I would like to acknowledge the support and inspiration of Vietnamese professor/guest lecturer Trần Diễm Trang from the Department of East Asian Studies, without whose tireless work this article would not have been possible.
From 1558 until the Japanese occupation in 1940, the city of Tint was the seat of power of Imperial Vietnam. Vietnam is early aristocrats and nobles were probably part of first speakers of the Huế accent. While Vietnam is home to dozens of smaller dialects, three accents are predominant among the 100 million speakers of the country: the Southern Accent, the Central Accent (where the Huế dialect is the most important) and the Northern Accent, considered by some as the “standard accent”. It may therefore be surprising that in 2014, Anh Phương became the first journalist with a Huế accent to broadcast midday news on Vietnam’s national television channel, VTV. It’s hard to overstate how much controversy Anh Phương’s hiring caused. The viewers on the other side the nation engaged in heated debates online about the role of the local language in VTV programming. Many users believe that the Huế accent is More difficult understand given its tonal differences other accents, and as such, Anh Phương’s reporting might to lead to “confusion and misinterpretation of information.” Anh Phương was just as worried at the start of her work in 2014: “I still know that the central accent will not be easy to hear,” she says. Told a journalist. “Hopefully in the near future everyone will get used to it and be completely satisfied with a central voice on VTV.” But Anh Phương was wrong; after a year, VTV pulled Huế’s reporter off the air, and she hasn’t appeared on the network since.
As is the case in so many Western countries, accent discrimination is used in Vietnam to silence the voices those in power don’t want to hear. But, unlike Vietnam, accent discrimination in the West is inseparable from a long history of racism. For example, 19th century legacies minstrel have direct links to contemporary issues surrounding “black accents” in the USA. For Asian Americans in particular, researchers have identified accent discrimination as a understudied threat to mental and physical well-being. Given these barriers faced by the Vietnamese diaspora in the West, the intersection between understudied accent discrimination in Vietnam and the understudied accent discrimination outside of Vietnam may well reveal lessons for unheard voices in both communities. Despite its contrasts with Western accent discrimination, accent discrimination in Vietnamese media and education stems from the same nationalism and discomfort with the unknown that poisons language appreciation and silences voices heard across the world.
As mentioned earlier, the role of race plays a fundamental difference between Vietnamese and Western accent discrimination. In the West, accent discrimination is just a tool the powerful can use to suppress the voices of those who are already systemically marginalized. But in Vietnam, accent discrimination may basically have more to do with how your voice actually sounds. Vietnamese is a tonal language, so words have entirely different meanings with different inflections. While northern and southern accents have between five and six tones, most speakers near Huế only pronounce five distinct tones with smaller differences between each. While some suggest this development is the product of efforts to keep the empire Capital city of Huế “dignified, respectful, and calm”, few speakers in northern and southern Vietnam would agree with this characterization today. When Anh Phương started broadcasting the afternoon news, the viewers who saw her voice as “small and cute” or “unique” seemed outnumbered by those who worried about her interpretability. Some viewers found his “unreasonable” focus on serving “the whole country” and others suggested that “if you have a special Huế accent…you should change it a bit.” Notably, however, these viewers do not see these beliefs as accent discrimination but simply a decent request to get daily news in an accent they can easily understand and not misinterpret. Some have even recommended further dividing national television so that each region could have its own commentary to meet its needs. For many in Vietnam, discomfort with accents from other regions is a personal preference rather than an act of overt discrimination.
At the same time, Vietnamese accent discrimination is inseparable from domestic politics after the end of the Vietnam War. Language is, of course, inherently political: media and government control over what can and cannot be said publicly has important consequences for decision-making and public opinion. After Hồ Chí Minh’s declaration of independence in 1945, the government began to work on execution a standardized language in controlled parts of the country. The campaign to promote a standard Vietnamese language in schools and literature has been a slogan that searched for “Giữ gìn sự trong sáng của tiếng Việt” – “preservation of the purity of the Vietnamese language”. Therefore, the political overtones around a pure, standard language must significantly undermine well-meaning explanations for the aversion to different accents. This paradox visibly affects the teaching of the Vietnamese language, both at home and abroad. A recent study found that political beliefs and regional differences in education led to moderate to strong accent discrimination within Vietnamese higher education. Despite the fact that most Vietnamese Americans are from the South, the vast majority of Vietnamese language teachers in the United States have the northern accent. A product of political stigma, southern speakers often refer again to their Northern instructors calling them “Communists” and Northern instructors continue to chastise their students’ accents as “inappropriate”, “obsolete” and “backward”. In fact, Brown’s recent hiring of Cô Trần Diễm Trang, the university’s first-ever Vietnamese language professor, makes her one of the only those professors with a Southern accent in the United States. Political attitudes between people from different parts of Vietnam have laid the foundation for the discrimination of the Vietnamese accent across the world.
“In the words of Hồ Chí Minh from 1945, Vietnamese media, teachers and citizens must fight together to encourage the preservation not of the purity, but of the complexity of the Vietnamese language.”
Two lessons for the West emerge from Vietnam’s experience with accent discrimination. First, silencing unknown voices serves to embolden societal divisions rather than erase them. Dr. Nguyễn Hồng Cổn, the dean of linguistics at Vietnam National University, noticed that the belief among viewers and employers that North Vietnamese is the norm would only deepen employment disparities in Vietnam’s regions, especially in entertainment and radio. Not only do these attitudes fuel resentment that goes against Vietnam’s nationalist goals, but they also rob millions of citizens of the ability to hear their pronounced local accent in a movie or radio song. Given that much of Western accent discrimination stems from an urge to subvert ethnic minorities, employers and policymakers should consider whether accent isolation only reinforces undesirable social divisions. .
Second, comfort can endure real and difficult trade-offs with diversity. Historical context aside, many viewers’ concerns about Anh Phương’s accent claim to be about accessibility; after all, understanding the afternoon report is a reasonable expectation. But realistically, exposure to the Huế accent is the only way to fully grasp local perspectives and eventually learn to be comfortable with their intonation. Likewise, nothing can replace the perspectives of minorities in American society, except to hear directly from the voices of black, Latino, Asian and other Americans themselves. Incorporating speakers from different ethnic and geographic backgrounds into news and entertainment might be the surest way to burst the media bubbles that many now find themselves in.
Finally, accent discrimination in Vietnam asserts that linguistic stigmas fundamentally distract from the appreciation of a nation’s cultural identity. “In my opinion”, a VTV viewer wrote during the Anh Phương controversy, “which voice is common, which is local, everything is self-imposed by humans”. Indeed, just as languages are a social construct, so is our contempt for those we dislike. To understand American culture without listening to any voices with a southern drawl or a country accent would practically be a betrayal. Likewise, one cannot grasp the daily events of Vietnamese life without hearing all the different voices that live it. In the words of Hồ Chí Minh in 1945, Vietnamese media, teachers and citizens must fight together to encourage the preservation not of the purity but of the complexity of the Vietnamese language.