This research deals with the pronunciations that co-exist in society – a form of pluriphony, and more specifically with the way in which the construct of ‘accent’ runs through issues around the learning of an additional language and, by extension, social and professional integration. We define the ‘accent’ construct as a set of cues – often oral (voice and speech) – but concomitant with other extralinguistic (e.g. ethnicity) or even meta- and epilinguistic cues, which contribute to the creation of (in)conscious hypotheses about the origin (geographical, social, etc.) and identity of individuals (‘the foreigner’).
In this respect, work in the field reflects a certain unease between two partially antagonistic positions: « correcting » the learner’s accent to reduce the (potential) effects of discrimination, or recognising that the responsibility lies with the individual who is at the origin of glottophobic behaviour (or the system that allows it). English has a specific term, ‘accentism’ (Carrie & Drummond, 2018).
On the one hand, research seems to show that individuals tend to attribute weaker skills to people perceived as having an ‘accent’: doctors as less reliable (Baquiran & Nicoladis, 2019), witnesses at trials as less credible (Frumkin, 2007), which has an impact on careers (Rakic et al., 2011) or defendants perceived as more guilty (Dixon et al., 2002). As an extension and in fundamental research, Pélissier & Ferragne (2022) point out that the brain generates a characteristic electrical wave when there is a conflict between the content of a message received and the clichés generated by the accent of the person speaking.
However, while these studies do provide evidence of the consequences (and even the formulation of some of their causes, without determining a causal link) of accentuated production in everyday situations, they mask a whole sociophonetic reality that is more interested in the agency of individuals than in the internal forces of ‘language’. In this respect, speakers have, or can construct, an agency, with regard to a discursive situation with its multiple influences, which leads to behaviours towards a direction. Also, agentic behaviour requires a conscious evaluation of these tendencies and a system of VETO of what is considered inappropriate (Al Hoorie, 2014). It is important to stress that agentivity requires two prerequisites: 1) the individual must believe in free will (Csikszentmihalyi, 2006) and 2) he or she must be aware of the factors that influence his or her behaviour (Bargh & Chartrand, 2000).
Rooted in applied linguistics and the team’s previous work, we fit into this second paradigm by studying fields where individuals identified as having a ‘foreign accent’ can be placed on a continuum ranging from linguistic security to insecurity. In addition, the aim is to define spaces of agentivity within which individuals construct plural professional identities in additional languages by admitting that code-mixing (translanguaging; Garcia & Lin, 2017) is the norm rather than that of a monophonic myth (the native speaker, the non-accent, etc.). It is therefore a question of enabling plurilingual individuals to recognise that they have the possibility of constructing themselves with an ‘accent’ and that there are tools that can be used to avoid, combat/compensate for or tolerate situations where the accent would be the basis for rejection or even discrimination.
Research questions and methodology
The research question concerns the way in which individuals possess agentic spaces to deal with social and professional situations in which accent is interactionally thematised. This thematisation of accent can introduce a more or less vertical relationship (Kerbrat-Orecchioni, 1992) leading to accentism on the part of recruiters – situations that are aversive or threatening for candidates. This general research question can be broken down into several sub-questions:
- What are the representations of accents in professional situations, particularly job interviews?
- How complex are these representations and what are the links with a halo effect on the individual candidate?
- Are the individuals involved in these situations aware of the socio-phonetic issues at stake, in particular the agentivity available?
The main hypothesis of the project is that it is possible to raise awareness and provide support for speakers of an additional language so that they can better tolerate these situations by adopting discursive and interactional as well as reflexive adjustment strategies (informal learning, language biographies); but also to provide support for individuals who have to take part in social validation (integration) or professional validation (recruitment) in reducing these discourses, or even behaviours.
This research is based on a mixed protocol, with the first phase playing a developmental role. This phase takes the form of the construction of a corpus of qualitative data from several interviews with players in the professional world of services and teaching. These semi-structured interviews were designed to be comprehensive. A double analysis of discourse and narratives (Consoli, 2021) was applied.