the racism I experienced there made me bitter, angry, scared, insecured, petty. .
            I was born and raised in Puerto Rico, but went to live in New York when I was in my late teens. In Puerto Rico most of my friends were “Nuyoricans”. My best friend could barely string three words in Spanish when I first met her. She’d speak to me in English and I’d answer in Spanish. I never made fun of her, or try to show her up when she spoke Spanish. I’d only correct her if she ask me to, or when she said something really confusing. There were times she’d misuse a word and it’d sound too hilarious not to laugh, so I’d laugh and explain it, but not in a patronizing way. She would’ve told me, if I were offensive. Believe me. I thought it was terrific she spoke English. I wanted to learn the language well myself. English was my favorite subject at school, too, and I excelled at it.
            Then I moved to New York, and I faced racism and descrimination. It wasn’t just my accent, but the way I looked, too. I was denied access to services, employment and other thins because of my ethnic background. I moved to Massachusetts and it didn’t get any better. I moved to Australia and it hasn’t improved one bit. I mean, I remember when I came here as a tourist. Very different experience. You don’t know how things are until you live in a country.

            Anyway, like I said before, I don’t do this sort of thing anymore.
            I congratulate you for learning Spanish. I think it’s wonderful.

  12. My journey learning English has been challenging, and started later in life in my late 30’s. However, the same journey has taken me to get higher education and currently working in my master’s. I just continue to get annoyed when a person approaches me stating “where are you from? ” or even worse, when my accent is describe “as pretty”.
    Pretty? really? I speak a second language, and the only thing they can say is that my accent is pretty?
    I appreciate your blogging about this topic.

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing your story and perspective with me. Language learning is most definitely a journey, and it can lead you in directions you wouldn’t expect. My interest in speaking Spanish also led me to get my Master’s, and that eventually led to me teaching English as well! You bring up a really good point – when someone says your accent is “pretty” or “cute,” it seems to minimizes the work it takes to speak another language.

      I don’t blame you for being frustrated when someone asks “Where are you from?” I actually wrote about this a few years ago: https://englishwithkim.com/moving-beyond-where-are-you-from/ While the video focuses on the topic as an opportunity for a conversation, the article discusses how loaded the question actually is.

      Reply
  13. I’m in the US and have been in the same area my whole life. I have Canadians I deal with at work that mentioned my accent all the time. They aren’t rude but when they sound exactly like people in my family it makes no sense that my accent sounds like I’m from all over the place. I’ve been told I sound like a New Yorker mixed with Minnesota (I’m nowhere near either location) or Kansas. They tell me it’s distracting. We’re both speaking English but my honestly rather plain accent is ‘distracting’ to them. I don’t tease them for saying “process” or “about” differently than me so why point out my accent like it’s a big deal? I’m midwestern!!

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing your story. That’s so interesting that they have such a strong reaction to your accent, and surprising that they find it distracting. You bring up a great point: our ears are tuned in to notice subtle differences in how people speak. While it may be tempting to mention it, it’s probably best to let it go, as you’ve suggested.

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  14. I’m from Central Europe but I have lived in the US for over 18 years now. I have multiple degrees from US universities yet my career is not exactly stellar. I have a good employer with diverse group of employees now but for years I would be invited to an interview just to be told they were too busy to interview me once they heard my accent. Sometimes I didn’t make it to the scheduled interview past the front desk. It’s been heartbreaking and I always feel like I have to work twice as hard. I also absolutely hate when the first question a stranger asks is “where are you from”. I don’t mind that if people first have a friendly conversation first but when it comes out of the blue it’s insulting.
    Also subtle things like when standing at the coffee shop and someone hears me talking and offers me a job cleaning their house..not that the job is insulting but it’s insulting they would just assume that’s what immigrants do….also it was fun buying my wedding dress….at the salon they told me they had nothing for me and blocked me from entering. That was 17 years ago and it still hurts. I’m smarter and stronger these days and I would not let anyone treat me that way again. The hostility and discrimination are real.

