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What Does Your Accent Cost You?

Updated: Jun 17, 2020

According to a new study published last month by the National Bureau of Economic Research, "speaking with a distinctive regional accent reduces wages by an amount that is comparable to the gender wage gap [about 20 percent]."

There were two major factors that were noted to impact wage differences in workers with regional accents. The first being "consumer [and/or] coworker discrimination," and the second being workers "[sorting] away from occupations that demand high levels of face-to-face contact..."

Obviously, these factors are difficult to measure objectively. But the fact of the matter is that they exist, and are continuing to have a negative impact on workers with non-standard accents, whether it be international or regional. The majority of my clients have complained of feeling discriminated against, insecure, held-back, and uncomfortable speaking up in meetings, asking questions, applying for higher positions, interviewing for a new job, and being taken seriously in the workplace. They describe their accent as something that "gets in the way," despite being highly educated or skilled in their respective fields.

So, what can we do about this? Are workers doomed from progressing in the workplace and earning equal pay to their standard-accent counterparts?

Absolutely not! But there is definitely work to be done on all sides.

For workers seeking to adopt the standard accent in a desired workplace, then education and training are the major keys to success. This involves investing in resources and committing to a dedicated practice of learning and implementing pronunciation and intonation techniques, in addition to incorporating common expressions, terminology, and cultural references, and more. It can take weeks, months, even years for some to experience progress and direct results. But this path guarantees the most control, and has a direct impact on an individual's communication skills and confidence.

For employers, colleagues, and consumers who often judge workers' intelligence and skill level based on their accent, education and awareness are necessary. Accents are not simply "forgetting" or "not knowing" how to pronounce a sound. People who speak multiple languages are often trying to adopt new language patterns over their native ones, which leads to grammatical errors and speaking patterns getting "lost in translation." If the concept of adding an -s to the end of a noun to make it plural doesn't exist in one's native language, then leaving off that sound when speaking English will happen. Does that mean that person doesn't understand the difference between a singular and plural noun? Of course not. What it does mean is that the listener will perceive that speaker as having poor grammar, and therefore might not be as "educated."

It's my job to ensure that clients don't experience this kind of discrimination in the workplace or elsewhere. Often times they are not aware of these errors, and go years (even decades) speaking and writing this way. It's often incredible to see the shock or surprise from a client after being told that they are leaving off a sound, distorting a vowel, misusing a term, or even getting their colleague's name wrong after "all this time."

If being discriminated against is something you feel you've experienced based on your accent, I would love to hear your experience(s). Is adopting the standard accent a goal of yours? What are you doing about it? Have you ever been confronted about your accent? Has it ever gotten in the way of your work, ranking, or social life? Do you ever hold yourself back from an opportunity out of fear of being judged or misunderstood? What are some positive ways you think employers and colleagues can work towards reducing the wage gap, in addition to your own individual efforts?

Until next time,


American Speech Coach

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