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National Lab Faces Backlash After Offering 'Southern Accent Reduction' Class

Oak Ridge National Laboratory is in hot water after offering its employees a class for “Southern accent reduction” last week, as reported by Campus Reform.

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Oak Ridge National Laboratory faced a backlash after offering its employees a "Southern Accent Reduction" course.Image credit: Gator87, Wikimedia CommonsThe $850 weekly course aims were to help employees “learn to recognize the pronunciation and grammar differences that make [their] speech sound Southern, and learn what to do so [they] can neutralize it through a technique called code-switching,” according to the email sent out to staff, as quoted by Campus Reform

However, the course was cancelled after employees took offense to the email. 

“[The email] was perceived by a lot of folks, due to the label, as us having a problem with Southern accents, but that was not at all the intent,” Oak Ridge spokesperson David Keim told Inside Higher Ed. “We have been in Tennessee for 70 years–we do not have a problem with Southern accents.” 

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He added to Inside Higher Ed that the lab, which has 4,400 employees from 90 countries, often holds classes for non-native English speakers in order to modify their accents. The Southern accent class came about as the result of a professional development request by a native English speaker “to deal with a Southern accent,” Inside reported. 

However, Keim admitted that the email was not well-worded.

“We wanted to make it say that we want to give employees the tools to communicate effectively,” he said to Inside Higher Ed. “It was not at all a judgment about the validity of any particular accent.” 

According to Bethany Dumas, a professor emerita of linguistics at the Oak Ridge-affiliated University of Tennessee at Knoxville, language courses like the one offered by the lab are quite valuable in the professional world. 

“There’s a bit of pressure in the professional world–including in academe–to suppress regional accents associated with negative stereotypes, such as the ‘redneck” Southerner,’” she told Inside Higher Ed. “So some choose to learn another, more ‘standard’ dialect.” 

She agreed that the Oak Ridge email should have been worded differently, suggesting to Inside that it should have focused on “the nature and function of dialects in the U.S.” rather than on “how to change dialects.” 

With the cancellation of the course, it’s not yet known how Oak Ridge will fulfil the needs of the employee who requested the training. 

-With files from Campus Reform and Inside Higher Ed