Carrie Gillon: Hi, and welcome to The Vocal Fries podcast, the podcast about linguistic discrimination.
Megan Figueroa: I’m Megan Figueroa.
Carrie Gillon: And I’m Carrie Gillon.
Megan Figueroa: Hey, there.
Carrie Gillon: Hey! End of the month.
Megan Figueroa: End of the month and you’re so close to being out of this fucking country.
Carrie Gillon: I know! I know – hopefully. The plan is still a month away, so hopefully. [Laughs] Because I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it feels like we’ve gone full fash.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah, full fash. That’s – yep. #FullFash .Absolutely.
Carrie Gillon: [Laughs] Oh, god. I shouldn’t be laughing but I don’t know what else to do.
Megan Figueroa: No, no, it’s the laughing that stops the crying. I know. Yeah. It’s not actually funny. It’s horrifying and scary and –
Carrie Gillon: It’s truly horrifying.
Megan Figueroa: Everyone outside of the States watching this dumpster fire – I don’t know. Hello from within it. And I feel so bad. As an American I’m like, “I’m sorry we’re doing this to the world and to, just, humanity.”
Carrie Gillon: That’s true. If it was just going to affect basically Americans, it would be different. But this is gonna have such wide-reaching affects. I mean, other countries have obviously gone through this either before or more recently, like Hungary, Brazil. The United States is not alone.
Megan Figueroa: Right. No. But it does not make me feel better.
Carrie Gillon: No, it shouldn’t. It should be terrifying that this happening across the world.
Megan Figueroa: I mean, everyone talks about 2020 being just the worst year. Of course, the whole thing where something bad happens, it feels worse when you’re already in it, so things keep piling on and everything feels like absolute shit. Part of that just happened a couple days ago. T’Challa, Black Panther, Chadwick Boseman passed away. I wanted to read something to you, Carrie, because I’ve been reading all these lovely things about him, obviously, because he was a lovely person. But it’s language related. So, you’re not gonna be surprised by this, but the producers, or whoever, wanted to give T’Challa a European or American accent.
Carrie Gillon: Oh my god. That makes no sense in the context of the story.
Megan Figueroa: That’s what he said. “I wanted to make sure that he didn’t speak, like – well, at one time, they were thinking he would have a European accent or American accent. I said that would not be fine because, if we did that, that would be saying that they had been colonized. And that was something that I wanted to make sure happened” – which he’s saying he didn’t want him to have an American or European accent – “that we stuck to that in the character.” He also said, “If I speak with a British accent, what’s gonna happen when I go home? It felt to me like a deal breaker. I was like, no, this is such an important factor that, if we lose this right now, what else are we gonna throw away for the sake of making people feel comfortable?”
It’s so true! This is a really good point too – sorry, there’re so many good quotes about this that he said. He said, “If I did that” – spoke with that accent – “I would be conveying a white supremacist idea of what being educated is and what being royal or presidential is. Because it’s not just about him running around fighting, he’s the ruler of a nation. And if he’s the ruler of a nation, he has to speak to his people. He has to galvanize his people. And there’s no way I could speak to my people, who have never been conquered by Europeans, with a European voice.”
Carrie Gillon: Yes, agreed.
Megan Figueroa: Absolutely! Of course, I’m not surprised that he was thinking about this. I think that more non-black people need to be thinking about these kind of things. This ties into our episode today too. Not enough people in general are thinking about how the lack of linguistic diversity that many people face – the fact that a lot of people don’t have access to many different accents or whatever – that’s actually a big problem, and a problem that people aren’t really thinking about as a problem.
Carrie Gillon: What’s interesting about this case is that it’s also just not realistic to have him have a British or American accent. The people with those kinds of accents in Africa are white people in, say, South Africa. Even there, their accents are very different. They’re still different than the European ones. Afrikaans and Dutch are different. The English spoken in South Africa is different from the English spoken in the UK. It just doesn’t make any sense. A lot of people are all about realism until you do this – until you want a black person to have an African accent. Then, suddenly, it’s a little too far.
Megan Figueroa: Oh, yeah. No. He was right to call out, like, “What else are we gonna do for the sake of, basically, white people’s comfort?”
Carrie Gillon: Right. Because that’s all it is, is just making – because we’re more familiar with those accents, most white people, and so, yeah, it’s for our comfort.