    Reply
    • Thank you for taking the time to share your story and experiences here. You are so right – hostility and discrimination are real, and these situations are truly heartbreaking. I’m happy to hear that you finally found an employer that values diversity, and saddened to learn of all of the times you were turned away because of your accent. In particular, your observation that you always feel like you have to work twice as hard really landed with me. In other words, you end up having to work extra hard because other people aren’t meeting you halfway. Your perseverance despite this is inspiring.

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  15. How would you handle this? English is my second language, I am still learning every day to perfect my speaking. I was talking in a big group and trying to explaining a special event coming up. Regarding we will have prices gives out and who showed up early will have a chance to grab a “swap bag”. My accent on the swap came out as swat maybe. And one of my co-worker laughed and pointed out my mistake right there, I heard her, but I move on, because every one else seem to understand me. How would I handle this situation. Please help, I just don’t want to feel discouraged speaking in front of the big group. Thank you so much for your explanation in your videos above. It’s meant a lots to me.

    Reply
    • Honestly, I think the way you handled the situation was wonderful! You realized that everyone understood what you meant, and you moved on. If you’re not sure someone understood a word/expression, you’re not sure if you’re using the right one, or you’re concerned you’re not saying it clearly, you can add a description to make sure everyone knows what you’re talking about. In this case, you could describe what’s inside the bag or share what people have to do to get the bag. As you continue to speak in front of a big group, you’ll feel more comfortable. You can always check with someone you trust to make sure your message and meaning were clear.

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  16. I just read the whole thread (and the article, of course). I think you suggest friendly ways to reply to people who are uncomfortable with your presence due to your accent (no matter what the cause is: ignorance or lack of interest of even trying to understand).

    I can relate to a lot of the comments above. I’m Colombian, used to live in California as a child, came back to Colombia, moved to Scotland in my late teens, moved to NY in my 20s, moved back to Colombia, and then moved to New Orleans. And even though I studied at a bilingual school and I’ve been speaking English since I was 4, I got an accent (mild in my opinion, but annoyingly thick for American monolinguals). -By the way, these accent remarks have only made my accent more noticeable, made me lose my confidence, and I’ve been speaking worse ever since. I know that some observations and a couple of critiques are coming every time I talk; I became insecure if I speak, which leads me to make mistakes that I wouldn’t make just because I get overwhelmed by the situation. How do you rebuild your confidence when you’re constantly bombarded with unpleasant remarks regarding your accent?-.

    It’s been six years since I came to New Orleans, and I had to start from scratch. I came here as a professional woman speaking three languages and learned my 4th here. I thought locals would appreciate my ability to speak multiple languages and that I would be able to get a good job. But, unfortunately, I have an accent, and that overpowers my intellect. Dommage!

    Still, I was offered jobs as a housekeeper; it was suggested that I came to the country with a coyote and all…. I started delivering furniture, worked as a cashier, front desk agent, night auditor, runner, busser, backwaiter, waiter (I’m an architect and a graphic designer who worked as an art director in my country and about a year ago I got an entry-level design position that I still hold) and I have so many stories to share, but I’ll just feature a couple:

    A lot of guests had laughed at my face because I have an accent; in one of those cases, the guest asked me after she laughed so hard where was I from, I replied Colombia, and she replied, “Ewww”.

    A man asked me for the time in the streetcar; I replied… then he had to say “where are you from” I said I was from Colombia, the man said that I should be amazed by all this technological advances, that I should feel like I’m living in the future… I had to explain to him that McDonald’s and Coca-Cola are everywhere, that we have paved streets, electricity, water, hospitals, universities like in all cities.

    I had a guest who didn’t like my accent and asked for “someone proficient in English”.

