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Diversity, dialects and decision-making: how levelling up can make a difference

I remember it clearly. The nervousness of raising my hand to speak. Of being one of the few women, and a Northern one at that, in the room. The nervousness of making a point in front of a room full of first year Law students who – I thought at the time - had much more right to be there than me.

And then the stinging embarrassment and absolute shock of the lecturer’s response: “Well, you’ll have to sort out that accent if you want a career at the Bar”, he laughed. It was the first and last time I volunteered to speak in that class.

Twenty years on, I’m sure attitudes have shifted, but the findings from our recent State of the State research suggest there is still some way to go. Thirty percent of respondents in the North East of England believe that the region people live in makes a difference to whether they can get ahead in life. And one-third of respondents in the North West believe their parents’ social class is a major factor, mirrored in Yorkshire and Humberside where the figure was 33 percent.

We live in a world where code switching – the practice of changing our accent, voice and even mannerisms to fit in – is the norm. If you’re from the North I bet you have, or know someone who has, a ‘phone voice’. Even Alexa won’t do as she’s told by my Yorkshire-born husband, who has learned to modify how he speaks to her.

So how do we level-up opportunity, confidence, and aspiration, so that future generations of Northerners don’t feel the need to code switch?

In the words of Billie Jean King, “you have to see it to be it”.

At the moment, the most powerful positions in the UK – be that in politics, business, or the media – are held by people who speak in Received Pronunciation. Yet RP is spoken by a tiny proportion of the population, often cited as just three percent. Young people in the North need to see and hear more people like them in public life – an increased diversity of thought and experience benefits everyone.

The Government’s White Paper on Levelling Up is expected next month, but if – as anticipated – it heralds a new era in regional thinking, it could represent a turning point for young people in the North and their engagement in public life.

Let’s be clear that the North is not a homogenous place. The urban centre of Manchester can seem as remote as London to communities in other parts of the North West. We must level out as well as up. But personally, I want to see more regional thinking, regional aspiration, and regional approaches to successfully tackle the challenges – and grasp the opportunities – the North presents.

In the meantime, if you’d like to hear more regional accents, I recommend browsing the British Library’s Survey of English dialects. You can listen to recordings from across the UK and hear how dialects have changed even in a relatively short space of time. You can also read about a new variety of local Northern accent identified by linguists at the University of Manchester.

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