Megan Figueroa: Exactly. Absolutely. You’re right. Another point is that it just doesn’t make sense given linguistic variation, and migration, and any of that stuff either. 1.) It’s just plain wrong. Even though Wakanda isn’t real, it would never make sense for Wakanda. But also, in the real world, it wouldn’t make sense given variation and migration and all of that. Yeah, no, it’s making me think of the interview we did for this episode. It’s like, we really need to start thinking about the type of voices that we encounter. I used to be really guilty of this. I think I’ve said it multiple times where I have a hard time with shows, like British shows, that I have to use subtitles.
Carrie Gillon: That’s not a bad thing.
Megan Figueroa: No, I’m just not trained to – I just didn’t spend that much time with them. I’m getting better because I watch more and more. But at the beginning, it’s like, I absolutely needed subtitles. Now it’s like, I miss a few words here and there because their lexical items are different. I’m like, “What?” Reiterating something that we’ve said so many times, it’s like, get exposure to different people and accents and languages and whatever because, I dunno, I think it’s just – we need to stop putting all this on people that we’ve said their accents are marginalized for whatever reason, thinking specifically here accent reduction stuff. We’re always talking about Asian accents, right. There’s these specific accents that we know people are talking about when they say, “accent reduction classes.” That’s who they’re targeting.
Carrie Gillon: Yes. It’s so important to represent many more accents than we have been. Also, if you’re making a certain kind of white person comfortable, they’re still not gonna watch that movie.
Megan Figueroa: It’s true. Yeah.
Carrie Gillon: If they’re so racist they can’t stand to listen to an African accent, then I don’t think they’re really gonna watch Black Panther.
Megan Figueroa: I was gonna say, yeah, what racists are watching Black Panther? Like, surely there’s just too many black people on screen for them in the first place, no matter how they sound.
Carrie Gillon: Maybe you get a small sliver of people who are somewhat racist but not totally racist, but I still don’t think it’s worth trying to get that tiny sliver of people. At any rate, it’s a great movie, and people love it.
Megan Figueroa: Exactly. It’s just like – I dunno – make racists uncomfortable. Let’s stop catering to racist white people whether they’re just waving a MAGA flag or if they’re more undercover than that. We need to really stop catering to them.
Well, anyway, I think that’s a really important thing, I mean, that Chadwick gave the world that he fought for T’Challa in Black Panther. I’m not surprised to hear that they wanted to give the character a European or American accent, but I’m glad that he was like, “This is a deal breaker.”
Carrie Gillon: I agree. I was very sad because he’s the exact same age as me, so that makes it a little harder. Anyway.
Megan Figueroa: Absolutely. It’s very sad. Shall we get to the interview? It’s a good one. It’s really good. It’s like, I was really excited to have a psychologist. We got to talk about things a little bit differently than we talk about with linguists but yet very related, obviously, to linguistics and linguistic diversity.
Carrie Gillon: I mean, yes, she’s a psychologist but, really, most of what she said is exactly what any linguist would say. So, yes, interdisciplinary power!
Megan Figueroa: Well, I know. I just have to say that it’s something to celebrate because not all psychologists feel the same way about language as linguists do. There is definitely a problem in the field.
Carrie Gillon: Yes, there is a problem in the field. There is a big, big problem in the field.
Megan Figueroa: But our guest is a good one.
Carrie Gillon: It’s very good. Oh, and actually we should thank Raye Belli for introducing us because he was the one who suggested that we talk to her. He’s from Words for Granted, which another podcast you should check out if you haven’t yet. Yeah. Thank you so much! We’re very grateful.
Megan Figueroa: Yes, thank you.
Carrie Gillon: Today, we have Dr. Katherine D. Kinzler, who is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago. Her research sits at the intersection of developmental and social psychology. Her work focuses on the origins of prejudice and in-group/out-group thinking with an emphasis on understanding how language and accent mark social groups. She also has a new book that just came out called How You Say It: Why You Talk the Way You Do—And What It Says About You. Welcome!
Katherine D. Kinzler: Thank you so much for having me.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah, hi!
Katherine D. Kinzler: Hi!
Megan Figueroa: Thanks for being here. I’m excited. We haven’t had a psychologist on.
Katherine D. Kinzler: Well, I mean, I think a lot of psychologists and linguists should talk more, I think. So, I love this opportunity.
Megan Figueroa: Absolutely. My emphasis in my PhD was psycholinguistics so – developmental psycholinguistics. I’m so happy to talk with another person who works with kids.
Katherine D. Kinzler: Awesome.
