Megan Figueroa: Hi, and welcome to the Vocal Fries podcast, the podcast about linguistic discrimination!
Carrie Gillon: I’m Carrie Gillon.
Megan Figueroa: And I’m Megan Figueroa.
Carrie Gillon: Today, we have a guest to talk about foreign accents and how we discriminate against them, so that’s exciting.
Megan Figueroa: Yes. And super relevant, always.
Carrie Gillon: Always.
Megan Figueroa: I feel like there’s always a news article that’s about someone being an asshole about foreign accents or accents they perceive to be foreign.
Carrie Gillon: It’s always a good one.
Megan Figueroa: But we do have some adorable news. Well, I dunno if I’d call it “news,” but we had the most awesome shout out from a podcast called How to Make a Memory with Jennifer Tierney. I was delighted when I heard it.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah, me too! That was very sweet.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. And I totally understand the feeling of wanting to be – she mentioned wanting to be internet friends, and I totally get it. [Laughter] It’s like, there’re people that I’m like, “I want to be” – like with the My Favorite Murder ladies, I’m like, “I want to be internet friends. Let’s be friends.” So, it was super sweet to hear someone say that about us.
Carrie Gillon: So, hi, internet friend!
Megan Figueroa: Yay! Internet friends!
Carrie Gillon: How I found out that she even talked about us was through – so her podcast has just joined I think it’s called the Legend Podcast Network run by Matt Mitchell from Geekend Warriors. I just had a conversation with him yesterday, and he pointed out something about our discussion about “literally” and all those words, but he was talking about “irregardless” and how, apparently – I did not know this; I don’t have this stereotype – but stereotypically people associate “irregardless” with Latino people and culture. So, maybe that is why that woman who wrote the “15 Words You Should Get Rid of From Your Vocabulary” – or however many it was – why she ended her post with “Jefe.”
Megan Figueroa: I think it was specifically about “irregardless,” was it not?
Carrie Gillon: Probably. I’ve already forgotten, so let’s say yes.
Megan Figueroa: Yes, let’s just make it worse on her.
Carrie Gillon: So, that’s why she used it because she was primed by this.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. And I mean, I feel like when you write something that’s eventually edited, maybe you take out the things that are super racist that you were primed to write. That was not – I mean, again, this is only speculation, but from other evidence that we’re drawing upon – but it’s like, that’s not cool, lady. That’s way more offensive than I was thinking. I was already offended because I was like, “There’s something wrong here,” but if that’s what she’s picking up on.
Carrie Gillon: Because it didn’t make sense. If she was using it the literal Spanish way, why are you calling your readers “boss”? That doesn’t make any sense. And if you’re using it in the sort of more casual English way – which I don’t really understand what it really means in English, but that’s whatever – it still didn’t feel right. Something felt wrong. But then I was like, “Well, maybe there’s a real legitimate reason to use it.” No. No, I think you’re right. I think it was racist/ethnicist.
Megan Figueroa: We googled because that’s how you find – oh, no, okay, so listen. Before I say – [laughs]. So, I looked it up. Yeah, “15 Words You Need to Eliminate.” She definitely says “Jefe” under “15. Irregardless.” “This doesn’t mean what you think it means, Jefe.” Oh, shit, that’s so racist. Oh, great. Or ethnicist. That’s fantastic. All right.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah, no, he was absolutely right. Thank you, Matt, for letting us know because I really didn’t know. I feel like I should have known, but for some reason, this is just not a stereotype that I have at all.
Megan Figueroa: I feel like I super should have known. But, since we didn’t, we googled it, and we found the Miami New Times has a little primer on Miami slang, and it has “irregardless” in there.
Carrie Gillon: They claim that it’s Miami for “regardless,” which is silly because it’s way bigger than that. But it does tell us something about how it’s perceived.
Megan Figueroa: Especially since this article seems to be related to Spanish – at least influenced by Spanish speakers or influenced by people in that community. They also have, I wanted to point out, “literally.” They say, “Like millennials everywhere, young Miamians are prone to overuse and misuse the word ‘literally’.”
Carrie Gillon: [Sighs]
Megan Figueroa: “But it literally might be more ‘ubiquous’ – ubiquitous” – [laughter].
