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English with an Accent as Root of the New Intolerance

When to Take Intolerance Personally?

Who Radicalizes Them?

In America, I never felt anybody looking down at me until that morning. And it was a fine Sunday morning when I got upset beyond repair: at a Starbucks parking lot I accidentally touched the next car when opening my car’s door; got out and checked: no scratch, thank goodness. At this point, the car’s driver screamed, “You scratched my car!” “Sorry but it’s not a scratch, just dirt,” I said.  She came around, touched it, felt no-scratch-just-dirt, and blurted out, “I don’t want to deal with you anyway: you speak with an accent, and you immigrants do more damage than simple scratch.” And she left.

She left me feeling pissed off. It was a clear case of “oppressive language,” of which Toni Morrison said that it “does more than represent violence; it is violence.”

Nobody ever said such a thing to my face in my 25 years of living and working in the US. Why now? As one journalist remarked when interviewing me about my new book, “Before, anti-immigrant folks kept their opinions to themselves. But not any longer: now they get instigated from the top.”

Indeed, today all right-wingers feel free to denounce immigrants out loud at their rallies where they enjoy radicalizing each other. In fact, I should be happy that woman did not shoot me, as some anti-immigrant individual did at El Paso, TX shooting, expressing the blind rage against everything that seemed foreign. People like him are not exactly crazy, just effectively radicalized to believe they are entitled to judge who is worthy to live and who is not. Radicalization spills into violence, and everybody knows who the chief instigator is.

No Need to Take It Personally?

Now, how to oppose – or mitigate – this intolerance which is increasingly crippling our great nation? Let’s start from a smaller issue, the accent intolerance. I know I shouldn’t take it personally. A linguist by education, I know about the researchproving that after puberty a new language acquisition typically comes with an accent. But most people are unaware of that—and in a big picture of the radicalized mob’s attitudes, immigrants with accents are to blame for all their bad luck, financial and other.

There is more to it than meets the eye. As shown in Rosina Lippe-Green’s book, English with an Accent, accents support social structures od inequality, where employers discriminate on the basis of accent, and the judicial system protects the status quo and reinforces language subordination. This book calls for a serious discussion of American attitudes toward language—and this is why. A language-culture ceiling does exist, invisible but palpable: about 66,6 million (20 percent) of Americans who speak a language other than English at home, may face linguistic discrimination, if they work outside of high-tech. They often start their own companies out of necessity—and doing so they add thousands of jobs, upping America’s well-being. And when the country flourishes economy-wise – who cares to take bigots personally?

What’s at the Root?

Tolerance is not about left or right, liberal or conservative politics. It’s more. It’s about the roots of intolerances-gone-wild that everybody needs to recognize. Educating the masses about them is key, and here is the essence.

We know that people who speak different languages perceive the world differently — with different cultures influencing styles of decision-making and communication, ways of presenting our thoughts, different meanings for talk and silence — even different values. Nonverbal behaviors, such as expressions of respect, understanding and strong emotions can be badly misinterpreted. At the root of human behavior, culture is king, it trumps language and accent.

This means we need to include culture studies in the whole host of immigrant issues. Most importantly, we need to include this in the immigration reform discourse — and legislation. Politicians and media, however, typically focus on the immigration reform legalities, totally ignoring the critical issues of linguistic and cultural integration—a big mistake which adds to growing misunderstanding and negativity towards immigrants!

So, it is not enough to speak English without an accent. Always consider the root of the issue, culture.

What’s to Be Done? Be Bold, Accent or No Accent

Incidentally, I interviewed and featured 18 prominent American immigrant women in my book, How They Made It in America, all of them the speaking with some accent. Let’s look at Ivana and see her way of addressing the accent intolerance.

Ivana Trump, from Czechoslovakia, set her own standard for linguistic integration. She was born to be bold: her beauty, athletic prowess, fashion style, and street smarts often made the news. Ivana made her initial fortune the old-fashioned way, marrying a millionaire and assuming a major role in the Trump organization. There, she acquired enough business savvy to start successful companies of her own–although, remember, she started from scratch.

Ivana Trump before emigrating from Czechoslovakia and learning English

What we need to remember is that her bold self-confidence prevailed over limited English proficiency: “If you don’t really understand — smile a lot. Makes you look wise and happy,” shared Ivana. It took more than smiling to master her English — which shows in her cameo role in a Hollywood movie, The First Wives Club, and in four books (including Raising Trump). Her thick accent aside, Ivana’s had a bold ability to adapt culturally, which is key.

And it seems to me—although I didn’t interview her yet—that Melania Trump, from Slovenia, also adapted smiling attitudes with beautiful bold style, and I never heard anyone being condescending of her because of her accent. But wait for her memoirs to come out!

Out with Intolerances!

Yes, it is possible to counter accent intolerance, but generally speaking, condescending attitudes toward immigrants are “older than America itself.” They lie deeper than accent dislikes. Remember, the intolerant folks habitually downgrade the contributions of 40 million foreign-born working Americans.

We cannot afford these intolerances much longer: global realities push us to hold on to all available resources, including the creativity of our immigrants. Sustaining a climate where they feel desirable and productive means acting for the sake of America’s prosperity — so, out with intolerances!

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