Pardon my foreign accent!

This post was contributed by Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele from Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communications.

In an increasingly multilingual world, more and more people are exposed to foreign accents, and if we use foreign languages ourselves, the chances are that we have our very own foreign accent.  Does a foreign accent matter?  Yes, says Moyer (2013) because it is so salient: “it is the means by which we make ourselves understood, and the yardstick by which others judge us, whether we like it or not”. A foreign accent can have unexpected social consequences.  Indeed, those with a strong foreign accent are often judged as less competent, less educated, less intelligent, and less trustworthy (Fuertes et al, 2011).  In other words, a foreign accent can be a heavy burden. Veronica Glab (2014), a Canadian-born Pole currently living in Madrid, describes how her “Polish and American accents came up like bile” when speaking Spanish, and how it made her feel like an outsider, causing a sense of failure.

It is really hard to get rid of a foreign accent when the foreign language learning started later in life as Glab can testify.  Only a small minority of late learners manage to speak a foreign language with a native-like accent.  They are typically people with good auditory working memory, i.e. people who can keep sounds in their short term memory for a longer time.  Other psycho-cognitive predictors are phonetic coding ability, an ability to sing and a high level of empathy (Hu et al, 2012).

Personality has also been mentioned by multilinguals as having an effect on their attitudes towards foreign accents. Glab wonders whether her foreign accent might be linked to her timidness and self-consciousness.

Having a slight French-Dutch accent in English, I was never too bothered by it as English speakers usually like French accents, which they tend to find “cute”.  My accent became a liability only once, in 2003, at the time of the second Gulf war.  Having been stopped for speeding in Independence, California, by a patriotic police officer, who told me the helicopter had followed me for half an hour through the desert, and caught me going over the 60 miles per hour limit .  Did I have an explanation for that?  My answer, but probably even more my French accent, did not please the officer.  Didn’t I realise, he asked, that the French were not welcome in the US? (It was the time of the “Liberty fries” – because the Americans weren’t allowed to use the F-word anymore).  I hastened to point out that I was Belgian, and that Belgium had not voted against the US in the UN.  Little did it matter.  My infraction, compounded by my French accent cost me $ 150.

What this little episode shows is that attitudes toward foreign accents vary according to the accent in question, and to the general socio-historical context.  It also shows that different people have different attitudes.  So what exactly affects attitudes towards foreign accents? We explored this question more systematically in a study that just came out (Dewaele & McCloskey, 2014). We collected data on attitudes towards the foreign accents of other people and the own foreign accent via an online questionnaire.  A total of 2035 multilinguals from around the world participated. We found that extraverted multilinguals, who were emotionally stable and tolerant of ambiguity were significantly less bothered by the foreign accents of others. Only more neurotic multilinguals were bothered by their own foreign accent. Unexpectedly, participants who knew more languages to a higher level were more negative about the foreign accent of others and their own. However, participants who grew up in an ethnically diverse environment, who had lived abroad and who were working in an ethnically diverse environment were significantly more positive about foreign accents. Women had a more negative attitude towards their own foreign accent – but not that of others.

It thus seems that how much we are bothered by foreign accents falls partly outside our conscious control as it depends on personality, language learning history, current linguistic practices and sociobiographical background.

Other posts by Professor Dewaele:


Dewaele, J.-M. & McCloskey, J. (2014). Attitudes towards Foreign accents among adult multilingual language users. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development

Fuertes, J.N., Gottdiener, W.H., Martin, H., Gilbert, T.C., & Giles, H. (2011). A meta-analysis of the effects of speakers’ accents on interpersonal evaluations. European Journal of Social Psychology, 42, 120-133.

Hu, X., Ackermann, H., Martin, J.A., Erb, M., Winkler, S., & Reiterer, S. (2012). Language aptitude for pronunciation in advanced second language (L2) learners: Behavioural predictors and neural substrates. Brain and Language doi:10.1016/j.bandl.2012.11.006.

Moyer, A. (2013). Foreign Accent: The Phenomenon of Non-native Speech. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Another Darkness, Another Dawn: A History of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers

This post was contributed by Dr Becky Taylor, a lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology.

