My Mother’s English
Last spring, I read Mother Tongue, an essay novelist Amy Tan had written about her mother’s English. Tan’s mother, who had immigrated to the U.S., held an “expressive command” of English.
But her mother’s English was also grammatically imperfect. Because of this, she was ignored, mistreated by workers in department stores, banks, and restaurants. Tan was forced by the society she grew up in to call her mother’s English “broken,” forced to be ashamed. Eventually, her mother asked her to be the voice behind all the phone calls.
Sometimes, it felt like the “I”s in the essay were actually me. Like Tan’s mother, my mother held an expressive command of English. She finished and excelled in all the high school-equivalent English classes. But my mother’s English was not grammatically perfect either. Tan’s story made me think of all the times I was asked to answer a call or proofread a text message.
Trying to be Understood
During one of Tan’s mother’s medical check ups, the hospital had lost her CAT scan. She explained to her doctor her worries—that her son and husband both lost their lives to cancers. Yet the doctor was unsympathetic despite making a mistake. It took Tan calling the doctor for them to apologize and promise for the scan to be found. (Modified from Mother Tongue)
Our mothers’ Englishes differ from Standard American English (SAE)—the English taught in American schools, the English revered in the business world. By SAE standards, their Englishes contain grammar mistakes and awkward phrasings. But that doesn’t mean their Englishes are incomprehensible. Because the average native English speaker, too, makes grammar mistakes when they speak. The difference is SAE speakers are not hyper-criticized until their grammar mistakes overshadow their message, until what they have to say, or even they, themselves, are ignored.
But let’s say that your English is actually grammatically perfect. That your syntax is flawless and your diction is exemplary. But, because you had lived or learned English in another country, you don’t have the SAE accent. What would happen then?
Manuel Fragante is an educated man. He holds a university degree in law and speaks 4 languages. Born in the Philippines, when he served in an American military branch, his English was rated excellent. After he immigrated to the U.S., He sought a job in the DMV after obtaining top scores in the civil service exam.
But he was turned down. His interviewer wrote he had a “heavy Filipino accent” and a “difficult manner of pronunciation” despite never noting an instance when they couldn’t understand Fragante . He sued. The linguist at trial’s record indicated that both attorneys and the judge made more grammar and syntax errors than he did, that the court reporter and the judge understood every word he said. He lost the case. (Modified from Voices of America: Accent, Antidiscrimination Law, and a Jurisprudence for the Last Reconstruction)
—36 years later—
In 2017, if you searched up jobs requiring “neutral accents9,” you can find many postings despite this being illegal. This means if you have a non-SAE accent and applied to be a Sale Executive at Zymr, a Reservation Specialist at Expedia, or a position at Y Combinator or VDart, you are at a serious disadvantage. (Adapted from These LinkedIn Job Postings Requesting a Neutral Accent Are Probably Illegal)
Accentism is often an extension of racism and xenophobia. Studies have found that speakers of SAE are deemed by listeners to be “American” while speakers with non-SAE accents are automatically judged as foreigners. This happens because listeners use a speaker’s accent to extrapolate their country of origin and assign “cultural and racist meaning” based on that assumption.
In the same study, researchers found that the predominantly white group of listeners associated speakers of SAE with higher socioeconomic statuses and positive personality traits compared to speakers with a non-SAE accent. Moreover, they found that not all non-SAE accents were “denigrated the same.” French and German-accented speakers—both Western European countries typically seen as having advanced economies and high development indexes—are afforded more status and solidarity than Vietnamese, Farsi, Mandarin, Hindi, and Arabic-accented speakers.
And what does that mean? By the study’s own definition, it means that if you have a Vietnamese, Farsi, Mandarin, Hindi, or Arabic accent, you’re considered less competent, intelligent, smart than those who speak SAE or have a Western European accent. It means you’re seen as more cold, unfriendly, unpleasant before your listener even got a chance to know you.
In response to this, employers, teachers, or listeners guilty of accentism often raise the “I don’t understand” defence, saying it’s more difficult to understand someone who speaks an English different than SAE. Not only does this defence evade the listener’s responsibility to adapt, be flexible, and take on their role in the conversation, it may also be another facet of discrimination. Studies have shown that “just seeing an Asian face makes Americans consider someone’s English harder to understand.” So realistically, “I can’t understand” may just be a prettier way of saying “I shut down when I hear you speak.”
