I felt the question on why the speaker had a Mexican accent and not an American accent was inappropriate and offensive as it others the speaker, in relationship to Standard English or “American accent.” I write this because CUNY has historically been a place of struggle and resistance against the white & patriarchal supremacy that is often upheld in the knowledge production of academia. My response to the question regarding the American accent in relationship to the Mexican accent is a response and resistance to the hegemony of English and its attachment to white supremacy. This has a history of what Joel Spring describes as “cultural genocide” or deculturalization, by which an individual is stripped of their language and culture most predominantly through schooling institutions within the U.S. to uphold the dominant culture. Thus, the language and curriculum of schools privilege & legitimize the dominant culture & language, silencing & delegitimizing non-dominant voices and languages.
The upholding of the Standardization of English without question in a space we seek to liberate, creates strong emotion among those of us who have been subject to the deculturalization process and who work to reverse this process through our research, teaching and activism at the Graduate Center and at CUNY. The problem in marking a Mexican accent versus an American accent is that the term “American accent” is connected to the Standardization of English or Standard English, which carries privilege and domination (Bonfiglio, 2002). Those that deviate from the standard due to characteristics of their speech, such as accent, vocabulary and syntax, are marked as other. Standardizing a language creates a hierarchy on the basis of language, in that the standard form is given greater preference and legitimacy. Thus, those who speak the standard or “American accent,” hold greater privileges and are perceived as speaking “better” or without an accent, than those who don’t.
To illustrate the othering within the standardization of a language as well as its relationship with race, the article, “Expectations and Speech Intelligibility,” published in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, shows how stereotypes regarding race and ethnicity influence our perception in how we listen to people speak. Conducted in Canada with Chinese Canadians and White Canadians, Babel & Russell found that participants expected a particular signal based on skin color; specifically, that if an individual wasn’t white, they were perceived to be a non-Native speaker of English. Babel & Russell conclude that expectations and stereotypes of how people should sound are used when we understand spoken language.
The question regarding why the speaker has a Mexican accent and not an American accent, marks the speaker as other and perhaps assumes the American accent is more desirable. This in turn upholds the superiority and standardization of English in the U.S. In addition, the question failed to recognize language acquisition of the speaker. While in the United States for 10 years as a child, the speaker learned to communicate in English. Based on the speaker’s narrative, English was the primary language they used to communicate and used little Spanish during this time. When the speaker moved to Mexico, the speaker started learning Spanish, their then primary language used to communicate, influencing the speaker’s English “accent,” as we heard in the video.
The notion of an “American accent” being the Standard or correct form to speak English, upholds superiority and privilege that is unfair to those who do not speak the Standardized or “American accent” English.
Written by Rachel J. Chapman
PhD Student of Urban Education, The Graduate Center
Teaching Fellow, Queens College
Babel, M., & Russell, J. (January 01, 2015). Expectations and speech intelligibility. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 137, 5, 2823-33.
Bonfiglio, T. P. (2002). Race and the rise of standard American. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Spring, J. H. (2016). Deculturalization and the struggle for equality: A brief history of the education of dominated cultures in the United States. New York : Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.