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April 9, 2000 - Accents - 2002-02-16

INTRO: This week Wordmasters Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble discuss issues facing people who speak English with an accent.

TAPE -- Young ape (Rosie O'Donnell voice-over) in "Tarzan"

"The fun has arrived! Thank you very much."

OTHER APE: "Hey, what took you so long?"

"I had a little pest control problem, but it's all taken care of."

AA: Maybe so for the young ape with the New York accent, the voice of actress Rosie O'Donnell, in the Disney animated film "Tarzan." But at least one movie-goer found a different problem.

RS: Rosina Lippi-Green is not your average movie- goer. She is a linguist and author of the book "English with an Accent: Language, Ideology and Discrimination in the United States." She says that although "Tarzan" is supposed to take place in Africa, you could never tell by listening to the characters.

AA: Like these elephants:

TAPE -- Sound from "Tarzan"

"Piranha! It's a piranha!"

"Sweetheart, there are no piranhas in Africa."

"Shh! Don't tell the kid that. Of course there are piranhas in Africa."

"No, she's right. They're native to South America."

RS: She says most of the characters sound like they could be from the American Midwest.

AA: Like Rosina Lippi-Green herself. She says the media traditionally prefer the neutral, middle American sound, although some celebrities are known for their accents, like Rosie O'Donnell.

Ms. Lippi-Green says all this implies that other accents are not as desirable.

RS: She says Americans are exposed to this bias as children. Several years ago, she did a statistical analysis of accent use in Disney animated films.


"What I saw was large-scale, systematic representation to children - here's an interesting example: It doesn't always look negative on the surface. If you think of the Disney animated movie `Beauty and the Best,' it's set in France. The story line is presented in English. As this is primarily for an English-speaking audience, that makes sense.

"Some of the characters have French accents and others don't. Why is that? It's not because the people doing the voice-over characterization were French. That wasn't the case, they were putting on French accents.

"To look deeper at that, OK, which characters have French accents? It's the cook and the sexy little parlor maid - the stereotypes. Children learn, oh yes, this is what French people are. These people are all supposed to be French, but actually the real French people are the oversexed ones interested in food."

RS: And it's not just Disney. Rosina Lippi-Green says people with strong accents -- whether foreign or regional -- can face discrimination in American society.

AA: She says courts will not tolerate discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity, but some employers have found loopholes by emphasizing "communication skills" as a job requirement.

RS: So, Ms. Lippi-Green says, some people feel pressure to lose their accents.


"If you went through and looked at all the places in the country that offer accent- reduction courses, you will see what they target are people from third world nations: Asian accents, African accents, Spanish accents. I actually had someone contact me who knew about my book and thought that I was kind of on that side of the fence, and I said, `Let me just ask you, why aren't you worried about reducing accents for Swedish people or French people?' And there was just stunned silence. It's because they're not stigmatized."

AA: So what can someone with an accent do to deal with an uncomfortable or unfriendly situation? Rosina Lippi-Green offers some practical advice:


"If you get a clerk who pretends not to understand you, I would say, `Should I write this down? What word are you not understanding? Help me communicate with you.' Sometimes if you bring it to the service and you make them aware that you know what they're doing, sometimes out of embarrassment they will cease."

RS: And sometimes, the whole situation can be avoided by accentuating the positive. Rosina Lippi-Green says she discovered that while in academia.


"When I taught at the University of Michigan, I taught Introduction to Language and Linguistics. There were 250 people and I had teaching assistants. And I had one teaching assistant, a wonderful teacher who was a Japanese-American. She had a very strong accent. I knew that I was going to get complaints, that kids would come to me after they went to their first class and say `Oh, she's got an accent and I can't work with her.'

"So what I did was at the beginning, in the very first lecture, I talked about communication difficulties: when they were real, when they weren't real, what to do with somebody who had an accent who was lecturing you and you didn't understand -- polite ways to clarify and work through that process. And I told them that if they would give this person a couple of days chance, they would have no problems at all, it was just a matter of accommodating in both directions."

AA: And how did her students react?


"I didn't do this the first time I taught this class and I had a huge number of people showing up in my office, saying `I don't want to be in this section, she has an accent, blah blah blah.' When I did that presentation at the beginning of the hour, I had only one person come to me and she hadn't been at that lecture."

RS: Rosina Lippi-Green, author of "English with an Accent," now works full time writing historic fiction. In fact, she won the 1999 PEN- Hemingway Award for her novel "Homestead."

AA: That's it for Wordmaster this week.

RS: With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

MUSIC: "Pardon My Southern Accent"/Toni Tennille