Many people aspire to improve their lives through gaining promotion at work, new qualifications or starting a new career. However, research from the universities of Bath and Manchester has found that broad regional accents can still be a barrier to social mobility, as they are less favoured by some people.
Virtually all newscasters and other television presenters spoke in ‘received pronunciation’ - known as the Queen’s English – until the 1970s. These days, we are far more likely to hear a range of voices on British television.
The researchers wanted to find out whether or not people still felt as though they needed to moderate accents deemed to suggest working-class roots in order to succeed in their careers. For their study they sought the perspective of teachers from across the country, to find out whether accent in Britain is still a potent force in terms of how people are judged.
Their study sought the views of 41 teachers from England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
One teacher felt her working-class South London accent signalled to her students that she was authentic, and as a result, more approachable. Yet from her mentor’s point of view it sounded unprofessional:
My mentor was very patronising, and tried everything he could to change my accent. I struggled every day with the feeling that I was not good enough - not good enough to teach, not good enough in the work environment and not good enough to pass the course.
Dr Michael Donnelly from our Department of Education explained: "Everybody has an accent, and in a country like the UK, a person’s accent can come to be an important signifier of their social and geographic origins – some more than others.
"The key message from this paper is that sociologists interested in social class, inequality and social mobility can learn a lot from sociolinguistics about the unique character of accents. Our research outlines sociolinguistic concepts and tools that can help those researching class and inequality to pick apart the components that make up a person’s accent, showing why some may be a disadvantage over others, especially in the labour market.”
Dr Alex Baratta of the University of Manchester added: “Even today, broad accents are less favoured. Many teachers are told - or feel a need - to modify their accents in order to be perceived more professionally. In one example, a teacher from Bristol modified his accent to avoid being perceived as a ‘yokel who lives on a farm’.
“Social mobility can also mean accent mobility - individuals can ‘move’ their accents to coincide with a move in postcode.”
This is just one example of the mismatch between speaker and listener regarding broad accents in the British workplace, resulting in a potential linguistic tug-of-war.
The researchers recommend that public and private institutions should be made more aware of the potential to discriminate based on accent when hiring new employees.
The paper 'A Sociolinguistic Perspective on Accent and Social Mobility in the UK Teaching Profession' is published in Sociological Research Online at https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1360780418816335.