accent discrimination

You’re talking funny: when dialect accents have societal implications

5 minutes to read
Jos Swanenberg

In a truly resilient society, adolescents should be assessed on their competences and capacities, in the domains of education or labor. Unfortunately, stereotyping and prejudice make that this is different for adolescents from peripheral areas and marginalized groups. One of the important factors in this is their language.

Why does speaking with an accent diminish one’s opportunities on the job market or the achievements in one’s school career? Apparently, some accents are better than other accents, so that students, graduates and young job applicants are not treated equally on the basis of the language they speak.

Do we want more or less accents?

Every now and then we read or hear in the media about young people who are discriminated because of their accent. Often these stories refer to vacancies and job interviews, for instance when young people from peripheral areas (e.g. Fryslân, Limburg, Brabant in the Netherlands) confess they do not dare to apply for jobs in the central Randstad because of their regional accents. Furthermore, speaking with a foreign accent is also often reported to have a negative influence on evaluations and assessments, regardless of the speaker’s actual language proficiency.

Analogous to the glass ceiling, the vertical segregation between the sexes in our society, we can observe an accent ceiling: minorities who speak with an accent are categorized as unintelligible and unintelligent, and therefore less competent and less valuable (Jaspers 2012). This segregation by accent is the cause of unequal treatment of various minorities.

Strikingly, public tolerance towards variation in speech seems to have increased over the last 30 years. In Dutch television broadcasting we now hear much more accented speech than in the 1970’s, early 1980’s with program announcers on public television being the absolute icons of the speakers of ‘proper Dutch’. This increase of tolerance is caused by a process of democratization of the standard language and will result in a more variable common language, in other words, in a version of Dutch with many different accents. We no longer have a generally accepted standard, pronunciation has become extremely diverse, and accents are everywhere (Van der Horst 2008).

Does this mean that any accent is accepted? On the contrary, there is much critique on deviations in speech, on ‘vulgar’ or ‘sloppy’ pronunciation. Thus, on the one hand we observe more and more Dutch with an accent, also in situations where we would expect formal or ‘proper’ Dutch (in the classroom, in Parliament), and the social acceptance of accents has increased. But on the other hand we observe a very critical attitude towards accents, which is of high societal relevance, since it can be a threat to school and societal careers.

It seems like we want less accents, but in practice we get more.

All accents are equal but some accents are more equal than others

In a pilot study conducted at a teacher training college (Fontys Lerarenopleiding Tilburg), we dug deeper into this interesting issue. Here, we specifically addressed the question if future teachers of Dutch are allowed or not allowed to speak with an accent in the class room (Poelmans, Kerkhoff, Swanenberg 2016). It turned out that students at the teacher training college often do not mind their own accents:

“Most of my students speak with a Moroccan accent themselves. Why should I then adjust my accent".

“Why should I change my accent? I will work in Tilburg anyway"

Attitudes of this type are not only about accents and intelligibility, but also about stereotypical associations people experience when assessing speech. So, what are the attitudes of teachers-in-training towards accented speech, if asked in an inquiry and if asked when assessing speech itself? Asking in an inquiry is delving for metalinguistic knowledge: the ideological constructs of what we think we know of language, whereas assessing speech itself delves into the categorization of language as we perceive it. 

Apparently, speaking with an accent will be tolerated by future teachers of Dutch, but it depends on which accent is at stake.

The combination of these two assessments does justice to findings of Preston (2011) in folk linguistics research (on laymen’s knowledge of language). When people are asked what they think of a certain accent, they do not (or not only) give linguistic arguments, but they also use cultural arguments (‘this speaker is from the south, he sounds like a hillbilly’). In other words, we tend to think in prejudice and stereotypes, when it comes to assessing accents.

This pilot study of assessments of Dutch with a Moroccan, Antillean, French, Turkish, Polish, Amsterdam or Brabantish accent resulted, in Tilburg, in a clear preference for Brabantish. Accents are selectively assessed, as the accent of the home region, the perceived center, is prefered. Furthermore, we found that the accents that are linked to labor migration (Turkish, Moroccan, Polish) are valued less, whereas French and Antillean accented speech form the middle section. A foreign but Western European accent and an overseas but Dutch accent are apparently considered better than a foreign accent associated with labor migration.

Apparently, speaking with an accent will be tolerated by future teachers of Dutch, but it depends on which accent is at stake. It is clear that accents are assessed selectively, an accent from the home region is valued the most. In general, indigenous accents are evaluated more positively than foreign accents, and foreign accents associated with labor migration are appreciated least. This selective perception is what marginalizes certain groups of speakers, and causes these marginalized groups to experience discriminative behavior from the centers, such as the Randstad: the accent ceiling at work. In Tilburg, the students also showed the presence of their own accent ceiling: to them, Tilburg is the point of reference and the accent from their region Noord-Brabant is prefered. 

Accent discrimination

Diversity in the pronunciation of Dutch may have increased but the social acceptance of accents is quite selective. Adolescents still have to deal with stigmatized representations when people hear and assess their accents. Tolerance towards speaking with an accent is limited, and this is important since it damages the position of young people from the countryside and from specific ethnic groups.


Jaspers, Jürgen (2012) Het algemeen Nederlands: uw sociale zekerheid? In K. Absilis, J. Jaspers, S. van Hoof (red.) De Manke Usurpator. Academia Press: Gent, 371-399.

Poelmans, Petra, Anne Kerkhoff, Jos Swanenberg (2016) ‘In de pauze mag het wel’. Hoe denken aankomende leraren en leerlingen over accenten in de klas? Een onderzoek naar attitudes ten opzichte van accenten en de implicaties voor het onderwijs. Paper Taal en Tongval-colloquium, 25-11-2016.

Preston, Dennis (2011) Methods in (applied) folk linguistics: Getting into the minds of the folk. AILA Review 24, 15-38.

Van der Horst, Joop (2008) Het einde van de standaardtaal; een wisseling van Europese taalcultuur. Amsterdam: Meulenhoff.