In the Greater Toronto Area (GTA,) we have a tremendous variety of accents in the workplace and on the streets. While people often complain about foreign accents and newcomers regularly face discrimination for this reason, we can generally agree that such biases either result from poor clarity, insufficient exposure or cultural prejudice. While cultural prejudice is clearly unacceptable in today’s Canada, if the listeners have difficulty understanding what is being said, the accent is creating a barrier to communication. So learning to enunciate more clearly and adapt to the local rhythm of speech is a proactive step one can take to remove this barrier.
On the other hand, what kind of barriers are created by regional accents or class accents in Canada? The following article argues that regional accents rarely cause discrimination in North America. I am not sure I entirely agree with this position. There has been much written about accent modification training being pushed on Americans with strong local accents. But perhaps, because Canadians show very minor variations in regional accents, it is not much a problem here. What I find interesting about the following article, though, is it’s discussion of class accents, such as those in Great Britain, where it is often possible to tell one’s social class and the university one attended simply from the way one speaks. While Canadian speech is influenced by family education and social environment, it is very possible and common in Canada for one person who hasn’t finished public school to sound virtually identical to another who has a PhD. It is also possible to have grown up with little money and have the same accent as someone from a very rich family. I believe this is indicative of the egalitarian society we live in.
While regional and class accent discrimination is rare in Canada, we must keep in mind that foreign accents certainly can and do cause very real barriers for many newcomers to Canada.
Accents in the workplace
Strong ‘local’ or ‘regional’ accents not likely to be a barrier in North America
By Brian Kreissl
Accents are a marker not only of where people are from, but also their education, upbringing, ethnic background and social class. In some cases, there is even an element of personal choice in how people speak, and people are able to change their accents by “code switching” from one mode of speech to another.
I find it especially interesting how people can have a very different accent from others who were born in and grew up in the same city. This is very common in the British Isles, where someone can literally have a different accent from her next door neighbour — mainly due to social class, education and upbringing.
What school one attended can make a big difference (i.e., private school versus a state school). But even local working class accents can differ over an incredibly short distance. I actually heard that accents can vary more within 20 miles in the British Isles than they do across all of North America.