Professor: Telling Someone You Can’t Understand Their Accent is ‘Linguistic Racism’

by Dave Huber


A linguistics and education professor from Michigan State University claims that telling somebody that you can’t understand him is an example of “linguistic racism.”

More specifically, it’s “racist” to ask a person to repeat what he said because you “don’t understand [his] thick accent.”

Another example is someone “openly say[ing] only English is to be spoken in the workplace” despite the presence of multilingual employees.

So says Professor Peter De Costa, who in an interview with MSU Today defines “linguistic racism” as “acts of racism […] perpetuated against individuals on the basis of their language use.”

De Costa places some of the blame for current linguistic racism on the outgoing presidential administration due to its “jingoistic sentiments that target speakers who do not use the dominant language.” Those who don’t (or can’t) speak English, the prof says, are “perceived as being unpatriotic and unwilling to embrace American values.”

There’s also the president’s “false labeling” of COVID-19 as the “Wuhan Virus” which “fueled xenophobic resentment” against Chinese and Chinese-Americans. Such gave the virus an “ethnolinguistic quality,” De Costa says, which subjected that demographic to “blatant dehumanization” and “unnecessary ostracization.”

From the story:

On a less visible level, the affective dimensions of linguistic racism can stir negative emotions, such as shame and guilt. Minoritized speakers might become ashamed of speaking their home language, which over the course of several generations could result in language loss. …

A good starting point [in recognizing whether or not folks are committing acts of linguistic racism] would be to acknowledge the existence of a race-biased monolingual standard ideology that favors white, affluent mainstream speakers. We need to recognize that multilingualism and multidialectism are social realities, and that it is not uncommon for multilingual speakers to shuttle back and forth between different languages and language varieties when they communicate with other multilingual speakers. Such a linguistic practice should not be seen in critical, deficit terms; rather, such verbal shuttling is a linguistic and cultural asset, and not something to be remediated.

Is it actually “racist” to ask English to be spoken at work, or to suggest to those with heavy accents to work on accent reduction? Or are these legitimate and sensible suggestions for English-learners to succeed in an English-dominated society?

De Costa elaborates further in his article “Linguistic racism: its negative effects and why we need to contest it” published in the International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism.

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Dave Huber has been writing about education, politics, and entertainment for over 15 years, including a stint at the popular media bias site Newsbusters. He is a retired educator with over 25 years of service and is a member of the National Association of Scholars.
Photo “Dr. Peter De Costa” by Hong Kong Polytechnic.









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29 Thoughts to “Professor: Telling Someone You Can’t Understand Their Accent is ‘Linguistic Racism’”

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  4. Marbran

    I looked through quite a few of Associate Professor De Costa’s web site forum posts that he passes off as “published” works, and one thing that jumped out at me is the high number of co-authored screeds that have Chinese partnerships. I think De Costa needs to be examined for his potential ties to the CCP. De Costa could be working as an agent sowing discord within American academia. That is subversive and must be dealt with.

  5. Bill

    The “so called professor” is an idiot. I’m hard of hearing and have to repeatedly ask the party I’m speaking with. To repeat themselves. This is even more of a problem if the party has an accent. I have asked a lot of times to let me speak with someone who can speak English. Racist? I think not you doofus.

  6. Patrick McWilliams

    A man with speech difficulties once told me I was a good listener, as I could understand when he spoke. I’m fairly good with accents. But I once told a salesman for a home improvement company that he was defeating his purpose by hiring an Indian call center to make appointments. Most of his potential customers could not understand the accent. In addition, Indian call centers are associated with credit card and Social Security scams.

    As several Southerners pointed out, even among native speakers, the various accents and varieties of English can create difficulties in understanding or convey negative stereotypes.

    Most monolingual English speaking Americans never make a serious attempt to learn another language, so they don’t appreciate how much work this involves, especially for an adult.

    I would imagine that, unlike an actual foreign language, attempting to imitate a Southern or Ebonics accent when talking to a native, would not be appreciated. It’s a language to be understood, but not spoken.

  7. Henry

    “Professor has silly opinion.”
    Do we all remember what opinions are like? Everybody has one.

  8. WeeBrowser

    This is what happens when I read these posts late. Everybody says everything I wanted to say. I know I’ll accuse them of being “timeist” because they wrote before I did. It’s not fair to do things before I did.
    See, Professor de Costo. that is what a stupid comment looks like. Re-evaluate yourself, fool.

  9. Hope

    I think this guy is grying to waaay overcorrect an issue. Yes, some people come across very racist when they complain, “I cant understand a damn word you just said” or ” is that your attempt at English?”, but oftentimes I simply can’t figure out what the heck someone’s trying to say to me because they have a heavy accent. I am polylingual, I can read and write in multiple languages, but even with that advantage I don’t know what to do, how to tell someone I cant understand them because I dont want to come across as racist or xenophobic.
    This professor brings up an issue that is a problem for both people in a communication problem but only looks at one side of the problem. Also, he didnt give any suggestions as to what would be acceptable to say if one really doesn’t understand English through someone’s accent. He seems to be assumung that if you cant understand someone with an accent then you are wrong and bad and are being racist. He never even considered that it could be anything else.