Carrie Gillon: “U-BIQ-uitous.”
Megan Figueroa: It’s just not a word I ever say, Carrie.
Carrie Gillon: I know. I know. I’m sorry. It was just so cute. And I would’ve done the same thing. I would’ve done the exact same thing.
Megan Figueroa: “It might be more ubiquitous here than anywhere else.” Yeah. It’s not – probably. I mean, yeah. So, there, again, is this ageist assumption that “literally” is just quote-unquote “overused” by young people. And again, misuse/overuse – #GetOverIt.
Carrie Gillon: I can’t wait for the next generation to get picked on because it’s gonna be all the same stuff – every single thing.
Megan Figueroa: Yep. I know. I mean, I guess I’m gonna be the generation that’s gonna be picking on since I’m a millennial but –
Carrie Gillon: Just remember how picked on you were. For some reason Gen X forgot how much we were picked on. We were the slacker generation, so there’s all this like, how lazy we were – all this stuff – and none of that turned out to be true. Anyway. I mean, first of all, generations are completely socially constructed. There’s nothing there at all, right. It’s just like, “Oh, we’re just gonna carve up humanity into these slices.” But even setting that aside, just pretending that it’s real, the generalizations made are almost always the same from one to the next. And it’s always bad – “Those young people! Wow, do they really suck today.” Sing a different tune.
Megan Figueroa: Yes! It’s getting boring. I’m bored with your hatred.
Carrie Gillon: It is very boring.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. All right. So, that Time article was worse than we thought. Fantastic. That’s the moral of that story.
Carrie Gillon: If you think it’s probably a little racist or ethnicist or something-ist, it probably is. It probably is. Sometimes it isn’t. And I do wanna make sure that we at least give the benefit of the doubt until we have evidence, but just in the back of your head file it away as “Hmm, this makes me uncomfortable.”
Megan Figueroa: “And why does that make me uncomfortable?” Sit with that and question it because that’s – you know. We could all do that a little bit more. I don’t want people to be like – I don’t wanna be like, “I want you to feel uncomfortable,” but also that’s where growth is.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah, no, uncomfortable is good. I mean, you don’t do it 24/7. You do need to have your comfortable time where you’re in your pajamas and not doing anything, but you do need to be discomforted sometimes. And then one more thing. We don’t know what we’re gonna be doing yet, but we are going to be at Phoenix Comic Fest, formerly known as ‘Phoemic’ – Phoenix [laughter].
Megan Figueroa: “U-BIQ-uitous.”
Carrie Gillon: Exactly. It comes back to bite you. Phoenix Comicon, which we no longer call it “Comicon” because of the San Diego Comicon. But anyway.
Megan Figueroa: They were like, “We want it. We started it. You can’t have it.”
Carrie Gillon: So, they sued Denver, and they won. But before they even won, Phoenix decided, “Eh, not worth fighting.” So, they changed it to “Comic Fest.” Hopefully, we’ll be doing something around linguistic discrimination, but we don’t know yet. We’ll let you know.
Megan Figueroa: That’s exciting. I’m really excited.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah, me too.
Megan Figueroa: This is peak nerd for me.
Carrie Gillon: I’ve already done it. The one that was probably the nerdiest was the constructed languages one. No matter what we do, it won’t be as nerdy as that.
Megan Figueroa: Okay, well, you’re just trying to take it away from me. Thanks a lot.
Carrie Gillon: No, I’m just saying I’m nerdier, I guess, which is not necessarily a good thing.
Megan Figueroa: Well, you are. That’s true. You are nerdier.
Carrie Gillon: It’s true. It’s not a judgement.
Megan Figueroa: You can say, “I can’t help it that I was born so cool.” [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: Yeah.
Megan Figueroa: Well, maybe on that note. Shall we?
Carrie Gillon: Now, we will be talking with Ethan Kutlu of the University of Florida about foreign accents and the discrimination against people who have one.
Megan Figueroa: Yay!
Carrie Gillon: Okay. Today we have another guest. Ethan Kutlu is a PhD student at the University of Florida. He works on bilingualism, socio-phonetics, and cognitive science. He’s trying to understand the differences between first and second language acquisition and, probably more importantly for what we’re gonna be talking about today, he’s currently a member of the team investigating factors impacting native speakers foreign accented speech judgements. Welcome, Ethan.
