Durham University and its international accents


One of my favourite things about studying in Durham is that I’ve met people from all over. Of course, this means that everyone has an accent, and though my language experience has been mostly positive, it doesn’t mean that everyone with an accent has an easy time of it. While a lot of general fun-poking seems harmless, there comes a point when it becomes less amusing and more tiring. Some international students I talked to, for example, recalled experiences of noticing they had softened their accents around other students after being made fun of for their pronunciation of certain words too many times. “It can be really disheartening when people make fun of you because you’ve mispronounced a word,” a student I know told me. “It’s sad that what we think of as a normal accent is sanitised of culture.”

There comes a point when the jokes become less amusing and more tiring

It’s worth remembering that a lot of international students are bilingual and many of us speak English as a second or even third language. For example, before I came to Durham, I didn’t speak English as part of everyday life with friends and family. It can be intimidating to arrive in England and realise that the way you speak makes you sound a bit different – it takes a while to catch up on the slang, for example, and sometimes I have to ask people to slow down or speak up when they talk. However, all students who have to get visas to come here from non-English-speaking countries have to prove their English proficiency. This can make it a bit aggravating when people ask how long you’ve been speaking English or even if you speak English when they hear you speaking your native language. One of the students I interviewed pointed out that if someone got a place at Durham to study a degree that’s not in their first language, their accent is unlikely to say much about their English proficiency.

All students who have to get visas to come here from non-English-speaking countries have to prove their English proficiency… so it’s a bit aggravating when people ask if you speak English

However, it’s not all bad news: accents really can be what you make of them. All the students I talked to agreed (as do I) that if people ask about your accent the right way, it can be a great conversation starter. This is especially true when you come from a place that many people don’t know a lot about, whether it’s Malaysia or a small city in Minnesota. Most people ask from a place of curiosity rather than prejudice. The most important thing is to ask about someone’s accent in an appropriate way if you’re genuinely curious.

Most people ask about your accent from a place of curiosity rather than prejudice

In short: if you find someone has an unusual accent, check your assumptions. If you want to poke fun, make sure you’re doing so in a sensitive way and only if you’ve known the person for a while and they’re comfortable around you. Feel free to ask about their accent, though! Many people take pride in where they’re from and are happy to tell you all about it. Who knows what you could learn.

Image by Yuri_b via Pixabay

2 thoughts on “Durham University and its international accents

  • Fantastic! We need more dialogue to talk about, for example, how to talk about someone’s accent. As much as it is a daunting experience for international students to negotiate their experiences in a foreign country, it is equally difficult for the locals (not) to engage with the international community, much less undertsanding nuances of someone’s limited linguistic skills. Curiosity, patience, respect, resolve are required to engage with one another. Thank you for this wonderful piece!

  • It’s not just overseas students: try being northern!

    I’m only half joking…


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