    As you can imagine, I’ve heard that “where you from” question and “you have a thick accent” uncountable times every day for years. Even one time, I had to apologise to a guest because I had a disgusting accent -and in hospitality, guests are always first and can do whatever they want as long the property is not losing money or unless they’re caught on camera-.

    With that being said, I see your point when you list your approaches of how you should reply politely when people want to let you know that you have an accent, and it is clear that it is not our responsibility to “fix” people.

    However, I couldn’t help but wonder why we always have to babysit and accommodate English speakers. Please don’t take me wrong, and I understand the idea of taking the high road, kill them with kindness and make the native speaker counterpart feel comfortable in their own “endogamic” mindset. Also, I’m very well aware that I can’t control how the media represents immigrants (especially from “undesirable countries”) or even the schooling system. But I think that a polite educational approach it’s necessary instead of making jokes that help the English speaker counterpart feel comfortable with their own ignorance. This is important because it’s evident that some people need to be educated and because we live in a society that sees stereotypes as law.

    Seriously, when you have an accent, people can get to points you would never think they would be because their actions/suggestions are utterly stupid (for example, somebody had to teach me how to check out at a supermarket because, in their mind, it was impossible that I knew how to pay and use a card reader).

    I do agree with some people above; I stopped talking to random locals. I’ve met some Americans in the French Conversation group and at the gym, and they’re great, indeed… but the spontaneous interactions are still a pain.

    I also want to point out that I know these remarks are not exclusive to English speaking people. Still, on average, the world has accommodated English speakers by having everything translated into English. More people are speaking English as a second language than native speakers, so wherever an English speaker person goes, there’s a good chance that somebody speaks their language, maybe that’s why English speakers don’t understand what it means to learn a second language or how to communicate with people in a foreign language since the world’s default is English.

    Anyway. I wonder what would be a polite educational reply to the accent remark that way, we can make people aware that everybody has an accent and people speaking foreign languages could have accents, that having an accent doesn’t mean that you have a cognitive disability.

    I think that educating people is better than keeping them in their culturally homogeneous comfort zone.

    And finally, I appreciate that you have taken some time to learn Spanish. I know how challenging it could be for English speakers from the grammar standpoint.

    Reply
    • Hi Catherine,

      Thanks for taking the time to share such detailed and insightful observations with me. Your experience clearly illustrates how persistent comments about accent can shake your confidence and lead you to anticipate negative feedback. The specific stories about situations you have faced definitely show how people make incorrect, inappropriate assumptions about someone’s intelligence, capabilities, and experiences simply based on the fact that they have an accent.

      I understand why it seems like the responses suggested here are about making native speakers comfortable, rather than challenging them to question their comments. The short responses offered here are best for situations like the one that inspired this article; in other words, for situations when people make a quick observation that you have an accent. These observations are not necessary or helpful, but they still happen. In these situations, it often makes sense to acknowledge the fact that you have an accent and make it clear you would like to move on.

      As the stories shared here have shown, non-native speakers may also have to handle negative, aggressive, rude, stereotypical, xenophobic, closed-minded or even racist comments related to their accent or their immigration status. It requires emotional labor to discuss these comments and challenge these beliefs. In some situations, it may feel unsafe. This is why I mentioned that it is not your responsibility to fix these people or change their minds.

      That said, I agree that there are situations where you (or your allies, such as friends or coworkers who are also present for this interaction) may decide to remind the other person that everyone has an accent, that people who speak English as a foreign language are multilingual, and that there are more non-native speakers of English than native English speakers. I know I have had these conversations myself, and it could help other people to have some direct responses for these situations.

      Even though they don’t specifically talk about responding to comments about accents, these resources may help with other strategies and data points for these conversations:

      Reply
  17. Hi Kim,

    I moved to Canada with my husband who studied master’s program in Canada 10 years ago. I have never been to school here but have studied English on my own. I took the IELTS test got overall band of 6.5 marks. My English is not perfect and there is still a lot to learn, I try really hard to improve my English every day.

