‘You can’t even speak English, so don’t speak!’ How linguistic racism affects immigrants in the UK

When Holan Liang was 17, he spent his vacations working at his father’s computer parts company. In her recent book, A Sense of Belonging: How to Find Your Way in a Fractured World, Liang, now a psychiatrist, recounts the racist ways clients would respond to her family’s Chinese roots.

His father, who had a Ph.D. in hydraulic engineering, was called “a useless Chinese” who “can’t speak a bloody word of English.” Liang points out that he actually could speak English fluently, but he did so with an accent and some grammatical errors because English was his second language.

What Liang’s family experienced – discrimination based on accent, dialect or speech patterns – is called linguistic racism or linguicism. It is aimed at people who speak in a way that is considered non-standard or “foreign-sounding.” It is not based on a speaker’s proficiency or intelligibility of the language, but rather on the accent and verbal delivery of it.

The accent makes people comment and tease about regional accents and dialects. But as an extension of racism, linguistic racism in the UK focuses on whiteness by viewing so-called non-standard ways of speaking English as abnormal and inferior.

Young people from immigrant communities report being ostracized and harassed for their accent.
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Impact on family relationships.

Our respective PhD research projects, which focus on the Zimbabwean and South Asian communities in the UK, show that bilingual immigrants experience linguistic racism, due to their English accent being influenced by their mother tongue and the patterns particular speech of the community.

We have found that this discrimination can affect their access to education, employment and social opportunities. It also affects their self-esteem, resilience, and effectiveness.

Christine investigates young people within the Zimbabwean community who have reported experiencing playground bullying, teasing and exclusion from peer social groups at school due to linguistic racism. “In the beginning, it was difficult,” said one research participant. “I had a different accent to everyone else and I hadn’t picked up the London accent so people were trying to pick on me and no one wanted to hang out with me.”

Young people described how linguistic racism affected their self-esteem and sense of belonging, leading some to feel ashamed of their ethnic identity. For some, this in turn affected their relationships with their parents, often due to resentment of their strong foreign accents.

One girl said of her mother: “When she speaks English, her accent is annoying. You know, a person who has a thick Zimbabwean accent trying to speak English? It bothers me, it actually aggravates me. I don’t even want her to talk to my friends, because she’s embarrassing, because she’s just trying to talk and be normal with them, in English, and she’s like, ‘Mom, you can’t even speak English, so no. ‘do not speak!'”

Other participants said they would avoid being seen in public with their parents or try to prevent them from attending school events.

Impact on access to opportunities

Zanib interviewed South Asian Muslim women at Apna Haq, a Rotherham-based charity. Most of the women reported facing accent-based microaggressions on a daily basis, despite the fact that many were competent English speakers, born and raised in the UK.

One interviewee reported an incident in a library, where a stranger derisively yelled, “You speak English Bud-Bud!” “Bud-Bud” is a derogatory term that supposedly mimics South Asian accents.

This type of interaction led the women to experience feelings of deep shame and loss of confidence to speak English in public. This limited his commitment to social and professional opportunities.

A woman in a pink scarf talks on the phone while a woman in a blue scarf watches.
Women from South Asian communities in the UK have spoken out about how accent bias affects job opportunities and social interactions.
UfaBizPhoto | Shutterstock

In 2020, sociolinguists at Queen Mary University of London conducted research on the effect of accent and linguistic racism on job recruitment. They found that this discrimination affects interviewers’ perceptions of candidates’ suitability for certain occupations.

They also found that candidates’ interview success was disproportionately lower the further their accents were from received pronunciation, regardless of how strong their interview qualifications, skills, or competency were. This primarily affected non-white candidates.

France set a positive example in 2020, when it passed a groundbreaking law banning what French sociolinguist Philippe Blanchet calls “glottophobia,” racism based on a regional or foreign accent. The new law contemplates a maximum penalty of three years in prison and a fine of 45,000 euros.

Unfortunately, in the UK, there is little clarity on linguistic racism within the Equality Act (2010) and therefore no real protection. Unchallenged, linguism endures as a pretext to perpetuate racism under the radar.

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