According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, discrimination at the workplace based on accent is still a common thing, unfortunately.
While it is natural for people to recognize different accents, the judgements people make based on hearing these are learned behavior. The problem is that those judgements are often based on the accent alone, not the content that is being transmitted.
Different accents trigger different subconscious pictures in your mind. An Italian accent for a fashion designer, a French accent for a chef or a German accent for a hotel manager are most likely to be seen as a positive asset even though one might say this is highly stereotypical. But that’s how our brains are wired, apparently.
The huge problem is, of course, that this also works in a negative way. Some accents are looked down on due to sociological or historical reasons and therefore it is very hard for people having one of those accents to not being judged falsely.
And we are not only talking about the accents of non-native English speakers. Even English itself has its accents and some are perceived as being better than others. Not that surprisingly, British English is at the top while Brooklyn or Southern accents get lower ratings in research by George Mason University.
I am sure that every country with several accents or dialects has these or similar issues. Being German, I know that accents spoken in the eastern part of Germany are still seen as somewhat inferior compared to let’s say Bavarian or Hochdeutsch, of course.
In order to help foreign students to break this invisible barrier, Ohio University is now offering accent coaching. As the number of foreign students is growing constantly, universities now also require them to take oral exams in the application process as students usually have an excellent knowledge of written English but their spoken English often is less developed.
The problems arise when master’s or doctoral candidates from overseas who are employed as a teaching assistant have accents that the American students find hard to understand. As mentioned above, the subconscious process tends to create a barrier that won’t let the message get across.
Personally, I am very familiar with that problem from living in rural France. It regularly happens that common French people react with confusion when being asked something. It is not so much the question itself, they could easily answer it, but the speaker’s foreign accent they think they have identified that will throw them off track. In their favor I have to say that these are usually people with little contact to languages other than French in their daily lives.
Universities are now also using special training software like NativeAccent that is able to recognize accent issues through speech recognition and then train the speaker towards a less thick accent.
The problem with accents is that it gets harder to reduce them the older people get. Therefore, it is best to start early if you feel the need to work on your accent. Unless you are a French chef, of course.