What does your accent say about you?

Everyone has an accent. Mine’s a South London accent with an injection of an urban tone. An accent is a distinctive way of pronouncing language associated with a particular area and sometimes social class. Unfortunately, accents often bring with them prejudices from other people. E.g. you’re posh, you’re uneducated etc. Growing up, I was unaware that I even had an accent! Even as a young adult at University it never dawned on me that when I spoke I inadvertently gave a portrayal of my background, where I’m from and that people would already be drawing conclusions about me. It’s only until I got into teaching that I could confirm that yes I had an accent and that yes it carries significance. This realisation first formed when family members would say in my first year of teaching that they were amazed that I was teaching children given the way that I speak. I disregarded their comments, but then a few colleagues mentioned that I sounded very ‘Croydon’, and I could tell by how they said it that this wasn’t a compliment! All the while I was noticing that when teachers were speaking around the school, nobody spoke like me. The penny finally dropped for me that perhaps the way that I speak is seen by others as being incompatible with being a teacher. This began to make me feel self-conscious.  On top of this, recently I entered the world of leadership. Sitting at a leadership table during meetings it is evident that none of these leaders speak like me. Again, I’m an anomaly. I began to think, can you be a leader and not speak ‘good’ English? Surely as a leader I should be a model to others in every aspect, including how I speak. Surely, I must be the one that needs to change, to fit in and to fit the leadership model? Perhaps I do need to change the way that I speak? The South London accent is also known as Estuary English. Its main characteristics are:

  • The T Glottalization (t’s in a word are dropped). E.g. Getting better is pronounced as “Ge’in’ be’er”.
  • Words ending in -ing become either ‘-in’ or -ink’ e.g. “Somethink” or “Nothin”.
  • -th sounds are pronounced as –ff or –v. e.g. Brother is said as “Bruvva”.

So to change my accent to one that is more accepted I would have to address the points above. Easy right! Or perhaps not…

When mentioning my concerns to my sister, she responded that her University Lecturer spoke with a South London accent and although he was clearly intelligent and the most engaging lecturer there with effective delivery, she noticed that he didn’t get the same level of appreciation from her fellow students that he deserved and my sister felt it was because it was because of the way he spoke. She said ‘People just don’t like it- they don’t want to be taught degree-material by a near enough cockney!’  I don’t like the idea of people judging me unfairly and making negative assumptions about me due to my accent; assumptions such as I’m not as intelligent or that I’m not a true professional. For this reason I admit, I do find myself modifying the way that I speak in certain situations by trying to downplay the urban flavour and enunciating all letters in every word correctly particularly when amongst certain professionals, in meetings and around parents- but it gets tiresome and I often think I must sound ridiculous, people must know I’m being fraudulent! Like David Beckham trying to speak posh. It’s either that or people become confused because there’s no consistency in how I speak; with a parent, I’ll be giving it high vernacular and then 5 minutes later sitting down for lunch amongst familiar staff I may revert back to my natural (and more comfortable) ‘Croydon talk’. Sometimes I wonder, why do I bother?! Why do I exert energy trying to refine my speech when in today’s culture of diversity and equality I should feel free to be authentic and genuine and be accepted regardless? I contemplate that perhaps it’s a good thing if I were to stop the fakery and just speak with my native South London tongue because firstly not only would I feel more relaxed and natural but secondly, you never know- it could be a useful tool in challenging peoples preconceived ideas about people that speak the ‘Sauf Landun’ talk! People may be surprised to learn that a person possessing a ‘Sauf Landun’ accent (or any accent that’s seen to be inferior for that matter) can indeed be a very intelligent and competent professional!

What are your thoughts?




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