Last week, flying to California, I sat next to a charming executive with whom I started chatting. We quickly realized that we had a lot in common as he is an international business executive for a large firm headquartered in the United States. This means that we were not short of subjects to debate, rending the trip so much more pleasant. We had probably been talking for 20 minutes when I asked my interlocutor if he had ever lived abroad. He told me that he was in fact born and raised in Brazil. Because his English is impeccable and shows no accent whatsoever, I immediately assumed that he came to the United States as a child. Not at all. He came to go to college and did not grow up bilingual. I was stunned. So few non-native English speakers have been able to get rid of their accents (me included) that I needed to know more about it. It turns out that my traveling companion, someone who became a chemist engineer at Oregon State University and who came to the U.S. on a scholarship, realized, while being a student and then later as a young professional, that people in the U.S. would silently associate his intellectual potential to the Latino accent they heard when he spoke. In his view, this had a debilitating effect. In other words, his accent was a career killer.
Aware of this demoralizing fact, he decided to take accent reduction classes with a linguist. Under that person’s guidance, my traveling companion learned to position his tongue correctly to create the treacherous `th’ sound that so many non-native English speakers cannot reproduce correctly. He learned to enunciate properly; to speak using the proper rhythm of the English language; its intonations; where to place the emphasis and of course, to appropriately use colloquialisms. His hard work paid off quickly and confirmed what he had suspected all along: to be successful in the U.S., you have to sound and look “American.” Tall, handsome, well-spoken and accent free, the doors of upper management quickly opened up to him. The resistance was gone. The suspicion about his abilities to excel at the executive level were no longer on people’s mind. The man now was the full package.
The fact that a Brazilian had to get rid of his accent to remove all trace of non-U.S.origin to reach his full professional potential brings us to people, who, mainly in Asia, recur to plastic surgery to decrease their Asian appearance by bleaching their skin, narrowing and sharpening their nose and adding creases to their eyelids to look successful in their own country. Now, interestingly, and this is according to a 2011 National Geographic video clip, the look of the most typical person in the world is the one of a Han Chinese man. The clip also predicts that by 2030, the most typical person in the world will be Indian looking. So while the statistics are pointing toward a new generation of talented, capable and now often rich people from non-Caucasian origins, it seems that the idea of having to look Caucasian to feel successful prevails. How long will this idolatry last? Perhaps, as Nollywood, Bollywood, Chollywood, Dhallywood, Lollywood, and Caliwood generate greater volumes of movies casting inspiring, talented, beautiful, wealthy non-Caucasian people, the desire to assimilate with the overly promoted white cliché will vanish. As to speaking English with an accent, nearly one billion people speak English throughout the world as a second language. Perhaps, as the world tips upside down and non-Western countries no longer dominate, speaking English with an accent will become the sign of intelligence and sophistication native English speakers in the United States will seek to emulate. Who knows?