SAE and Power Structures
Standard American English is referred to as “neutral” while all other Englishes are known as “accented” or foreign.” This creates a power structure within the language where English’s inherent definition is based on SAE as the norm and all other Englishes as “the other.” This creates a power structure where there is societal pressure to assimilate to SAE and an intolerance of anything different.
That begs the question, why is SAE revered? Especially when accounting for the fact that non-native English speakers outnumber native English speakers 3-1, SAE’s dominance and presence as the “center” seems arbitrary. And this is correct in the sense that there is no “inherently pleasing accent,” no English that is inherently best. There are only preferences constructed out of our prejudices, our “socially constructed reality.”
But the power structures surrounding SAE are also not arbitrary in terms of whose voices it benefits. SAE is the accent typically spoken by a white, upper-class non-recent immigrant. The domination of SAE is another way of saying “white people preferred” when it comes to job and educational opportunities. It’s a more socially acceptable way for listeners to assign positive traits and assumptions to white-sounding English speakers while viewing non-white, ethnic, regional, or lower-class accented speakers through a negative lens. It’s a power structure that consistently determines who gets to speak, who gets to be understood, whose words get to matter.
My Mother’s English Revisited
“Your accent is your story and heritage. Who first held you and talked to you when you were a child, where you have lived, your age, the schools you attended, the language you know, your ethnicity, whom you admire, your loyalties, your profession, your class position.” (Voices of America: Accent, Antidiscrimination Law, and a Jurisprudence for the Last Reconstruction)
We have a running joke in the family I tell wherever my relatives find my seriously deteriorated Mandarin hard to understand. We say that if you’re truly proficient at a language, you’d be able to understand anyone speaking it, in any accent, with any mistakes.
Non-SAE Englishes can be understood if listeners try to understand, if listeners play their role in the conversation, if listeners let these Englishes exist rather than reject them. But on a broader scale, whether in education or the business world, there needs to be an overall shift to focusing on whether someone can communicate effectively, not upholding the traditions of poetic language or grammatical rules unnecessary to aiding comprehension. Because choosing to prioritize the latter means upholding the power structure perpetuated by Standard American English.
My mother’s English is not perfect, by SAE standards. But many people, myself included, can understand it. My mother’s English is being brave enough to leave her job chasing brighter opportunities in a new country. My mother’s English is learning a new language and adapting to a new culture from scratch. My mother’s English is something to be proud of.
This spring, I watched my friend compete in the World University Debate Championships (WUDC), the most prestigious college debate competition in the world. I’d quit debate right after high school but still follow the debate community’s Facebook pages for updates.
For years, people have written thoughtful posts about judges’ negative bias against English as a Second Language (ESL) and English as a Foreign Language (EFL) speakers. For years, people talked about how non-SAE accented speakers are often scored lower even though their content, their logic, their analysis, were just as good as anyone’s in the round. For years, there were rumblings of an ESL revolution at WUDC, where ESL or EFL teams can achieve success and make the Open Final.
To this day, the debate community is not perfect. There is ingrained racism and gender discrimination. Wealthy, private universities consistently dominate the field with their funding and institutional support. But for the first time, in 2021, many teams in the Open Final were ESL teams. All 8 speakers spoke non-SAE Englishes. Because people started to realize what they had to say was important.
Nellie Sun (she/her) is a rising junior from Vancouver, Canada who is double majoring in Political Science and History at Duke University. She became politically and civically engaged in high school, canvassing and phone-banking for the Hon. Jody Wilson-Raybould’s election campaign and volunteering in her MP’s constituency office. Nellie has worked with the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice on updating and curating virtual tours for their Durham Civil and Human Rights Map, which showcases historical sites where boycotts, sit-ins, legal cases, and protests for social justice occurred. Someday, Nellie hopes to become a public interest attorney and use the legal system to advance civil and human rights.
In her free time, she avidly competes with Duke’s mock trial team, whom she loves!