Ethan Kutlu: Hi! Hi, Carrie. Hi, Megan. Hi, everyone.
Carrie Gillon: Thanks for being on the show!
Ethan Kutlu: Thanks for having me.
Carrie Gillon: Of course.
Megan Figueroa: Oh, so you’re in Florida right now.
Ethan Kutlu: Yeah, I’m in Gainesville, Florida. Exactly.
Megan Figueroa: I’ve actually heard a lot of good things about Gainesville.
Ethan Kutlu: Yeah, Gainesville is an excellent city. I’m enjoying it a lot.
Megan Figueroa: Well, that’s good.
Carrie Gillon: Cool!
Megan Figueroa: Awesome. Did you do your master’s before you started your PhD?
Ethan Kutlu: Yes, I did my master’s in Canada in cognitive sciences.
Megan Figueroa: Okay. Because I was wondering if this is the first time in the US for the PhD?
Ethan Kutlu: Yeah, uh-huh, that’s my first – yeah, I mean, I’m here for the last three years but, before that, I haven’t been to the US. Yeah.
Carrie Gillon: Actually, I met Ethan – sort of kind of met Ethan – through my friend Solveiga Armoskaite who was in the same location. At the same university? Right. Yeah. You guys were at the same university, right?
Ethan Kutlu: Yeah.
Megan Figueroa: In Canada?
Carrie Gillon: Yeah, they were in Ottawa together.
Megan Figueroa: Okay, cool.
Carrie Gillon: Okay. So, let’s begin with what we’re actually here to talk about which is foreign accented speech.
Megan Figueroa: I mean, I feel like it’s always – I was gonna say I feel it’s in the forefront of media, but it’s always important. There’s always something about foreign accented speech because people are always being assholes. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: Well, to most foreign accents, I guess – not all. Because British accents are not really discriminated against in the US.
Megan Figueroa: Right. That’s true.
Ethan Kutlu: Exactly, yeah. That’s actually what I’m working on because – so what we have right now is that people, when they say that, “Oh, this person sounds accented,” it might go both ways actually because it might sound like, “Oh, they have a prestigious accent,” so they might be from a country that has prestige over other countries, or “Oh, this person has an accent, so I’m not gonna even pay attention because they’re not from here.” That’s very crucial information for especially our society right now.
Megan Figueroa: I guess we should just start as if Megan knows nothing and just – what is an accent?
Ethan Kutlu: That’s an excellent question because – from a scientific point of view –there’s no answer for that right now. Believe it or not, it’s a very complex terminology that people just throw it in in a bunch of different scenarios, but they don’t know why they’re using that term. The way, in the past, when people used “accent,” it was related to intelligibility. Intelligibility is a phonetic measure, and it’s actually an object of measure that we can ask people how they perceive certain sounds or certain words or certain sentences, and we want them either to pronounce it out loud or we want them to type it. From their errors, we can actually count how much they understood from that utterance. That’s the object of measure.
But when it comes to accentedness, it’s very subjective. It’s how you feel about certain sounds or certain people and how they speak. In the past, as I mentioned, it was related to, somehow, intelligibility, but right now, we have studies suggesting that we can actually understand certain populations very well with no problems in terms of speech perception, but we still love to label those populations as, “Oh, it’s very accented.” The terminology itself is actually evolving as the society is evolving and the languages are evolving. It’s hard to keep up with it because it’s changing from populations to populations, from countries to countries, and we use it every day, almost.
Megan Figueroa: I’ve never actually thought about how to define an accent changes from population to population. We all have our own definition of what an accent is, yeah.
Ethan Kutlu: Exactly. Yeah. And every person has their own accent. If you, for instance, while you’re listening to me, you might hear certain – because English is my third language. I was not even exposed to English until the age of 15. And when I was exposed to that, I was back in Turkey, and I heard it from Turkish people who acquired English as a second language, so I never heard the difference between, for instance, an interdental sound like /θ/ and a /t/ sound. For me back then, they were the same sound.
