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Brain Food: Accent Bias and Communication

Bonnie Stevens

According to linguists, we all have accents, and we all carry biases about each others’ accents. Okim Kang, a researcher at Northern Arizona University, is studying the judgements we make about how difficult a person may be to understand before he or she even says a word.  It’s called Reverse Linguistic Stereotyping. Kang says it’s prevalent in the U.S. and can affect opportunities for education, employment and even citizenship.

"Perhaps if you are the person in power, or in authority", Kang says, "you don’t think this exists or this is not a big problem. It doesn’t matter, but you can think about immigrants. You know, some are students from different language backgrounds. Their parents, immigrants. They are going through this kind of discrimination. It’s happening all the time."

Kang and colleague Dr. Don Rubin have received international attention for their study involving college students at the University of Georgia. They listened to two different astronomy lectures delivered by the same man with a Standard American Accent. During the first lecture, they were shown the photograph of a Caucasian man. During the second, an Asian man. Kang then tested the information the students heard.

She says, "Even though they listened to the same speakers’ speech samples, because they believed or convinced themselves that they heard a lecture with a second language accent, their listening comprehension scores were slightly lower."

Kang says awareness of the issue is key to changing judgments based on accents, appearances and perceptions. She says it’s a sensitive topic, but believes identifying our biases regarding speech will help us all communicate better.