    1. Mindi

      A giant idiot! Now I’ve heard absolutely everything and more! 🤬🤬

      1. bobdog

        As somebody who is hard of hearing (read: nearly deaf), I’m non-denominational. I ask EVERYBODY to repeat themselves.

        If somebody finds this annoying, imagine what it’s like to have to say it constantly. Accents just compound the problem.

  10. Michelle Bolyard

    I’m from West Virginia and people from the north and from the south commented (sometimes nicely, sometimes not)about my accent.

  11. Leonard Cecil

    Idiocy. I frequently get heavily-accented calls on my personal phone, attempting to sell to me. First, the phone and line are MINE. I pay for them and these calls are an abuse of my privacy. They have NO RIGHTS to be violated because they are not entitled to use my line or phone. If a company wants to call me, they need to do me the courtesy of hiring people who I can clearly understand. My accent (KY) can be difficult for northerners-my reaction is to laugh and say it slower. To claim offense or prejudice when someone cannot communicate clearly in the local patois is itself, offensive. When in Rome, speak as the Romans do. You are the outsider: they do not need to adapt to your mispronunciation of THEIR language.

  12. John

    When AT&T “customer service” reps in Manila answer my call I hang up without explaining and call back until I get one I can understand. Sometimes it takes several calls.

  13. Bob

    I am a “hard of hearing/deaf” person who always has trouble understanding people whether they can speak clearly or with an accent and yes those with accents are much harder for me to understand as well as all this mask wearing covering anyone’s mouths. I always have to ask people to repeat as I mostly read lips as well as trying to listen. So this so called professor who wants to call this “linguistic racism” is totally out of content of what is happening in our world now. There are people who are always making rude remarks to those with accents are the ones who need to be held accountable as for those who are making rude remarks to one asking to repeat what was said. There is too much “ other issues” now to even having to have this so called professor making this an issue.

  14. JohnR

    When you learn a “second” language you have a duty to learn to speak it correctly. The onus isn’t on the native speaker, but on the person who’s learning the language. I suspect that this professor may have a thick accent, and he blames others for not understanding him. How is it the responsibility of the listener to comprehend the unintelligible language of a heavily-accented speaker?

  15. Paul

    This guy is an idiot. I sometimes have trouble hearing all races speak, it could be multiple factors but it is not due to racism. They could be wearing a mask, they are from another country and English is their second language, background noise, facial hair makes it difficult to understand sometimes and I’m a bit hard of hearing at age 62. This author is an idiot

    1. EdC

      Beyond idiot. Just another brainless academic who has never held a real job.

  16. Dee

    I’ve had linguistic racism thrown at me all my life. Any Southerner ever travelled outside the South? I have been laughed at to my face and had rude comments made to my face because of my “thick Southern accent.” Oh, Professor de Costo, where WERE you all those times I visited Michigan and was made fun of?

  17. Betty Lynn Duley

    I’m tired of these folks in “education” who are such cultural elitists. They pick an issue that has been around for eons and try make it devisive – of course, they are trying to make a name for themselves and get some “likes.” Varying accents have been a issue since the tower of Babel. Those that have given me the hardest time for a southern accent are other white folks and the majority of them are friends and family – some from other countries. HC is the only person alive who could have gotten away with the “I ain’t in no way tired,” comment and not be shut down, de-platformed, cancelled, maligned, attacked, etc. And the way that comment was said should have been offensive to everyone. However, addressing a single person doesn’t achieve the goal of pitting entire ethnic groups against one another. All that said, I agree with David, just hang up and try again. The conversation is just frustrating both parties,

  18. So I guess eubonics is doubly-racist? And if a black woman speaks eubonics, then it’s racist and mysogynistic, as well? What if these women prefer other women? Have we hit the victimhood trifecta? I think I’m going to need a scorecard.

  19. Wolf Woman

    How ridiculous. Another socialist professor spreading chaos and mayhem through language.

  20. Beverly

    This is so stupid. If we can’t tell somebody to please repeat something so we understand what they are saying, how will we ever communicate accurately? And how will they learn to speak clear English? I have dealt with many immigrants and if I can’t understand a word, I have them repeat it until I understand what they are trying to tell me, and repeat it correctly to them…they normally repeat it to me more clearly and thank me. It is helping them to learn to speak like an American.
    This alleged nation is turning into a bunch of whining wimps who are in competition to see who can be the most offended. If that offends, you made my day.

  21. William Finch

    So SUE me. If you go to Mexico as a visitor and you don’t speak the lanquage you will be in trouble. I speak plain english and very clearly. Sorry, that’s just the way it is.

  22. Patricia

    So how does one let one know, if they are requiring an answer?

  23. David Longfellow

    If you can’t understand someone on the phone, it’s better to just hang up on them with no explanation. There’s no point in wasting time.

    1. William Finch

      You see that exercise just causes you an inconvenience and does waste your time.