Linguistic stereotyping – it’s a thing.

Linguistic Stereotyping

In preparing for my workshop on age bias at the Women in Law Summit, I have been looking at the various ways in which unconscious bias affects recruitment, retention and career progression, particularly for women, LGBT+, BAME and people with disabilities.

It should come as no surprise that we discriminate on the basis of how people talk as much as on how they look. But are you aware of the extent to which automatic bias around accents affects how we interpret information and make decisions?

According to Roberto Rey Agudo, Director of the Spanish and Portuguese Department at Dartmouth College, when we say someone speaks with an accent, we mean either a non-native accent or a so-called nonstandard accent and we discriminate against both: within our own language group, and against those perceived as language outsiders.

In an opinion piece in the New York Times, Agudo explains, “when we fetishize certain accents and disdain others, it can lead to real discrimination in job interviews, performance evaluations and access to housing, to name just a few of the areas where having or not having a certain accent has profound consequences”.

The destructive nature of this bias is powerfully illustrated in a recent episode of NPR’s Codeswitch podcast, in which the hosts speak to Dr Okim Kang, Director of Applied Linguistics at Northern Arizona University. Dr Kang has been researching the role accents play in perception, comprehension and attitudes for over a decade.

In the episode Talk American, Dr Kang describes an experiment in which her students listen to various audio clips and are asked to rate the accented-ness of the speakers. They are then tested on their comprehension of the subject. During one clip, of an astronomy lecture given in a Standard American English accent, students are shown a photo of a white man. Later, they hear the exact same clip but accompanied by a photo of an Asian man.

Kang’s students rated the speech associated with the Asian man as significantly more accented and their comprehension scores were lower. Kang’s striking conclusion: by simply looking at the photo of the Asian man, the students convinced themselves they were listening to a different speaker with a second language accent. This triggered an automatic assumption that the speaker was harder to understand. Dr Kang routinely runs this experiment with her Intro to Linguistics students and the results are the same. Every time.

I used to work with an American who once commented that she had lived for so long in the UK that she had lost her American accent. I laughed out loud before realising that she wasn’t joking. To my ear, there was a distinct accent and I even recognised certain geographical markers. She, apparently, did not hear it. I gather that, similar to the way that we don’t smell own perfume (or sweat!), we are often unaware of how we sound – even when the awareness of others may be acute.

Professor Agudo's point is that no one speaks without an accent. How our accents are perceived, and the doors that open or shut to us as a result, depends largely on what is held to be the standard, privileged, accent.

Morgan Wolfe is a solicitor in England and Wales and regularly speaks on the topic of mature students, career changers, unconscious bias and diversity and inclusion.

The Women in Law Summit returns for 2019, click here to register.