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“Accent translation” software? It’s time to flip the script on linguistic hierarchies

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Language discrimination is a harmful reality in many workplaces, and employers need to be proactive in not only preventing it, but in celebrating and promoting language diversity. In a world where 281 million people live in countries other than where they were born,1 and with a record number of Canadians (13%) reporting a first language other than English or French2, this issue is more important than ever. The rise of controversial new voice-altering technology, which perpetuates existing hierarchies about who speaks English with the “right” accent and who does not, adds to this urgency.

Language discrimination

We all have automatic associations with accents that we make because of social stereotypes and biases—conscious and unconscious—relating to specific regions, cultures, genders, ages, and social classes. Language discrimination refers to negative or differential treatment of a person because of their accent or other characteristics of their speech, such as size of vocabulary, intonation, and syntax.

Although language discrimination is not commonly discussed, it is becoming increasingly recognized for its widespread and damaging effects, particularly on linguistic communities of colour for whom it exacerbates existing racial inequities. Owing to practices and attitudes shaped by colonialism and white supremacy, a higher status is often attached to English that sounds like it comes from countries that are wealthy and majority white. By contrast, both native and non-native English speakers who differ from this perceived standard are often judged and singled out for negative treatment.

In Canada, most jurisdictions consider differential treatment based on how one speaks to be a kind of discrimination that can fall under the prohibited grounds of race, ancestry, ethnic origin, place of origin, and/or colour. Although there are instances where it may be legally justified to require a certain level of language fluency or proficiency for a job, the employer would need to prove that this is necessary for the person to perform the essential duties of the job, like being an English teacher. It is difficult to imagine a situation in which speaking in a specific accent would be required for a job, except perhaps for an actor, depending on the role they are playing.

Research has shown that being a non-native English speaker is linked to having one’s competencies underrated, leading to poorer career outcomes, including barriers to hiring, lower earnings, and fewer promotional opportunities than native speakers.3 A study by the University of Chicago found that Black employees, whose voices study participants “could distinctly identify as Black,” earned an average of 12% less than both Black and white employees with similar observable skills whose racial identity was not identifiable by the way they spoke.4

Being talked over, having one’s sentence finished by a colleague, receiving comments about how one speaks, and feeling the need to code switch5 to fit in — these are just some other ways in which language bias and discrimination can play out in the workplace. Even when an employee’s coworkers are not the problem, employees in customer-facing roles can experience discrimination based on their accent or dialect, as highlighted below. Beyond impeding talent acquisition and retention, language discrimination takes a serious psychological toll on employees and potentially interferes with their performance.

“Accent translation” software

Although increased globalization is leading to more language diversity in the workplace, this does not solve the problem of linguistic hierarchies, especially when companies have a financial incentive to cater to their customers’ language biases. A Silicon Valley startup named Sanas has recently come under fire for enabling organizations to do just this by creating “accent translation” software that can be used by organizations to change workers’ accent in real time. The technology was designed for use by call-centre agents, many of whom are outsourced workers in the global South, to match their accents to customers in North America and Western Europe. Although the company, which has raised $32 million in funding from investors, states that the software makes communication easier and protects workers from abuse and discrimination, the software has been strongly criticized for perpetuating linguistic racism by making workers “sound white.”6

Harassment of call-centre agents based on how they speak is a well-documented problem, but this begs the question of whether the solution is to erase a core part of a worker’s identity and take the onus off organizations to confront clients or customers who engage in this form of workplace abuse. While much more can be written on this topic, the existence of speech technologies that alter a person’s accent puts the issue of language discrimination into stark relief and amplifies the need to celebrate—not erase—language diversity.

Promoting language diversity in the workplace

Here are some workplace initiatives that can prevent language discrimination and promote language diversity in the workplace:

    • Training supervisors and managers to recognize that English fluency and proficiency should not be a consideration when it comes to hiring and promotional decisions unless it legitimately interferes with the employee’s ability to perform the essential duties of the job;
    • Educating staff about language-related biases, having ongoing conversations about how these affect communication and opportunities, and incorporating a specific prohibition on language discrimination into policies;
    • Incorporating more team members from diverse linguistic backgrounds and, as the need for inclusion extends to mid-and senior-level positions, ensuring that diverse speakers are represented in positions of power;
    • Explicitly stating in a mission statement—and following this up with public statements—that language diversity is a priority and has the potential to improve organizational performance and thus benefit everyone in the organization.

It is time to flip the script on linguistic hierarchies. Organizations have a vital role to play in this process by getting loud about the importance of language diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace, and taking concrete steps to creating safe and inclusive environments where all employees feel respected and heard.

1 IOM UN Migration, World Migration Report 2022 (2022), online: International Organization for Migration <https://worldmigrationreport.iom.int/wmr-2022-interactive/>

2 “While English and French are still the main languages spoken in Canada, the country’s linguistic diversity continues to grow” (August 17, 2022), online: The Daily, Statistics Canada <https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/220817/dq220817a-eng.htm>

3 Andrew R. Timming, “The effect of foreign accent on employability: a study of the aural dimensions of aesthetic labour in customer-facing and non-customer-facing jobs” (2017) 31:3 British Sociological Association 409-428; Soji Akomolafe, “The invisible minority: revisiting the debate on foreign-accented speakers and upward mobility in the workplace” (2013) 20:1 Journal of Cultural Diversity 7-14; Jessica L. Spence et al., “Is Your Accent Right for the Job? A Meta-Analysis on Accent Bias in Hiring Decisions” (November 2022) The Society for Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

4 Jeffrey Grogger, “Speech Patterns and Racial Wage Inequality” (June 2008) 46:1 The Journal of Human Resources 1-25 (available online: https://eml.berkeley.edu/~webfac/moretti/e251_s09/grogger.pdf.)

5 Courtney L. McCluney et al., “The Costs of Code-Switching” (November 2019), online: Harvard Business Review <https://hbr.org/2019/11/the-costs-of-codeswitching>.

6 Joshua Bote, “Sanas, the buzzy Bay Area tech startup that wants to make the world sound whiter” (August 22, 2022), online: SFGate <https://www.sfgate.com/news/article/sanas-startup-creates-american-voice-17382771.php>; Scott Budman, “Silicon Valley Startup Sparks Controversy Over What Critics Call ‘Racist Software’” (August 23, 2022), online: NBC Bay Area <https://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/tech/silicon-valley-controversy-sanas/2984603/>

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