Carrie Gillon: Actually, we’ve talked about one of your studies before on the podcast. Because we were talking about Southern American English.
Katherine D. Kinzler: Oh, great!
Megan Figueroa: We’ll get to that later though.
Katherine D. Kinzler: Happy to talk about it. Sounds great.
Carrie Gillon: First question – why did you want to write this book?
Katherine D. Kinzler: It actually relates to the topic of psychologists and linguists talking more. As you said, my research is in social and developmental psychology. In psychology, there’s so much work on in-group and out-group thinking, and prejudice, and inter-group cognition. The bottom line is that it’s really easy to see social group divisions, which isn’t surprising to any researcher or any human living on the planet. You know, gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, and so forth, there are so many different ways in which we divide ourselves into groups.
But one thing that seems completely critical for how we think about ourselves and how we think about each other, who we connect with, and who we might be prejudiced against is language. This is really underrepresented a lot in research by social psychologists who study human groups. I really wanted to write a book that situated psychology research but within a broader field. Of course, if you look at linguistics, sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, if you look at anthropology – other neighboring fields in the social sciences – language is just such a critical feature of our social lives. I really wanted to talk across disciplines.
Megan Figueroa: You mentioned in your forward about having a child and what – we always think about what is the world we’re gonna leave our children, but we don’t talk about the linguistic world that we’re creating for them. That’s really important.
Katherine D. Kinzler: I think that for kids they’re these, as you know, remarkable linguistic creatures who are just amazing at learning language or languages early in life. At the same time, they’re also gonna learn linguistic prejudices and that all these stereotypes and attitudes that we have as adults about languages are gonna be absorbed by our kids. It’s really important to think about that too.
Carrie Gillon: We definitely don’t talk enough about – or think enough about – the prejudices that we’re passing on. We think about it, I think, more about, oh, we’re not bringing up our children in quite as racist a way. But if we’re still embedding the racism in a language, which we totally do, then it is still trickling down to them.
Katherine D. Kinzler: Kids are smart. Kids are picking up on, as you said, structures of racism at different levels. They’re picking up on subtle prejudices that we convey verbally or non-verbally. They’re learning the attitudes that adults have.
Carrie Gillon: Definitely. So, what are in-groups and out-groups?
Katherine D. Kinzler: So, I think about in-groups and out-groups as the idea that there might be people who you see as being similar to you or similar to people around you. That’s your in-group. It’s not necessarily bad. In many ways, we’re drawn to people who are like us. We’re drawn to connect with others. We’re an extremely social species, and it would be impossible to live by yourself without this group of people supporting you. At the same time, it’s also really easy for us to start to draw lines in the sand and start to see other people as being different from us. That’s where you can start to see a lot of stereotypes and prejudice developing.
Megan Figueroa: Did you also say “inner-group cognition”?
Katherine D. Kinzler: Yeah.
Megan Figueroa: What is that?
Katherine D. Kinzler: It’s how we think about different groups. I’m interested in what my field calls “social cognition.” It’s your thinking about social life. It’s not just describing patterns of behavior, but it’s also thinking about the mental states you might have. How do you represent in-groups and out-groups? How do you represent a person you just met as being like you or not? What kinds of thinking would you engage in when you’re thinking about somebody who’s like you versus thinking about somebody who’s not like you? Maybe you think about their mind or their mental states in different ways, or their emotions in different ways, or their patterns of thought in different ways. I think that it’s really about your cognition but applied to social life.
Megan Figueroa: I’ve heard a lot of people say that humans are just wired to find patterns and to look for patterns. I feel like it’s a too simplistic way of looking at what we do with the social aspect of all this.
Katherine D. Kinzler: Where this starts in childhood a lot of that is this idea of basic cognitive skills being applied to the social world. When I think about basic cognitive skills, I often think about categorization, which is really helpful and useful. If you learn one thing, and then you apply it to some new instantiation or a slightly different version of that same thing, and if every single time you encountered an object or a person or a situation, if you couldn’t draw on your past experiences, you’d be really, really slow to act on anything.
In some ways categorization is extremely helpful and cognitively efficient. But then, of course, we apply categorization to the social world. Sometimes, that’s really useful if you’re inferring that two people are like each other in some way. You might make some inference about them that’s helpful to engage with them. But other times, it can be really nefarious, and you can think, oh, these two people are the same because they’re a member of the same group. Then, you might have some negative stereotype that you apply to them that has nothing to do with them as an individual.
