How to find your voice “because of your foreign accent and not despite it”

Foreign accents are rarely considered in the discussion about diversity, belonging and representation, even though they can have an enormous impact. 

A study carried out as part of the EU-funded project SocialAccent, led by the University of Ghent in Belgium, has found that a person speaking with a non-native accent might be perceived as less competent or trustworthy. 

One of the reasons, according to the research, is that a speech in a foreign accent is more difficult to understand than in the native one, so it requires more effort for the brain to process it. Another is that foreign accents can trigger an unconscious bias, with non-native speakers rapidly categorised as “others”.

There are ways to overcome these obstacles, however. Another research has shown that being exposed to foreign accents can reduce bias and increase trust. 

These dynamics are especially relevant in international news broadcasting, where English is the dominant language. 

Barbara Serra

In her newsletter ‘News with a foreign accent’, award-winning British-Italian journalist Barbara Serra explores the challenges of being a second-language English speaker in Anglophone media.

Barbara Serra was born in Italy, grew up in Denmark and moved to London to study international relations at the London School of Economics. She also holds a master’s degree in journalism from City University of London. She has worked for 25 years in major British and international news channels, including the BBC, Sky News and Al Jazeera. 

In 2005, she became the first non-native English speaker to present a flagship news programme on British terrestrial TV, Five News. From 2006 to 2022 she anchored Al Jazeera English’s NewsHour programme and reported extensively from Europe and the Middle East. Based on her unique experience, she shares in her newsletter insights on the impact that English as the global language has on the international media perception of world affairs. 

Barbara encourages non-native English speakers to use their accent as an asset, “because if you sound different, you most probably think differently, and that is the great strength of diversity,” she says. She has recently launched an online course to help second-language English speakers achieve that goal. 

What has changed in the representation of foreign accents in British and international broadcasting since you started, more than 20 years ago? 

Throughout my career, the fact that I was not a native English speaker has always had an impact. Sometimes it was a plus, but in a world where English is the uncontested international language, not being a native speaker was an obstacle. In domestic news in the UK especially, it ‘othered’ me and impinged on viewers’ trust. Back when I started, the concept of diversity obviously already existed, but it was not as developed as it is now. Even now, the notion of diversity rarely extends to accents, but I do think it is taken much more seriously and it is opening more opportunities for non-native English speakers.

These difficulties exist in all languages, but you talk specifically about the English language. Why?

English is the key with which we access what we call the international community. There are at least one and a half billion people in the world who speak English and, of those, only a third are native speakers. This is because the world functions in English. As the global conversation is dominated by the English language, it is a privilege to speak English, even more so as a native speaker. The point is how to make a foreign accent in an English-dominated world a strength, whether it is in broadcasting or other sectors. Different voices need to be part of the global conversation.

What advice would you give to non-native English speakers to build that voice, in broadcasting or other professions? 

The first question to ask is, how strong is your language? How good is your vocabulary? How capable and confident are you of expressing yourself in English? That may depend on when and how you learnt English. I did not learn English in an English-speaking country, but I learnt it in a school environment as a ten-year-old. A lot of people learn it as adults. Secondly, there are accents. It is incredibly difficult and very rare to change your accent, and the risk of elocution training is that it tries to make you sound like something that you are not, so you end up sounding fake. It is much better to work with your authentic voice and focus on clarity, which is not just about pronunciation but about intonation, speed, mannerism… Thirdly, a language does not exist in a vacuum. It is the conduit of the culture and the cultural values it refers to, so whenever we speak English, we speak the language of that culture. I think being aware of those things is important. 

There is also a link between language, belonging and identity. 

Of course language is a matter of identity, but I don’t think mastering one language must be at the detriment of the other. Ironically, I need an authoritative voice within the Anglophone media to get my non-Anglophone message across. I would say to anyone, work as much as you can on your English because the stronger your English is, the more authority you will have in the Anglophone world, i.e. the international community, to then put forward the parts of you that are different because of your different heritage. 

The European Union has a multilingualism policy, with 24 official languages, even if in practice English is the dominant working language. Is the lack of a common language hindering a common European identity?

The lack of a common language is the biggest barrier to European identity. If you compare it to the Arab world, which is so divided, Europe doesn’t have what they have, which is a common language – classical Arabic. Language has always been an enormous barrier for European unity. That is why you can have an Al Jazeera with tens of millions of viewers and you don’t have a truly European news channel. 

Barbara Serra’s online course to help second-language English speakers find their authentic voice in English is available here. Registrations for the first intake are open until 12 February 2024.

Interview by Claudia Delpero © Europe Street News

Photo by Vanilla Bear Films on Unsplash

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