Discrimination in ASEAN and Australia: When actions don’t actually speak louder than words

AAYLF delegate from Australia Jemima Kang highlights the alarming, often overlooked implications of accent discrimination. 

With more than 700,000 Australians able to speak an ASEAN language and nearly one million Australians having ASEAN ancestry [3], it is clear ASEAN and Australia share a connection. As this connection deepens and the demographics within ASEAN countries and Australia continues to diversify, it is our responsibility to reduce divisions that exist within the region.

As humans, it is widely understood that we have a strong tendency to favour those similar to ourselves, and when we navigate our social world we tend to focus on perceptually salient markers such as race, gender, or age. However, it may be more surprising to know that we also have a great propensity to favour those who sound like us, reflected in a preference for our native accents [6].

We associate stereotypes to different accents. For example, non-native accents are often perceived as less intelligent, competent, and attractive, and are also associated with being of lower social status compared to native accents [4]. These biases and attitudes are the fuel for accent-based discrimination, and as a result individuals suffer unfair treatment in many aspects of life. Having a foreign accent in the workplace can lead to feelings of exclusion and devaluation [1]. It can increase difficulty finding jobs [11], and can act as a barrier to progression for some careers [5]. Outside of the workplace, having a foreign accent can lead to discrimination in court cases [8], or the housing market [10, 12]. People have even been found to feel more confident being treated by a native-accented doctor over foreign-accented doctor [9], providing clear evidence for associating one’s ability and intelligence to their accent. 

Accent discrimination is real and powerful, however it is overlooked partially because there is a weak social norm against it, especially when compared to racial discrimination. Due to this, some individuals think it is acceptable to joke about or discriminate based on the way someone speaks, this ultimately makes this form of social discrimination invisible, more acceptable and less likely to be detected

As migration between and within the ASEAN nations and Australia increases, and consequently our schools, universities, and workplaces become more diverse, it is important we work towards reducing accent discrimination so we can continue promoting connectivity and inclusivity in the region. 

The issue of accent discrimination is complex, though it is an issue relevant to everyone, so here are two broad recommendations on how we can work towards reducing it:

First, in the workplace, legal regulations (similar to those regarding racial discrimination) need to be created and implemented to protect employees from unfair and unjust treatment. Additionally, accent discrimination modules should be recognised and incorporated into cross-cultural training programs. They should aim to teach individuals to acknowledge their biases and increase their linguistic sensitivity skills. 

Second, accents are ultimately tied to race or ethnic backgrounds. In order to hope for the elimination of accent discrimination, countries need to be committed to eliminating racial discrimination. For example, Malaysia, Brunei, and Myanmar have not ratified the United Nations’ International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), which is hindering ASEAN’s collective effort towards creating a peaceful and non-discriminatory region [7].

As ASEAN and Australia continue to become more interconnected, dialogue and cooperation is crucial if we want to deconstruct and solve the complex issue of discrimination. Accent discrimination is powerful and overlooked, but reducing it will drive further social and cultural development in the region. Whether discrimination is based on race, gender, religion, or accent, systematic solutions are required so we can continue working towards the peaceful, prosperous and integrated futures of ASEAN and Australia.


  1. Agarwal, P. (2018). Accent Bias: How Can We Minimize Discrimination In The Workplace?  Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/pragyaagarwaleurope/2018/12/30/bias-is-your-accent-holding-you-back/#7cf0b9211b5a
  2. Bradlow, A. R., & Bent, T. (2008). Perceptual adaptation to non-native speech. Cognition, 106(2), 707-729.
  3. Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. (n.d.). Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Why ASEAN matters: our shared connections.  Retrieved from https://dfat.gov.au/international-relations/regional-architecture/asean/Pages/why-asean-matters-our-shared-connections.aspx
  4. Gluszek, A., & Dovidio, J. F. (2010). The way they speak: A social psychological perspective on the stigma of nonnative accents in communication. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14(2), 214-237.
  5. Huang, L., Frideger, M., & Pearce, J. L. (2013). Political skill: Explaining the effects of nonnative accent on managerial hiring and entrepreneurial investment decisions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 98(6), 1005-1017.
  6. Kinzler, K. D., Shutts, K., DeJesus, J., & Spelke, E. S. (2009). Accent trumps race in guiding children’s social preferences. Social Cognition, 27(4), 623-634.
  7. Lim, I. (2018). When it comes to ICERD, neighbours Malaysia, Myanmar, Brunei of same mind. MalayMail. Retrieved from https://www.malaymail.com/news/malaysia/2018/11/22/when-it-comes-to-icerd-neighbours-malaysia-myanmar-brunei-of-same-mind/1695796
  8. Lippi-Green, R. (1994). ccent, standard language ideology, and discriminatory pretext in the courts. Language in Society, 23(2), 163-198.
  9. Magalhães, R. (2019). Accent discrimination: let’s call the whole thing off.  Retrieved from https://unbabel.com/blog/language-foreign-accents-discrimination/
  10. Massey, D. S., & Lundy, G. (2001). Use of Black English and racial discrimination in urban housing markets: New methods and findings. Urban Affairs Review, 36(4), 452-469.
  11. Timming, A. R. (2017). The effect of foreign accent on employability: a study of the aural dimensions of aesthetic labour in customer-facing and non-customer-facing jobs. . Work, Employment and Society,, 31(3), 409-428.
  12. Zhao, B., Ondrich, J., & Yinger, J. (2006). Why do real estate brokers continue to discriminate? Evidence from the 2000 Housing Discrimination Study. Journal of Urban Economics, 59(3), 394-419.

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