Hashi Mohamed argues that changing the way you speak to get on in life doesn’t mean compromising your identity
People who refuse to change the way they speak in order to succeed in professions such as law risk “dying a martyr”, a barrister who grew up in poverty has warned.
Hashi Mohamed, a British-Somali planning barrister, says wannabe professionals should be aware that people with accents from certain parts of the country are often unfairly perceived as less intelligent.
Speaking to BBC radio’s Start the Week programme, the former child refugee said that adjusting your accent to fit in is an individual choice — but his certainly has changed.
“When I grew up in northwest London, speaking in street slang to try to survive or get your point across, that’s not going to be the same language that I use when I’m in a courtroom”, Mohamed pointed out in cut-glass Received Pronunciation. The state-educated Oxford graduate, one of 12 children “raised exclusively on state benefits”, has been told by a mentor that he now sounds like someone who has “been to Eton”.
The No5 Chambers advocate said that adjusting how you speak is a pragmatic response to a society where these things still matter — and doesn’t mean compromising on who you are.
“The idea that somehow your accent is a deep sense of who you are to your soul I fundamentally disagree with. I think an accent is something you have learned in your environment”, Mohamed told listeners. He added:
“I wish we lived in a world in which how you spoke did not matter. I wish we lived in a world in which people were more likely to listen to you than to decide whether or not you’re intelligent depending on how you’re speaking.”
But that’s not the reality, Mohamed argued, pointing to statistics showing that “if you have a Brummie accent or an accent from Liverpool, people are less likely to think of you as being intelligent than if you’re speaking in an accent that’s from the Home Counties”.
Mohamed stressed that adjusting one’s accent is an individual choice, and that he wasn’t suggesting that people who don’t change their accent won’t get on. But he said that the question for young people who feel their way of speaking might hold them back is “do I deal with the world as it is, or do I deal with the world as I would like it to be?”
And he cautioned that people who decided to stick with their native way of speaking on principle risked “dying a martyr for a class war”.
Mohamed, a Kenyan-born Somali who arrived in the UK as a refugee at the age of 9, was educated at struggling comprehensive schools in London but managed to bag a place at the University of Hertfordshire to study law and French. From there, he got a postgrad scholarship to Oxford and now practises in planning law at No5 Chambers.
He has recently published a book arguing that, his own success notwithstanding, social mobility in Britain today is a “pipe dream”.