Carrie Gillon: So, when are children picking up these biases?
Katherine D. Kinzler: Kids are starting to categorize things, really, from infancy. In some of my research, I find that children – our studies were with babies around a year of age, although presumably this might exist before then too. But within the first year of life babies are starting to think that two people who are similar in some way are similar in other ways too. It’s kind of like a rudimentary thinking about social groups. Often, I study language. Say babies start to think, well, if two people speak the same language, they might be more likely to, say, eat the same foods and like to share the same foods. Or they might be more likely to engage in some sort of a positive interaction than two people who speak in two different languages.
In that sense, I think the categories are starting soon. But then the prejudice is what happens when adults often layer something on top of those categories. It’s somewhat variable. I would say over the first five years of life kids are starting to learn more about whether society is seeing some categories as being higher status or more representative or preferred in some way. By the time that they’re in elementary school – so over the first 10 years of life – they’re learning tons of stereotypes and prejudiced attitudes that adults have, and they start to pick up on this.
Carrie Gillon: Is it hard for them to unlearn it? Or is it easier for them to unlearn it than an adult?
Katherine D. Kinzler: My best guess is that it’s easier for them to unlearn it than an adult. At the same time, this is a really important and dynamic area of research where people are really trying to figure out what are the ways that they can unlearn a stereotype or a prejudice that started to develop. Now, one way that I think we can say it’s not quite as clear as unlearn something, but I think in some senses, you might start to get the beginnings of a prejudiced attitude. It might not be as deep or as entrenched as an adult’s. I do think there’s still some malleability in early childhood, and that’s really important to think about.
Megan Figueroa: It reminds me of – my mom told me that, before I entered school, when I said something like, “There’s the black girl” or “black boy,” I meant hair color. So, I was just picking out hair color when I said something like that. I hadn’t yet learned that when people say that they usually mean skin color.
Katherine D. Kinzler: I think there’s been a long history of white parents in the US often endorsing some sort of belief about color blind parenting. It’s the idea that you just don’t talk about race, and then it won’t exist. Unfortunately, we live in a society with a lot of racist attitudes that are out there. Kids are picking up on those whether or not parents talk about them. From that point of view, it’s actually really important for parents to try to counteract the sorts of negative attitudes that their kids could be learning.
But I think your example is a really important one that kids are noticing stuff in their environment. They could be talking about someone’s skin color, their hair color, their way of dressing – whatever it is. I think when parents treat race as taboo, which some parents do, that some parents will hear a kid say something like that just commenting on the color of different people, which isn’t necessarily negative is a kid is just noticing things in their environment, that when parents react in a very uncomfortable way about race, even if it was a relatively innocent comment made by a very small child, that kids can then pick up on that, and then a discomfort in thinking about race, and thinking about it as taboo, and that can really lead to further negative attitudes.
Carrie Gillon: Thinking about negative attitudes towards language in particular, is there an equivalent that parents are doing with children where they’re like, “Let’s not talk about the differences in language”?
Katherine D. Kinzler: I actually don’t even think we’re there yet. I think that one of the reasons why I wrote this book is that I think we are dramatically under-aware of the amount of linguistic prejudice in society. I think that’s true kind of at all levels of society structurally – if you look at the legal system, if you look just societal or culture values, and if you think about what parents are teaching their kids.
To give just one example, if I have parents bring their kids into my lab and say – imagine there’s a 5-year-old white child who comes into the lab, say, with her mom. At this age, you often start to see early race-based preferences being expressed. A white kid in the US might say that she likes other white kids, or even specifically other white girls. Parents are very distressed when they see their child do this, which is actually probably a good thing that as a society we need to really grapple with where are these attitudes coming from, and what can we do to address them. Parents are very uncomfortable if their children express a race-based attitude – or at least the parents that I tend to test in the university town.
Now, when a child says – the same 5-year-old child – says that she likes other kids who speak in a native American-sounding accent – somebody who speaks in a familiar way as opposed to somebody who speaks in a less familiar accent to that child – parents just aren’t bothered by it. Some parents even see it as a positive thing like, such as, “Oh, my kid’s really good at learning languages!” So, I think just an awareness of the idea that linguistic biases can be really problematic we’re almost not even so aware of it so as to have discomfort expressing the awareness.
Carrie Gillon: So true.
Megan Figueroa: I’m like, sitting with that for a second because it’s so true. My gut instinct is like, “Why would that be problematic?” And I’m a linguist and I talk about this all the time! You’re right. We haven’t gotten there. Parents just – everyone – we’re not there yet.