The Roma are back in the news: the Daily Mail has published an article claiming that a Bulgarian Roma woman has schooled ‘hundreds of children’ in the art of pickpocketing; government promises to clamp down on ‘welfare tourism’ in the wake of the dropping of border controls from Bulgaria and Romania have been tied sometimes implicitly, often explicitly, to expected ‘invasions’ of Roma. Once again, it seems, society’s wider insecurities about social change have found a scapegoat in Europe’s most marginalised and vilified minority. This is nothing new: in 2014 scaremongering about Bulgarian Roma may be a way of expressing deep seated fears over migration, the expansion of Europe and the lack of a democratic voice; in early modern Europe repression targeting ‘Egyptians’ and ‘counterfeit Egyptians’ was means for regimes trying to control the rapid rise in vagrancy and the social uncertainty caused by wars and religious upheavals.

Romani peoples are rarely seen as having a place in a country, either geographically or socially, no matter where they live or what they do. Part of their marginalisation stems from the fact that they are excluded from mainstream histories. At the same time, they are rarely granted a separate history, but rather seen to exist in a timeless bubble, unchanged and untouched by modern life. If some Roma or Gypsies are seen as deviant, thieving and untrustworthy still others – often existing more in the realm of story books and imagination – are depicted as living a timeless life of constant nomadism; innately exotic, musical, most likely living in bow-topped caravan, ‘here today, gone tomorrow’, untouched by the cares of modern life.

Another Darkness, Another Dawn A History of Gypsies, Roma and TravellersMy recent book, Another Darkness, Another Dawn: A History of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers (Reaktion, 2014) is an attempt to move beyond such stereotyping and to write not only a history of peoples most often known as Gypsies, but also to write their history into the mainstream. Understanding their history means tracking the gradual migration of peoples whose descendants became Romani, from India across the Persian empire and into Europe via Byzantium. It also means reflecting on the vast array of ways in which they have lived: while some groups may have been perpetually nomadic, large numbers – across history and place – often travelled for the summer and settled in the winter; still others settled permanently in particular villages or parts of towns. Central to Romani experiences has been their ability to find gaps and spaces in which they might continue to exist and even sometimes to thrive. Their economic activities often exploited niches which settled communities were unable to fulfil; and their resilience and willingness to live on the margins has enabled them to survive waves of repression.

Writing this history was also to take in the founding and contraction of empires, Reformation and counter-Reformation, wars, the expansion of law and order and of states, the Enlightenment and the increasing regulation of the world – it is as much a history of ourselves as it is a history of ‘others’. So long positioned as outsiders, in fact genetic mapping as much as the genealogies constructed by the nineteenth-century Munich police, show the extent to which, whether settled or mobile, Romani peoples’ heritages have long been as intimately bound to the European population as they are to an original Indian ancestry. Evidence from the Venetian as well as Ottoman empires shows how they rapidly became integrated into their social, feudal and military systems. And indeed, that the Ottoman empire was quite capable of managing nomadism and taxing nomads is revealing of the paucity of imagination of modern bureaucratic states with their insistence on a fixed address as a key indicator of citizenship.

If exploring the history of Romani peoples was a way of holding up a mirror to the societies in which they have lived, it was also a salutatory lesson into the dangers of believing in a progressive view of history: things don’t always get better, especially if you belong to a marginalised ethnic group. But neither were they always necessarily as simple as they first appear. Carrying out the research for this book showed how the enslavement of Gypsies coexisted under the Ottomans with remarkable cultural diversity and autonomy; how branding, mutilations and ‘gypsy hunts’ occurred at the same time that Gypsies established themselves across Europe; and how despite developments in education and attitudes towards minorities the modern world has failed to bring anything like acceptance of the place of Romani peoples within its societies. The book takes its name from the words of Ilona Lacková, a Slovakian Roma and Auschwitz survivor: ‘It’s the end of the war, we’ve survived. After darkness comes the dawn. But after every dawn also comes the darkness. Who knows what’s in store for us’.

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Parents in Parliament: The Motherhood Trap

This post was contributed by Dr Rosie Campbell, a Senior Lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Politics and Professor Sarah Childs (University of Bristol). It was originally published on the British Politics and Public Life blog.

Men’s over-representation and women’s under-representation in the UK Parliament is pretty well known, even if the public sometimes over-estimates just how many women MPs there are, bedazzled by their bright clothing in the Chamber.[1] In fact, men outnumber women by more than 4:1. (In his 2009 survey conducted by YouGov, Professor Phil Cowley (Nottingham) asked respondents what they thought was the correct percentage of women MPs was. At the time the average response was 26% when the actual figure was closer to 20%.)

