Embrace your accent because it’s beautiful

art of people with different ethnicities speaking
(Erica Garay | Daily Trojan)

I lost a piece of who I was. Desperate to fit in, to conform to this new world I was in, I sacrificed my identity because my desperation was too great. Now, I look back and regret that I made that choice, the choice to diminish something that was authentically me: my Nigerian accent.

I was coming to the land of the free — a land flowing with milk and honey. I was ecstatic to come to the United States and knew I’d have to adapt to a new environment, but I was oblivious to the pain that would follow me to this day from trying to fit in. 

Starting in fifth grade, the bullying came even though I tried to adopt an American accent — if you’re wondering, it was a horrible attempt. As I went through middle school, the mockery followed. Common remarks were, “Why does she talk like that?” and “She sounds so weird.” One might imagine that I was heartbroken. More than that, I felt ashamed to be Nigerian, often trying to distance myself from my culture when I was in public. Looking back on it, I wish I could have told myself to “Embrace the accent! Embrace your culture! Embrace you!”

 So, eight years later, as I was walking to class and saw a sign for “accent elimination,” you’d probably guess that your girl was not too happy. I was annoyed and frustrated that someone was trying to do to other immigrants and international students what happened to me for years. However, instead of unorganized bullying, it was a curated plan. I did not want to make assumptions, so I reached out to John Jones, a USC alum, who offers the service. 

International students who were classmates of Jones sought him out and told him they felt like their accent got in the way of their success and that they wanted to change how they spoke. Charging $50 an hour for the service, Jones said that there were positive effects of the service he offers, and is that the students who come to him feel like there is a mystery being moved out of the way when they talk. 

“It’s what you deliver much more than what it sounds like, much more than what you think, so it had to do with your confidence, building a confidence instead of delivering … good solid information, that’s what we’re here for,” Jones said. 

While Jones means well, changing the way someone sounds is not the solution to the problem. If society can’t look past their accent, even though they speak perfect English with insightful and intelligent contributions to give, it makes society the problem. According to Forbes contributor Adi Gaskell, “Accents not only help us to distinguish where someone may originate from, but also influence how we perceive their character and their capabilities.” In a study conducted in the United Kingdom that Gaskell cited, led by University of Bern professor Erez Levon, 46% of employees surveyed reported higher levels of being mocked for their accent in social settings with 47% of university students reporting the same experience. This resulted in understandable levels of anxiety about one’s speech and the accent that was gifted. 

Now, not all immigrants feel the desire or need to change how they speak or behave because of their accents, like Bernifka Saint Jean, a senior majoring in business administration. Saint Jean immigrated to the U.S. from Haiti when she was nine and was surrounded by a predominantly Haitian community. Because of this, she did not feel like she had to change how she talked and who she was in order to fit into American society. 

“I never really tried to change my accent. I feel like now it’s more faded. People don’t recognize it as much but when people do it’s not something I’m embarrassed of, and I think that’s because of the space I was raised in,” Saint Jean said. “By the time I finished eighth grade [and] moved on to the high school, the Haitian class ahead of me, I guess they made Haitian, like being Haitian, cool.”

Although she struggled with learning English when she initially moved to the U.S., being understood by a core group of her Haitian friends and students in her high school seeking to learn more about her culture allowed her to adapt better to America. 

As immigrants, we can’t and shouldn’t let people’s prejudice and ignorance affect how we live our beautiful lives. You get to choose who you surround yourself with so choose those who won’t judge you for who you are and how you speak. Be the boss babes you are and do what you want, not what others want you to do.