Carrie Gillon: One of the things you talk about in this book is how language can unite us and how language can divide us. How does language do both of these things?
Katherine D. Kinzler: It’s back to that question about in-groups and out-groups really basically. We are attracted to people who are like us. Of course, with language, it’s this fascinating reciprocal relationship that we like people who are like us and, by being together, our language can change and reflect each other. So, a new group of people can form their own social identity and, often, that’s coupled with a linguistic identity. There can be something really positive and meaningful about connecting with people who share a similar culture, similar aspirations, similar group identity. Often, there’s a lot of linguistic commonalities that go along with that.
At the same time, you see the flip side and how easy it is to see somebody who doesn’t speak like you as being somebody who’s really different from you and then even being prejudiced against somebody based on their way of speaking, thinking that they don’t speak in a way that’s as good as you. Though, of course, linguists will say that all ways of speaking are great ways of speaking, that there’s no language that’s better than another language at expressing human thought.
Megan Figueroa: How do shibboleths work to do this? It’s so funny because the word “shibboleth” – am I saying it right? This is perfect going into it.
Katherine D. Kinzler: It’s perfect, right, because in my story you would be murdered if you were saying it incorrectly.
Megan Figueroa: Exactly. Tell me about this – how do they work?
Katherine D. Kinzler: Shibboleth is the ancient biblical story of the Gileadites and the Ephraimites – and I hope I’m saying them correctly. I believe it goes something like the Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan, and whenever an Ephraimite came over, they said, “Can you say ‘shibboleth’?” If they said “sibboleth,” it would suggest that they couldn’t pronounce the word correctly, and it was a way to detect somebody who was an infiltrator to their group.
Now, of course, the bigger picture idea here is that we are much better at learning languages as children than as adults – in particular, learning a non-native phonology is incredibly difficult as an adult. As anybody who’s tried to take a foreign language class in high school or college knows, it’s really hard. Whereas, children can master a native-sounding accent quite quickly. The idea is that, by using a word like “shibboleth” that could detect somebody who has a native ear versus not, it was a way to figure out who the infiltrators were.
Megan Figueroa: We do that all the time today.
Katherine D. Kinzler: Yeah, I think we do it all the time today. We don’t have this one catch phrase necessarily, but it’s really quick to hear somebody who’s speaking in a way that sounds different and instantly flag them as being different. Of course, as we know, in many ways our language is so changeable, and it’s socially motivated, and it’s fascinating how it changes over the course of our lives. At the same time, many aspects of our voices reflect the voices who were speaking to us when we were children. In that sense, language can be used as a way to detect somebody’s native group, often.
Megan Figueroa: Will you talk a little bit about the studies you did with bicultural bilingual children and how they sound – their peers versus parents?
Katherine D. Kinzler: I mean, one of the most fascinating things about language acquisition is how kids can learn to speak like their peers. Imagine a kid with immigrant parents, and they speak a language at home, and then a different language at school. They can certainly master both of them. But when they speak the school language, usually they end up sounding like the other kids at school not like their parents when the parents are speaking the school language. You could imagine, as an example, you speak Spanish at home, and maybe you have five years of input of somebody who’s a non-native speaker in English, or a whole family who’s a non-native speaker of English. Then you go to school, and you’re gonna sound like other kids at school.
We did this study where we were interested in kids’ social evaluations of people who spoke in different ways. To give one example, we had children who were in Korean American homes. They spoke Korean with their families, and all of their parents had moved to the US as adults, and so they were non-native speakers of English. These kids really, they liked – on our simple behavioral task – they said they liked new people who spoke in Korean, and they liked new people who spoke in American English, and they didn’t like people who spoke in Korean-accented English.
So, even though they’re getting a tremendous amount of input in their communities, their social preferences are aligning both with their language learning and with the language of their peers.
Carrie Gillon: That makes me wonder, is there anything we can do about this? Because you said earlier that we’re not there yet, we don’t even really talk about this, but if we did, how successful would we be at getting kids to like all the people not just the people who spoke Korean or American English?
Katherine D. Kinzler: We can at least do some work. I think that that’s right – that it’s imposs – imagine the hypothetical of a child who has no social boundaries based on language and thinks that the link between language and social life is completely arbitrary. That’s just never gonna happen because that’s not how humans work. That’s not how language works. It makes me think of examples where people say, “Well, why doesn’t everyone just speak English in the same way? Why don’t we just cut out all this nonsense? Wouldn’t that be easier?” But, of course, that’s not how language works. That’s never gonna happen.