Some people may not find this particularly troublesome. Lord Hurd has recently been cited saying that there is a “ludicrous” obsession with ensuring there is equal representation of men and woman in parliament and other areas of public life. We believe very strongly that a diversity of background and experience does matter. And there’s another serious flaw with the Hurd line of reasoning. He says that if voters didn’t want a “good looking chap from a public school” as prime minister they wouldn’t keep choosing them. But the reason feminists have campaigned for All Women Short-lists as a means to get more women at Westminster is precisely because it’s political parties not voters who choose our candidates and party leaders. We the voters don’t get to choose our parliamentary candidates, and therefore who our MPs, are. The reasons there are too few women in politics stems from both a lack of demand for and supply of women candidates: voters don’t punish women candidates. But in the absence of equality measures such as Labour’s All Women’s Shortlists, parties are much less likely to select women in winnable seats, even if fewer women seek selection as parliamentary candidates overall.

Having children is frequently cited as a barrier that holds women back from seeking parliamentary selection. But of course not all women are mothers. And both men and women are parents. So we need to question whether the problem is less about the equal representation of men and women – or parents and non-parents – and perhaps more about the exclusion of mothers?

Until now, the UK Parliament simply did not know how many mothers or fathers sat on its green benches. During the new Labour years, and again since 2010, a number of women MPs have given birth: the latest being the Liberal Democrat Minister Jo Swinson, who is currently facing criticism for wanting to have her child with her in the division lobby. We doubt that the vocal hostility to the needs of a new mother, that her comments have generated, are likely to increase the supply of mothers seeking selection for the 2015 general election.

In our survey (supported by the Speaker of the House of Commons and the Commons Diversity and Inclusion Unit )of MPs in 2012 we found a startling set of facts about mothers and fathers in Parliament:

• 45% of women MPs have no children, compared to 28% of male MPs, and compared to an average of about 20% of the population who remain childless. (According to the Office for National Statistics 20 percent of women born in 1966 remain childless.)
• Of all MPs with children, male MPs have on average 1.9 children, whilst women MPs have on average only 1.2
• The average age of women MPs’ eldest child, when they first entered parliament, was 16 years old ; the average age of men MPs’ eldest child when they first entered parliament was 12 years old
In sum: women MPs are (1) less likely to have children than male MPs; (2) more likely to have fewer children than male MPs; and (3) enter parliament when their children are older than the children of male MPs.

These staggering differences are clear evidence that there are serious barriers to Parliament for those with caring responsibilities, most often mothers.

Reactions to these statistics will likely vary depending on whether you believe that the House of Commons should look like the society it represents for reasons of justice; or whether you think that good-looking public school educated men are equally capable of understanding the complexities of juggling work and family life. There will be those who have no fear that without mothers in Parliament the soaring costs of childcare and the disproportionate effect of the economic crisis on women in low paid and part-time work (mostly mothers) will reach the top of the political agenda. We’re not so sure. And that’s why we want more mothers in Parliament.

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The Bay of Bengal in Global History

This post was contributed by Dr Sunil S. Amrith a Reader in Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics & Archaeology

Crossing the Bay of BengalMy recent book, Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants (Harvard University Press, 2013) tells the story of a neglected region that was once at the heart of global history and which, today, is pivotal to Asia’s economic and ecological future.

For centuries the Bay of Bengal served as a maritime highway between India and China, and then as a battleground for European empires—the Portuguese were followed by the Dutch, the British, and the French—shaped by the monsoons and by human migration. In the nineteenth century the British Empire reconfigured the Bay in its quest for coffee, rice, and rubber. Millions of Indian migrants crossed the sea in one of the largest migrations in modern history, to work on the plantations of Malaysia and Sri Lanka, and on the docks and in the factories of Burma. Booming port cities like Singapore and Penang became the most culturally diverse societies of their time. By the 1930s, however, economic, political, and environmental pressures began to erode the Bay’s centuries-old patterns of interconnection, and these were broken by the Second World War.

