In one test, subjects were shown two different pictures, one of a Caucasian person and one of an Asian person. The same audio of a native speaker talking in standard American English was played as participants looked at each image.
Subjects had significantly more trouble understanding the speech when looking at the Asian “speaker”. Some even went so far as to identify a non-existent foreign accent, showing how social biases bleed into our cognitive interpretations of language. So, it’s clear there are other social factors that play into how job candidates and employees are judged, even if you end up sounding posher than the Queen.
But practically speaking, if you look the part and find it necessary and productive to lose a stigmatised accent it’s possible to do successfully on an individual level. Many people have, but at what cost? Rather than advising people to change a core part of their identity, it’s important that all of us become more aware of our hidden linguistic prejudices. On a wider community level, for many, changing an accent isn’t a viable solution to dealing with discrimination in the workplace. In the long run, tweaking how we sound to improve our career prospects? It just doesn’t work.
Chi Luu is a computational linguist and contributor to JSTOR Daily's Lingua Obscura column.