    We left a small city for a larger city 2 years ago, ever since I often hear people say to me ” I don’t know what you are talking about” ” I don’t understand you”, people just lack patience, or don’t bother trying to understand me, that’s what comes to my mind but never hurts my feelings. However, what happened today is the security who works with me said “your accent is strong” to end up our conversation. I didn’t say anything at that moment because I didn’t know how to react as this was the first time ever I heard someone said I had a strong accent. I feel frustrated indeed.

    As a foreigner, in the ’40s, trying really hard to learn a second language, getting these comments can be really discouraging.

    My husband said this kind of comments could be a racial discrmination. I did not realize it till I read all the stories here. I feel sorry to everyone who experienced this situations and to myself as well.

    I wanted to avoid talking to that person but after reading your article, I will mention to her I am from other country of course I have accent but what she said is not nice and sensitive, if it happens again. (My husband said I should report to my manager… )

    Thank you for reading my comments, I really appreciated.

    Hope you have many wonderful days.

    Reply
    • Hi Lee,

      Thanks for sharing your story with me. Even though these situations are unfortunate, I’m happy to hear reading other people’s stories has helped you understand your own experiences.

      It is very interesting that you noticed more people commenting that they can’t (or won’t try to) understand you once you moved to a larger city. Other people have told me that these comments became more common once they moved to a different region. Either way, it’s extremely frustrating and discouraging to go from being comfortable with how you sound, as well as feeling confident that people will understand, to anticipating critical comments and feedback.

      While I’m not a legal expert, you raise an interesting point: these unnecessary and insensitive comments may actually be accent discrimination or linguistic discrimination. Here is a recent article that explores this issue in more depth.

      I think it’s great that you plan to address the comments in a direct, straightforward manner. We can’t control what people say to us, but we can control how we respond.

      Thanks again for sharing your story with me.

      Reply
  18. One can be of the same race but not share the same language so this is inaccurate to call accent comments “racism”…. I find that word is being really overused anymore! So one can actually make a rude comment that has nothing to do with race you know…. As for accents, having an accent can be a good thing as many people find them attractive and alluring. Accents are only a problem if they are heavy enough to make it difficult for others to understand you. So I’d say try not to be over sensitive to people making mere mention of your accent as a thing of interest. The only time I’d be concerned is if they are having a hard time understanding you. If that’s the case, it means more work is required on fine-tuning your English pronunciation. Now you can get all mad at me for saying that but it’s simply the truth and you’ll get farther by accepting it and working on the problem. I’m a native English speaker but I’ve studied many languages and I experience this myself and I realize it requires me to fine-tune my pronunciation so I get a native speaker from that language to work on it with me and I suggest that is more beneficial than sitting around convincing yourself that you’re being victimized. Yes, some people are just rude but we all have to deal with rude people. Don’t take every comment on accent as being rude though, many times it’s just a question for the sake of interest, curiosity or small talk.

    Reply
  19. Hola Kim!
    This is amazing! I will share this with my students. I teach Spanish in England in a diverse community. My students come from all over the world, they all have beautiful accents when speak English but they don’t embrace it as much as I do. This is definitely something we need to be more aware of. I am non native speaker of English and I have very sad, sometimes funny, experiences learning English when I was a teenager in the US. However, I embrace my latino-american accent now! Very proud of it. Thank you so much for this.

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing your story, Guadalupe. You make such an important point – if you embrace your accent, and see it as something special about the way you speak, you’re much more likely to feel confident speaking your mind. It can be hard to feel proud of your accent if you feel like you’re having more sad or frustrating experiences interacting in English, but you will also have funny, positive, and interesting experiences that lead to stronger connections. It is important to keep in mind that both situations are possible, and to focus on those people who are interested in you because of your unique experiences. I have been thinking of updating this video, so I appreciate you giving me more food for thought.

      Reply

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