Likewise, kids are always gonna have social attitudes about language because they’re kids, and they have social attitudes, and languages differ. That said, I think that children can be more open-minded. Being exposed to linguistic diversity is a form of diversity that I think is really powerful and really important for kids. Some of my work and other colleagues’ work suggests that when you’re in an environment where different languages are spoken that it increases your perspective taking, I think because you’re engaged in linguistic perspective taking all the time. You’re getting this practice thinking about who knows what, and who speaks what to who, and in what different contexts do we speak different languages. In that sense, I think exposure to diversity in general but also in particular via languages is really important.
Megan Figueroa: You get an ear for these things. I was talking actually with some people about these so-called “accent reduction classes” and how we never talk about – like, I was saying “Why don’t we have accent recognition classes?” Because you just need exposure to these things, and you start to have an ear for it. I’m actually really bad at listening to British English. Sometimes I can’t really understand it. But I’m getting better at it because I watch so many Netflix shows that are, you know, people speaking British English. It didn’t come – I wasn’t just used to it automatically, I had to practice with it. I think about those things too about, you know, linguistic diversity is important in that way because you can start to have an ear for these things.
Katherine D. Kinzler: There’s evidence that we have this close to home advantage in accent recognition. It’s a lot easier to detect differences in accent when they’re around you, versus if you’re an American English speaker hearing differences among British Accents is really hard – which I always think is a really nice example when people talk about linguistic biases and how people think that British accented speech sounds smart and status-y or something. But of course, as an American, you could be listening to a voice that in Britain wouldn’t be seen as high class, and it sounds classy to you because, of course, you would have a completely different social reference point. But I do think that being exposed to multiple languages makes you better at hearing them. Absolutely.
Carrie Gillon: John Oliver talks about how he knows he does not sound posh in the UK at all. But in the US –
Megan Figueroa: Oh, he doesn’t? I mean, I watch him all the time, but he – really?
Katherine D. Kinzler: Yeah. He has a hysterical segment about that – about how great he sounds here, but he knows that’s not how he sounds to his own ear.
[Clip John Oliver speaking]
My British accent does not sound intellectual. Believe me. I sound like a chimney sweep passing through a woodchipper.
Carrie Gillon: You told a story about your friend who had never even considered linguistic diversity as a thing to be concerned with. And, I mean, I already know the answer to the first question. Do you think this is a common way to think, and then what can we do to encourage knowledge of linguistic diversity?
Katherine D. Kinzler: Right? I do think that’s a common way to think to just not really reflect on it. I think that these kinds of conversations are really important to start having. I hope that people, once they start to think about linguistic diversity in their own lives, they’ll start to notice it everywhere either its absence or its presence.
Carrie Gillon: It’s definitely something that I come across a lot. It ties in to some of the things that you said early too. Like, a lot of people have said to me, “Oh, who cares if these languages are dying? Why don’t we just all speak the same language? There’ll be less war.” I mean, these are all, obviously, ridiculous things to say, but they’re very common.
Katherine D. Kinzler: I think that they reflect a lack of awareness about what language is and how it’s learned and its social meaning. They’re wrong, but they’re common because of a lot of societal misunderstandings around language. I mean, another one is the idea that “I don’t have an accent, but everybody else does,” which of course doesn’t make any sense. Everybody speaks with an accent. But it’s really common for people to think that they don’t or that they’re a really objective listener when, of course, there’s so much subjectivity to how we perceive things, and what we understand.
Carrie Gillon: You also have to believe that there’s an objective way to pronounce any single sound, which there’s no such thing.
Megan Figueroa: I remember being small and talking to my aunt who lives in Arkansas on the phone. She was like, “Oh, Megan, you have such a strong accent.” I remember being very upset. Like, “That’s so mean! Why would you say that to me? No, you have the strong accent!” like it was something to be ashamed of.
Speaking of Southern American English, can you describe your study about Southern American English? Which Carrie mentioned earlier, we’ve talked about before on the pod.
Katherine D. Kinzler: Sure. We were interested in the development of linguistic stereotypes in childhood. Of course, there’s a lot of stereotypes in the US about Northern American English versus Southern American English. As linguists, I’m sure you know that that’s not just one thing. There’s a lot of different variants in each. But cognitively, back to the social cognition, in people’s minds, often they group all of the different dialect variants in the South into one bucket. People have stereotypes about Northerners and Southerners as being different kinds of people.