The Bay fragmented as a coherent region in the second half of the twentieth century: it was carved up by the boundaries of nation-states; its histories were parceled out into separate national compartments. The postwar organization of academic knowledge drew a sharp distinction between the study of “South Asia” and “Southeast Asia.” But the recent resurgence of inter-Asian economic connections has seen the reinvigoration of the Bay of Bengal as a regional arena; and the force of the region’s environmental challenges calls our attention to the interdependence of its people.

Oceans of History

Historians have long been fascinated by seas and oceans, going back to the classic work of Fernand Braudel on the Mediterannean, the long tradition of scholarship on the trading links of Indian Ocean, and the thriving field of Atlantic history. Bodies of water can connect where land divides; putting the sea at the heart of our histories tends to emphasize mobility and interaction across the dividing lines of national or imperial borders. So often, the port cities of an ocean’s littorals are more closely connected to one another than to their own rural hinterlands.

By foregrounding the region of the Bay of Bengal—linked by journeys, stories, and cultural traffic, and of course by the power of empires—we can see beyond the borders of today’s nation-states, beyond the borders imposed by imperial map-makers and immigration officials, to a more fluid, more uncertain world. But Crossing the Bay of Bengal shows that these connections were often coerced, often violent. Many experienced the fragmentation of the region in the twentieth century as a liberation, while at the same time, many minorities and migrant groups found themselves stranded, excluded and out of place in the new nation-states of the region.

The research for this book took me all the way around the Bay of Bengal’s rim, from South India to Singapore, by way of Burma (Myanmar) and Malaysia, in a series of journeys made possible by the generous support of the British Academy and—in the last stages of the research for the book—a Starting Grant from the European Research Council.

One of the key aims in my research was to tell the stories of those whose lives had been shaped by migration across the Bay, but who left little written trace of their experiences—the rubber tappers and dockworkers, the sailors and rickshaw pullers, whose labour made the Bay one of the most economically vibrant regions of the world in the early twentieth century. Finding an echo of their voices required a flexibility of approach, and a wide range of sources: my research took me to the archives of Singapore’s coroner’s courts, where the stories of very ordinary migrants emerged in testimony when things had gone horribly wrong; it took me to state archives in India, Malaysia, Singapore, and Burma, and—closer to Bloomsbury—to the invaluable collections of the India Office Records at the British Library. Oral history was essential to the research: over many years, conversations with elderly people in Malaysia and India about their memories of migration, their family histories, and their experiences of labour, helped to cast archival material in a different light.

The Past in the Present

Two key forces have shaped the Bay of Bengal’s history, and they will be central to its future. The first is environmental. From the earliest times, the pattern of regularly-reversing monsoons made possible the Bay of Bengal’s trading routes: they were a source of life, and also of periodic disaster. In the nineteenth century, technological innovations including steam power promised to conquer the monsoons; but the monsoons asserted their enduring power over life and death in the great droughts that brought famine to the region in the 1870s and 1890s. Mass migration around the Bay of Bengal brought new sorts of environmental change to the Bay’s coasts, and made the region more interdependent.

Today, the Bay of Bengal is a region at the forefront of Asia’s experience of climate change. The monsoons are less predictable than they were. Sea level rise threatens the Bay’s densely-populated coasts, home to more than half a billion people. While the scale and nature of these changes is unprecedented—and their causes are planetary in scale, rather than localized—history tells us that the Bay’s peoples have long coped with the furies of nature.

One way they have done so is through migration over long and short distance, for short periods or more permanently. Migration is not, and never has been, an automatic or predictable response to natural disaster or to slow-onset environmental change: only where other factors are in place—government policies, the availability of credit, the presence of family or social networks in the places of migration—has it emerged as a viable strategy for family survival.

Its long history of migration gives the Bay one of its most distinctive features—its astonishing cultural diversity, the mixture of peoples and languages that are evident to even a casual visitor. Migration around the bay is on the rise again, in a part of the world where mobility has not been exceptional but quite normal. The peoples of the bay are not strangers to one another. The triumph of narrow nationalism over more inclusive political visions need not be permanent. Notwithstanding conflicts over land and resources, the region’s past is animated by common spiritual traditions and expressions of solidarity across cultures. The bay’s history, as much as its ecology, spills across national frontiers.

For more information, you can read two op-eds I recently published in the New York Times. ‘The Bay of Bengal, in peril from climate change‘, published on 13 October 2013 and ‘Snapshots of Globalization’s First Wave‘, published on 10 January  2014.


Twitter: @sunilamrith

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