Does My Accent Make Me dumb?

An exploration of how language and accents shape societal expectations and the individual’s sense of identity 

“Why do you have an [insert any accent that doesn’t match what people expect you to sound like] accent?” 

As an Indian raised in Japan, studying in both public as well as international schools, and now in Germany, I’ve been exposed to a plethora of languages and accents throughout my life. I’ve seen and experienced the beauty that languages and accents possess, but also the stereotypes and microaggressions that come along with them. As grateful as I am to be able to bridge cultural gaps using different languages, dialects, and at times accents, it also means that my accents specifically will never follow societal expectations. 

What does this mean exactly? Well, as someone that looks and is ethnically Indian, people in general expect me to have a thick Indian accent when speaking English. The reality however, is that my accent is not constant when speaking English. I’ve grown up in an international environment with teachers who have an American accent, British accent, or even Japanese accent. I’ve adapted to so many variations of how English can sound and developed my own version of pronouncing English words. Recently, this has been referred to on different social media as a ‘blank accent’(not an official term). That being said, I also am aware that when I speak to my family back home in India and we speak in a mixture of Hindi and English, my English too changes to a more Indian accent, which I have understood over the years, happens to match the Hindi intonation more. 

Do I do this on purpose? No. Is it always easy to switch back and forth between accents? Also no. Over the years however, my brain has adapted to these different variations and found the situations in which one feels more comfortable than the other. 

The question to me has always been, how do these accents shape how we see ourselves, how people see us, and ultimately, our relationships with others? 

Accents, Intotations and Code Switching

You’ve perhaps experienced doing this yourself or have heard someone do this in conversation. The person is speaking in their native language that isn’t English but begins mixing English words in between. You notice that when they use those English words in between their native language, their pronunciation of those words are different from when they speak only English. Did their accent suddenly change? Is their ‘normal’ English accent fake? What do they actually sound like?

Perhaps these questions seem irrelevant to some depending on how much exposure you’ve had to different languages and accents in your upbringing. If you have, however, had the opportunity to be in a situation like this, these questions must have come up in your mind at least once. 

I have very often wondered why this happens and how it changes my communication style. A personal conclusion I’ve come to is that each language has its own intonation, i.e. the rise and fall of the voice in speaking (Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries). So, at least for myself, it is easier to adjust my English words to the intonation of the other language I’m speaking. It creates smoother communication and uses less brain power as compared to having to change the intonation and pronunciation each time I use an English word. 

This is sometimes referred to as “code switching” as well. Code switching is, “[the] process of shifting from one linguistic code (a language or dialect) to another, depending on the social context or conversational setting(Britannica).”

Inequality and Identity

The ultimate question here is how does language shape identity? If we’re brought up believing that there are specific accents, dialects or vernacular that are more favored or acceptable than others, do we choose to adjust to those expectations and purposefully change how we speak, or do we allow ourselves to go against what society expects us to sound like? 

The unfortunate reality of the world; some accents, dialects or vernaculars are considered more favorable than others. In different parts of the world, sounding a specific way can, for no logical reason except discrimination, label you as unintelligent, difficult to communicate with, or less capable. This affects children, who are unable to find their social groups due to feeling like an outcast, adults, who are unable to secure a stable job due to their interviews being penalized as a lack of communicative abilities, and everyone in between in their daily lives. 

As some people notice the pattern of their accent or dialect being considered unacceptable as compared to more traditional ones, the reality hits that it has begun affecting their lives on a larger scale. The inability to get the help they need, secure the job they require, or have the friends to support them can all turn into a downward spiral of a severely decreasing sense of self-worth. Ultimately, our sense of identity and self-worth is being molded by the way society accepts us and if we live in a society that very clearly defines how one needs to sound in order to be accepted, then there will always be people who are automatically marginalized.

On one hand, having the ability to code switch or adjust the way we speak can be a skill and give us an advantage in communication as we can adapt to the social situations and perhaps be accepted quicker by the community we are a part of. On the other hand, this also means that we could lose our own personal sense of identity as we do not feel comfortable enough to speak in the manner that feels most authentic and genuine to us. 

There will be more than one solution to this problem. In fact, the more we recognize and understand this issue, the more we see how complex it can be when identity and societal expectations intersect. We can hope for people to have more opportunities to learn about different languages, accents and dialects, or we could create them ourselves. Initiating conversations about privilege that comes with language and accents and enabling our peers to adapt to the idea that there is no one definition of how people ‘should’ sound to be acceptable is undeniably important. 

It is not our fault that society has developed these expectations, but it is our responsibility to change it. 


‘Intonation’, Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries,,noun,of%20what%20is%20being%20said

‘Code switching’, Britannica,,social%20context%20or%20conversational%20setting.