As part of our new blog series examining the intersection between social mobility and different forms of identity, Jouja Maamri interviews Sutton Trust alum Ben Jones about how his accent has shaped his journey.
It only takes 7 seconds for someone to form an impression of you. This first impression is normally based on visual cues – the way you dress, your body language or visible identities such as race or gender. However, audible cues, such as accent or vocabulary, can sometimes leave an even greater impression. For many people, it is how they sound rather than how they look that becomes an identity marker for them.
In the last few months, the role that accents play in shaping a student’s university experience has resurfaced in mainstream media. The Guardian ran an exclusive looking at bullying taking place over accents at one of the UK’s top universities. Accents have become stereotypically associated with a certain socioeconomic status or life experience. At the core of the difference between perceptions of accents is power. According to Ferguson, “the way that a person speaks involves more than the exchanging of information: it is a distinguishing aspect of identity related to levels of power and prestige”.
North vs. South
For many young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, their accent becomes an identity marker of their social class. This was the case for Ben, a Sutton Trust Alumni who moved from a village on the outskirts of Manchester to Oxford for his university degree. The three-hour journey between the two places may not seem far, but his experiences there were worlds apart.
Ben’s accent played a big role in his sense of belonging at Oxford. “I was hyper-aware of my accent at university”, he tells me. “It is certainly something that people judge you on, and they assume that it means you are not well-educated or cultured. The minute you open your mouth – literally – you have a disadvantage”. Ben’s accent was part of his Oxford experience before he’d even been admitted; “I was sitting in the JCR – the common room – ready for my interview at Oxford, and when I told someone I was from Manchester they responded by saying “isn’t that all derelict factories and unemployed people?””. Some accents carry more disadvantage than others, a YouGov poll showed that ‘Brummie’ and ‘Scouse’ were ranked the least attractive accents in the UK.
Ben is now the Head of History at a new secondary school in Bolton that has tackling educational inequality at the core of its values. The awareness of how detrimental certain accents can be on your educational or professional success is demonstrated by the way teachers work to neutralise their student’s accents. While for Ben, his accent is a source of pride in his classroom and a way that he can relate to his students and role model success. For others, this is not the case. In 2013, a primary school in the West Midlands banned its students from talking or writing in Black Country dialect. That same year, a teacher was told by Ofsted to soften her regional accent. A study by Dr Baratta found that northern student teachers were more often told to change their accent than their southern counterparts. It is no wonder that regional accents are dying out, only to be replaced by more London or South- East accents.
Not everyone has to follow the North – South migration that Ben did to experience accent discrimination. In fact, spatial mobility in higher education is still quite limited. The Sutton Trust found that 55.8% of students attend a university less than 55 miles away from their home. Furthermore, over three times more students in the lowest social class group commute from home than do so from the highest group. Most of Ben’s friends didn’t stray as far from their Mancunian home, choosing universities like Sheffield and Leeds. There are many reasons for this, including cost of living, exposure to educational opportunities and parental pressure. A big factor that is often left out of the analysis, is simply that students don’t want to go to universities where they don’t feel like they belong.
However, discrimination based on your accent or geographical upbringing isn’t eliminated by spatial immobility. Stories uncovered in The Guardian’s article show that even where a student grew up less than 15 miles from their university, they still faced ridicule because of their accent. This is because universities are still heavily dominated by non-locals; for example only 7.8% of Durham graduates are from the North East. Social exclusion based on accent or socioeconomic status is prevalent no matter how far away from home you are. Clearly, this is a problem all higher education providers need to work to solve, not just those located in the South.
It is important to note that accent diversity and geographical diversity are not one and the same. There are many people born and raised in areas of the country that have historically faced larger barriers to social mobility but don’t speak with a localised accent or dialect. Similarly, having a Northern accent is not synonymous with being working class.
At the same time, it is necessary to mention that accent-based discrimination is not just directed to those from the Northern regions of the UK. As someone born and raised in Essex, I know first-hand how stereotypes based on accent can be perpetuated through social and cultural references. When introducing myself, I pre-emptively call out the stereotypes of my home county by referencing the reality TV show or fake tan – and I don’t even have a strong Essex accent.
University is supposed to be a life-changing experience; a place where your ideas and opinions are shaped, and your knowledge grows. However, for some, it is life-changing in another way. Ben’s Macunian accent before he went to Oxford slowly disappeared as the terms rolled on. Even though he initially didn’t think he had a strong accent, he found that he began to change his accent to emulate the people around him – people who’s accent more closely resembled Received Pronunciation. Despite having returned to Manchester since graduating, Ben believes his accent has probably permanently changed. “My perception of how you should speak in order to succeed in certain situations has changed”, he says. “The naivety I had entering university around cultural capital and social disadvantage has gone”.
This change in his accent may have helped him assimilate into his university environment, but proved an obstacle when he went back home. “I used to host a radio show during my first year of university, and all my friends from home who listened would constantly tell me how posh I was getting”, said Ben. While this came across as friendly teasing, it represented to Ben a bigger consequence of his journey South for university and his subsequent accent change. He feels that his hometown friends have a conception of “oh, he’s gone off to Oxford and now he’s come back and thinks he’s better than us”. His self-awareness of his new found privilege has continued into his professional life – “I am careful to recognise how my university experience might be considered in my classroom”.
Tool for change
For Ben, his accent may have led to him encounter more discrimination than students from similar backgrounds but who did not have strong regional accents, but is has also actively shaped his career path. “If I didn’t have my accent, I wouldn’t have been so self-aware of my own background”, Ben tells me. “I would be unaware of the inequality that exists and how opportunities are deprived from certain people. I wouldn’t be doing the job I’m doing now in order to try and correct that within society”.
Ben has managed to use his accent as a tool for change, but how can we better the experiences of those who don’t just face social mobility barriers because of their socioeconomic status but also because their class identity is so wrapped up in their accent. “The cultural markers of socioeconomic status lead us to stereotype someone without even being consciously aware of doing so”, Ben said. “The implications of this in terms of limiting social mobility for the disadvantaged, and our tendency to align ourselves with those who look or sound like us, has wide-ranging implications not just for universities but for all of us”.
Jouja and Ben are both part of our Alumni Leadership Board.