Three current Sheffield students have spoken to Forge Press on their experience of accent prejudice while studying at the University. 

This comes after a study by a Newcastle-born Durham student found evidence of ‘prejudice and discrimination’ and even physical abuse directed at students from the North.

Yasmin Waters, a Journalism Studies student from Harrogate in North Yorkshire, has found it “liberating” to be “put into a mixing pot of people from all over the UK and the world” at University.

However, she has found comparisons are often made between the dialects of students from the North and South of England. She said: “It’s not just a comparison, it’s how the words are loaded. A person from the South is immediately labelled ‘posh’ or more put together, but whereas for the North, we’re naturally all more ‘rowdy”.

In the workplace, Waters found “everybody speaks very similarly and there’s no place for different dialects in business”. 

She said she has not heard many people in the media industry who “embrace their regionalisms”, citing radio presenters Sara Cox and Graham Norton as an exception. She said this “shows there’s clearly barriers in place or people feeling the pressure to conform.”

At university, she said some tutors with strong regional accents “strip back that dialect” while doing journalistic work and “go to more of what’s seen as a very formal way of doing journalism.”

She said: “I think it’s really sad to live in a country that’s so divided by this idea of class that we aren’t allowed to fully embrace our roots without some form of mockery. 

“I understand perhaps not using local slang from a particular place’s dialect because you’re potentially putting barriers in place with communication. 

“But the dialect itself should not be the problem, it should be celebrated. If we were all the same how boring would that be?”

Ryan Smith, a Masters student in the School of English, said being at university while having a Sheffield accent has made him become “very conscious” of what he was saying.

He said: “In seminars you don’t want to speak as much because you don’t want to feel like you’re a fool”. Smith said he was told by one tutor that his answer to a question was “simple” and by another that he had made “an obvious point” in a discussion. 

“You start thinking ‘am I stupid? Am I not saying it academically enough? Do I have to add longer words into what I’m saying?’”

Smith has also felt self-conscious in social situations at university. He said: “It’s frustrating to think I should have to expand what I’m saying and say things slower so [other people] can understand me”.

When discussing hobbies at school, a fellow student once told him: “I wasn’t really into sport. You usually find the ones into sport are hooligans”.

Smith, who played football, said: “After that I couldn’t listen to anything else other than the word ‘hooligans’. It’s hard not to feel angry at them. I’ve never had a go at anyone but as soon as you hear that accent next you think maybe they do think that I’m a hooligan.”

However, he said he has found teaching staff from working class backgrounds to be particularly supportive. He said: “They helped me massively and they put everything in perspective. If they can do it, I can do it.

“It becomes more comforting and you start to realise you do have a place at University as a working class student. It’s not just for people who you think look down on you. You realise that this is your place to be and there was a reason you were accepted.”

Smith said the University needs to accept more students from a working class background. 

“You’ve seen it over summer with the A-level and GCSE nonsense. The algorithm that just happens to favour private schools and just happens to destroy the hopes of working class kids.”

Rebekah Lowri, a Russian and French student from Swansea in South Wales, said before coming to Sheffield she began her undergraduate studies in London. It was there that she was mocked over her accent and “neutralised” it as a result.

Lowri was initially told she sounded “unprofessional” and “stupid”, but after changing her accent was then told she “wasn’t Welsh enough”.

As a student in Sheffield, she said: “It has been okay other than people genuinely not believing that I speak Welsh because I don’t sound like someone from Gavin and Stacey, which in itself is a bit reductionist and stereotypical. 

“It’s not very nice when their reference for your entire culture is a TV programme.”

As a native speaker of the Welsh language, she said: “I’ve come across quite a lot of people of student age, which I thought was very odd, sort of failing to see how someone’s native language would affect the way they speak in English. I think that’s a problem for people who come from non-UK countries.”

On neutralising her accent, she said: “I do feel quite in shame about it because I feel like I’ve lost a little part of myself to the world. 

“It’s just unfortunate that my accent is one of the casualties that’s had to half-disappear because of what’s been said to me, which I think is a real shame.”

A spokesperson from the University of Sheffield declined to comment directly on instances of accent prejudice on campus but pointed to the institution’s strong record in attracting students from diverse backgrounds.

Featured image: Ryan Smith, Rebekah Lowri

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