As an American traveling around Australia, I haven’t encountered any difficulty being understood. Pronounced Rs at the end of syllables and odd Californian vowel sounds don’t faze anyone. Australians watch enough American film and television that the accent is very familiar to them. Someone even complimented my accent today, which sounded very strange to me as Americans generally complement Brits and Australians on theirs!
Of course, not every foreigner or new arrival in Australia gets a similar reception to their oral English. I met a Taiwanese doctoral student this morning who had learned American English in Taiwan and studied abroad in California. (Let’s call her Sally.) Sally’s English is fluent, grammatical, and idiomatically natural, but her accent marks her as a non-native speaker of English.
Sally and I are of the same race and ethnicity, and we’re both foreigners here in Australia, but the reactions to our language use are very different. She told me that when she first arrived in Australia to start her PhD program, local people would correct her Americanized pronunciations on a regular basis. She was informed of the proper Australian way to say words like “tomato,” “masters,” and “advertisement” so often that it was disheartening. Eventually, she adopted a more Australian-sounding accent, and the corrections became less frequent.
It seems that as a perceived native speaker of English, I benefit from the privilege of not having my language affect my position in the social hierarchy in a negative way. It’s immediately evident when we open our mouths to speak that neither of us is from around here, but the foreign-ness of my speech is either unproblematic or positive, while the foreign-ness of hers is negative.
Her foreign-ness has to be highlighted. People insist on doing her the “favor” of helping her sound less foreign, which paradoxically makes her seem and feel even more foreign in the moment. My foreign-ness, on the other hand, is completely unremarkable and even worthy of compliments. I can say “tomato,” “masters,” and “advertisement” as I do naturally and no one would tell me that I’m saying them wrong.
I can’t find the reference, but I remember reading as a college student an argument by a sociolinguist that language was one of the last remaining acceptable fields of discrimination in Western societies. Racism is taboo, as are sexism, classism, ageism, and ableism. Even if people engage in racist, sexist, classist, ageis, or ableist actions, it is still generally understood that these things are bad. In any case, there are people vocally and visibly fighting against these forms of discrimination.
However, there still remains comparatively little consciousness of discrimination by language, and of the ways in which language reinforces and creates social hierarchies. In this case, language use separates the “good” foreigners from the “bad” foreigners, and reaffirms the social distance between “us” and “them.”
Sidenote: When Sally returns to Taiwan, people tell her that it sounds like her English has gotten worse! The reason? American English is the gold standard in Taiwan, and her new non-rhotic (no Rs at the end of syllables) pronunciation and Australian vowels make her sound like a Taiwanese person with a terrible command of American English pronunciation!