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Accenting Race

Dalhousie's Accent Modification Clinic draws criticism

by Hillary Bain Lindsay

Does an ad for Dalhousie's Accent Modification Clinic turn an issue of accents into an issue of race?  Photo: El Jones
Does an ad for Dalhousie's Accent Modification Clinic turn an issue of accents into an issue of race? Photo: El Jones

K'JIPUKTUK (HALIFAX) – El Jones was grabbing a coffee on Spring Garden Road when an advertisement for Dalhousie's new Accent Modification Clinic caught her eye.  The ad [pictured right] features people of colour in the foreground and a white woman faded out into the background. 

Jones, Halifax's poet laureate, argues that the ad racializes accents by targeting people of colour. 

"This may not be the intention, but the clear message is not so much that you speak English one way or another [but] it's 'You're foreign, and you're foreign because you're brown, and you need to go to this clinic.'"

Dalhousie's Accent Modification Clinic, which opened in October, is the first of its kind in Canada.  Although private clinics exist in every major centre, this is the first one that is university-based.

According to the clinic's website, people who might benefit from the program are those who feel their accent prevents them from being fully understood, or those who feel self-conscious about their accent. 

"Accents are wonderful," says Cindy Dobbelsteyn, a speech pathologist at the Clinic.  "The idea of the clinic is not to change the accent so people can assimilate or sound like a native English speaker." Rather, she says, it's about helping people to be confident and effective when they communicate.

Regarding the advertisement featuring people of colour, Dobbelsteyn says the program is geared towards people from other countries,  thus "It wouldn't make sense to have individuals who are all looking like Canadians [in the poster]."

According to the 2011 census, almost 20 per cent of Canadians are considered part of a visible minority. 

"It's time for the majority of society to realize that society is made up of all kinds of people," says Jones, and the clinic’s advertising isn't helping. 

"The poster plays on a number of unquestioned stereotypes," she says.  "Why does an Asian person represent [someone who] does not speak English?  They could be a third-generation Canadian."

"Do all white people speak English?" asks Jones.  "What do you mean by an accent?  Who decides what English sounds like?  What do we mean by foreign?  What do we mean by Canadian?" 

Although Jones finds the Clinic's advertising problematic, she doesn't necessarily take issue with the existence of the clinic itself. "I don't doubt that some people feel they need this service," she says. 

However, she does question who is being asked to bear the responsibility and the cost of the service.  A session at the accent modification clinic costs $120/hour for individuals and $40/hour for groups. 

"You have people who are already marginalized, already struggling, and you have this one more thing…this other level you have to pay for." 

The clinic's website describes how some people with strong accents may have trouble being understood, and how this may play out negatively in their lives. 

"They might find some listeners pay more attention to the way they are speaking rather than to what they are saying. If they believe their accent has a negative impact on educational performance, career advancement and/or successful social communication, it might also affect their self-esteem," reads the website.

Jones questions how much of the problem lies with an individual not being understood, and how much of the problem is racism and racial stereotypes.  "The suggestion that…we shouldn't adjust the stereotypes, [that] you should pay money to change.  I find that problematic."    

Iris Estrada came to Halifax in 2008 as an international student.  Estrada's English was already excellent; however, her parents have strong Mexican accents, and she noticed how they were treated differently when they came to visit.  

When her parents would seek help in a store, Estraa says, "I could tell that  [the customer service representatives] weren't really understanding my parents, but I could also tell that they weren't really making the effort to understand them either."

"If we could train all of our listeners in Halifax to be more adaptable in the way they listen to people with a foreign accent, that would be great," says Dobbelsteyn.  But, she adds, "That's much more challenging" than modifying accents.

More challenging it may be, but Estrada says she'd like to see more people making an effort in being open and welcoming to people different from themselves. 

"It's hard to describe the emotions that go  through your head when you're the only person that looks like you in a crowd," she says. 

"I think that as an international student or as a person of colour at a school that's predominantly white, if I saw that Dal [Accent Modification Clinic]  poster…it would be just been another reminder of how I'm different."

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