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We stigmatize accents, but language belongs to everyone

Scholar and novelist Hernan Diaz was born in Argentina, grew up in Sweden, and spent most of his life in the United States. To some degree, he says, he has a foreign accent in every language he speaks. Diaz shares his humble opinion on accent discrimination and “the hospitality at the heart of every language.”

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We have all heard of racial profiling, but what about accent profiling?

    Hernan Diaz is the associate director of the Hispanic Institute at Columbia University, and his first novel was just nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Those are certainly accomplishments, and yet he possesses something else that sets him apart.

    That's tonight's In My Humble Opinion.

  • Hernan Diaz:

    I work at a university in New York with a large population of international students.

    Walking around campus the other day, I was perplexed to see flyers advertising accent reduction or even accent elimination. Having been born in Argentina, grown up in Sweden, and spent most of my life in the United States, I have, to some degree, a foreign accent in every language I speak.

    Something in my Spanish makes taxi drivers in Buenos Aires ask me where I'm from. In Swedish, my accent is very slight, but I have the vocabulary of a 12-year-old.

    In my early 20s, I lived in London for a couple of years, which left its mark. But the fact is, I got English almost as a gift, through Swedish. And there is still a Scandinavian lilt in there.

    Does my accent need correcting? I don't think so. To sound like who, exactly? A native speaker? What would that even mean?

    Looking at accent-reduction classes online, the third hit I got wasn't aimed at Eastern European or South American immigrants. It actually read, "Want to get rid of your New York accent?"

    An accent can be a stigma, even within native speakers of the same language. These variations, determined by geography, class, and race, are always identified with stereotypes, and fleeing from one means embracing another.

    In England a Russian writer may adopt an upper-crust British accent. In California, a Texan actor may aspire to a San Fernando Valley cadence. Even though everybody has an accent, there certainly is such a thing as accent discrimination.

    Most of us have either suffered or witnessed it at some point. I can easily tell when I'm not being understood or when someone is underscoring a difference in pronunciation just to show me my place, because accent discrimination is, in the end, all about place, who belongs and who doesn't.

    An accent is the echo of one language or tone in another. I, for one, enjoy these ghostly presences of something strange in a familiar environment. They are a reminder of the fact that language doesn't belong to anyone, not even to its native speakers.

    Language is shared. It is, in principle, a space where everyone is welcome and cooperates toward mutual comprehension. And the very fact that there are accents in the first place, the fact that we can still understand each other through all the differences, is the most conclusive proof of the hospitality at the heart of every language.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Pulitzer Prize nominee Hernan Diaz.

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