So, when you hear a voice, you might infer something about an individual even, of course, if you have absolutely no idea what that particular individual is like – if they are friendly or not, or smart or not – you might think you know something based on their accent. We played kids in the North and in the South voices of Northerners and Southerners. First, we asked 5- and 6-year-olds to evaluate them. These were kids in kindergarten. We found that kids in the North liked the Northern accented speech better than the Southern accented speech, but they didn’t really know much about it. If you asked them, they’d say something like, “Oh, maybe they’re from Australia.” I mean, they had absolutely no idea. They just named something that’s far away.
The kids in the South seemed to like both equally, which I think actually makes a lot of sense if you think about what they’re exposed to, particularly if you consider media exposure. And, as we all know, kids watch a lot of media. Then, we tested a group of 9- and 10-year-old kids. These were 4th graders in both locations. There we found that in both places kids thought that the Northerners sounded smarter and in charge and the Southerners sounded nicer, which I found pretty surprising in many ways. I thought that maybe kids would endorse positive stereotypes about their own group but not necessarily one that put the other group in a better light.
You might imagine a kid from the North saying something like, “Oh, the Northerner sounds smarter, but I don’t know who sounds nicer,” or “They’re equal,” or something like that. But kids in both places seemed to be gaining access to the same stereotypes. They included positive things about their own way of speaking and less positive things. These cultural attitudes are seeping into kids even if it’s not entirely clear what the source is.
Carrie Gillon: It reminds me of that study – it’s an old study now – where they had black children – black girls, I think – picking out the dolls that they liked best, and they picked the white dolls. I don’t know if that would still hold true now, but whenever the study was first done, that was the case. You just absorb whatever’s in the society no matter whether it’s good or bad about your own group.
Katherine D. Kinzler: Yeah. You can see that with regard to race attitudes that it’s complicated. You could have an in-group positivity, and you can also absorb racist attitudes that society has. Of course, when we think about language attitudes, you see the same thing in adults. Labov and others have talked about linguistic insecurity and this idea that you can speak in a way that society considers to be non-standard, and you can feel bad about your own speech which, of course, is really hard insofar as your speech is connected to your identity. It becomes really complicated and really disheartening.
Carrie Gillon: You also discuss anti-discrimination legal scholar Mari Matsuda who describes how okay people are with their own linguistic bias. This is the quote, “Listening to these and other stories, I have found that accent discrimination is commonplace, natural, and socially acceptable. People who know of my strong commitment to civil rights felt no hesitation in telling me things like, ‘I couldn’t have someone who sounds like that represent our law school’ or ‘People who talk like that sound so dumb’ or ‘My business could not survive if I had to hire people with foreign accents.’” That’s the end of the quote.
We, as podcasters, have also experienced this – especially at the very beginning. Our first episode is about vocal fry. We had so many people tell us, “Oh, no, no, vocal fry is bad,” even though we were obviously saying the opposite. It’s difficult to know what to do in this situation. What do you think we can do? All of us – but us in particular as well?
Katherine D. Kinzler: I mean, it’s so hard. It’s back to your question about are we afraid to talk about linguistic diversity and – here we are? No, we’re not afraid because we don’t even realize that we should try to check our biases. We’re not even explicitly motivated to control our prejudice. Now, I think that when you listen to those arguments that she talks about – the idea of, well, maybe I’d understand somebody, but my customers wouldn’t, something like this – that these are all the same kinds of arguments that people use to engage in race-related discrimination. We have protection – we have employment protection – against discrimination based on race, and gender, and national origin, and other factors. The idea is that you can’t be prejudiced yourself and you also can’t make hiring and firing decisions in order to cater to the prejudice of other people.
I think it’s something when we think about language that we need to be just as aware about, that we need to think just because somebody else wouldn’t like this accent, that’s not a grounds to cater to that. That’s prejudice. Here, what we’re doing is we’re saying that we’re making decisions that are made with a non-prejudiced listener in mind.
Megan Figueroa: Race is protected by the law, but language is not. There’s still that issue.
Katherine D. Kinzler: That’s right. I think it’s an important issue to think about. Now, insofar as accent is being used as a cue to national group membership, it’s protected. For instance, as an employer, you can’t just say, “Oh, well, I don’t like the way you speak, and it makes me realize that you’re from this country that I don’t like, and so I’m not gonna hire you.” You can’t do that. The problem is that linguistic bias can be so much more subtle than that. If you feel that somebody isn’t a good communicator, and you say, “Oh, it’s nothing against your national origin, it’s just that you’re not very clear in you communication, and I really need a clear communicator for this job.” Then, at that point, a communication decision can be legal.
