“Accent is how the other speaks. It is the first diagnostic for identification of geographic or social outsiders”
- Rosina Lippi-Green
I immigrated to the United States from Turkey to build a new life. Ten years on, I’ve truly blended in, but my accent still sets me apart. At the beginning of a conversation, there are always telltale signs: a furrowing of the brow, slight turn of the head, and eyes refocusing on an invisible map hovering slightly above me. It’s a clear moment where the person I’m talking to, whether ordering a coffee or meeting a new business contact, stops paying attention to what I’m saying and gets stuck on placing my accent. More often than not, they jump to, “Where are you from?” right on the heels of them hearing me speak for the first time.
When I say “Seattle”, the general response is, “No, you're not." This is followed by weird laughter, as if I just said something hilarious, "Where are you really from?” Regardless of their intention, what they’re really telling me is that I sound different; like an outsider. This crucial piece of information determines which box they put me in, and it’s not like my accent ever lands me in the prized one. At this point, I can either step into that box and take the hit to my self-worth, or spend the time and mental energy to convince a random stranger that this is, indeed, my home.
And, in professional settings, the price for a fair shake is pretty high. Since coming to the United States, I’ve armed myself with a master's degree and an ever increasing number of certifications to compensate for the fact that my accent has a direct impact on how others perceive my credibility and competence. But, no matter how many certificates I get, none are actually a ticket out of the box.
For each interaction I navigate, personal or professional, there is a never ending line of people ready to impose boxes of their own. Accent is, after all, a springboard for stereotyping; it can be a stigma, even within native speakers of the same language. What if we pull back and shift our focus from the speaker to observe both sides of the conversation? What is the listener’s responsibility in effective communication? How do we all handle diversity in language? And, what would happen if we were to stop consenting to the idea there is a single, correct way to speak?
So, I’m choosing to speak up, loudly, in all of my accented glory. And, this documentary is me raising my voice.
Filiz Efe McKinney, Director
10 January 2019, Seattle, WA
ABOUT THE FILM
Through interviews with both native and nonnative speakers, this film will tackle accent as an identifier for social status, explore how those with accents cope with bias and discrimination, and offer perspectives to reevaluate the shared responsibility for effective communication in a diverse world.
The Foreign Accent documentary is fiscally sponsored by Northwest Film Forum and is currently in pre-production.