Of course, as we know, communication is really subject to bias. It’s not just about the person producing the speech. It’s also about the listener. Listeners can distort somebody’s speech in their mind. They can shut down and stop listening when they don’t like the way somebody’s speaking. It requires a much more careful or fine-grained approach to really understand whether it’s actually about communication or it’s actually about prejudice.
Carrie Gillon: There’s a nice quote from your book that’s directly related to what we’re talking about. “Linguistic discrimination should be part of our national and judicial consciousness. We should make an effort to curb it in our legal system and our minds.” So, we with our podcast are trying to do something on the minds front. But what can we do on the legal front, do you think?
Katherine D. Kinzler: I’m not a lawyer, admittedly. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: Neither are we.
Katherine D. Kinzler: But I think that making people aware of this in their minds makes it easier for others to make the argument that this is something that could and should be changed. There’s a number that legal cases that come up where somebody claims accent discrimination, but it’s often – it has to be phrased as this national origin discrimination because if it’s just about accents, it doesn’t count. It needs to fall under one of the pre-existing categories. I do think that increased conversation and awareness about it is something that can change a national dialog which can then, of course, have legal or policy implications down the road.
Megan Figueroa: That’s so frustrating because national origin, I mean, in the United States someone from the South might be discriminated against and how do we do the national origin argument.
Katherine D. Kinzler: Exactly. And you can’t, right? So, that wouldn’t fall into a national origin argument but yet could be a reason that somebody is discriminated against in an employment context.
Carrie Gillon: What about if it’s race? So, if someone is speaking with African American Language, if someone hears it, and they somehow manage to say the quiet part out loud, then could it be treated as a racial argument?
Katherine D. Kinzler: I think that if it’s clearly about race, and it’s clearly racially motivated, then it would be protected. But, again, you get in these grey zones where people say that it’s just about a communication issue, not about race. Of course, I think this is where you start to see these really insidious forms of racism because it’s really easy to say something like, “Oh, I’m not racist. I’m just responding to someone’s speech in a negative way that has nothing to do with race.” Of course, it has everything to do with race.
Carrie Gillon: Do you have one final thought for our listeners?
Katherine D. Kinzler: I think that we need to work towards a revolution in how we think about language in the US. I really worry given all the crises we have right now in the world and with education that it’s really easy to think of language learning as something that’s kind of icing on the cake or something we do that’s extra after the real important subjects are met. I think that learning languages is critical for all of us, and it’s critical for kids. It’s critical for kids who just hear English at home to have the opportunity to learn a different language in school. It’s critical for kids who hear languages other than English at home to have the opportunity to learn English in schools. Our national discourse around the importance of language learning – I hope that that’s something that we can shift.
Carrie Gillon: This reminds me of a conversation that’s related. In the language revitalization space, people have been worrying, “Are we just gonna be pushed to the side?” Because everyone’s worried about COVID, worried about getting food on the table, and just all these basic things. But there’s this article in Slate about this about how, actually, there’s more space in some communities for language revitalization. It’s partially just us saying, “No! This is actually basic. We pretend it’s extra, but it’s actually basic.”
Megan Figueroa: “Basic” in the, like, you know – not the bad way.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah, yeah, yeah! [Laughter] Definitely don’t mean basic.
Katherine D. Kinzler: And so many schools don’t start teaching foreign languages until middle school if at all. It’s just such a wasted moment in childhood to teach kids languages when they’re best able to learn them.
Carrie Gillon: I was in Grade 5 when I first started learning French, and I think, yeah, it would’ve been so much better if it had been earlier.
Megan Figueroa: Grade 5, that’s lucky! I was in high school before I got to learn a language other than English.
Carrie Gillon: Well, thank you. This has been such a great conversation.
Katherine D. Kinzler: Oh, thank you so much for having me on. It’s really interesting speaking with you both.
Carrie Gillon: We always leave our listeners with a final message. Don’t be an asshole!
Megan Figueroa: Don’t be an asshole. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: The Vocal Fries podcast is produced by me, Carrie Gillon, for Halftone Audio. Theme music by Nick Granum. You can find us on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @VocalFriesPod. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and our website is vocalfriespod.com.