When I moved to Canada, all of a sudden, I was like, “Oh, okay. There is this interdental sound. Either Canadians pronounce things differently, or I have no idea about English.” I had to acquire that sound, so you might hear some certain Turkish features coming out right now when I’m speaking. I also have that Canadian raising for my vowels in certain contexts. Now, also I have the Southern English, so I might also throw in a certain Southern accent. It makes me unique in a way that I have these three combinations from different geographical places. You can actually trace that back to the origin. That’s what is fascinating about accents.
Megan Figueroa: I’m thinking about – even within you you’re saying how you have this Canadian influence and then the Southern influence now – I’m thinking about hierarchy of accents and how – we’ve talked about Southern English on this show – Southern English is completely disparaged in the US.
Ethan Kutlu: Exactly. Yeah. Again, that goes to the side of prestige because in the United States, at least, Southern English is not considered as a prestigious accent. Southern people are most of the times considered as uneducated, or they don’t pay attention to how they speak, but we know that it’s not true because you can be very well educated but have a Southern accent.
If you compare that to the United Kingdom, for instance, how we look at England and how we look at the Queen’s English, which is known also as RP, “Received Pronunciation,” the Queen speaks with a Southern accent where in the United Kingdom, “south” refers to the best part of the country. Sometimes the geographical parts of how language interacts with geography and how that interacts with socioeconomic status, it’s also very amazing.
Carrie Gillon: And also, Canadian raising is mocked in the United States, too.
Ethan Kutlu: [Laughter] Yeah, exactly.
Carrie Gillon: You’re getting mocked from all directions.
Ethan Kutlu: Yep! That’s my life.
Carrie Gillon: Are some people better at understanding foreign accents?
Ethan Kutlu: That’s actually what I’m working on for my dissertation because there’s evidence suggesting that if you are exposed to different types of languages or different types of accents, you’re actually better at understanding, again, people from – a foreign accent – or even dialectal differences. But you have to be exposed to a bunch of different varieties within the language, and that will feed how you access those words in your own brain.
Because what we do in our brain is that we collect that data and we separate that into segments and suprasegments, and the more you have exposure to different varieties, you’re actually expanding your dictionary in the brain that helps you to access the lexicon. I can easily say that having exposure to a bunch of different varieties is actually very beneficial. We observe that especially in bilinguals that they are very quick at accessing different information constantly.
Megan Figueroa: Another thing that bilinguals are better at. [Laughter]
Ethan Kutlu: Exactly.
Carrie Gillon: “Bilingualism is better.”
Megan Figueroa: “Multilingualism.”
Ethan Kutlu: Yep.
Megan Figueroa: I was just gonna say that this makes – I was watching The Great British Baking Show with my friend, and I was having trouble understanding some of them. And she was like, “Just wait. Just wait. Once you start bingeing this, you’re gonna get better at understanding them.” And it’s true! I’m getting a little bit better each time. That totally makes sense to me.
Ethan Kutlu: Yeah. Because when you’re exposed to a certain dialect or accent at the first time, that’s the intelligibility part because you’re not expecting to hear certain variants of sounds, so you’re kind of surprised or you’re trying to make sense of what’s happening. Because it’s a different way of speaking the same language, right. What happens with exposure, your brain actually collects that data, and it categorizes sounds in a way that, “Oh, okay, this should go with this sound, and this should go with these sounds.” Then you try to come up with, “Okay, yeah, now I understand. There’s no issue.”
Megan Figueroa: I’m seeing your cognitive science background. I love it!
Ethan Kutlu: It surfaces in my life a lot. I can’t stop that.
Carrie Gillon: Nor should you.
Ethan Kutlu: Yeah.
Carrie Gillon: You actually mentioned earlier that English is your third language. I’m assuming your first language is Turkish.
Ethan Kutlu: Yes.
Carrie Gillon: What’s your second language?
Ethan Kutlu: I acquired French before English. But if you ask me whether I can speak French right now, that is not the case. I can understand it, but because I haven’t been speaking for a long time, I think I lost the production. But I think I maintained the comprehension part. It’s very bad. It’s terrible. I don’t know why it happened, but it’s – I think I focused on English a lot and just kind of postponed French for a little while.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. It’s hard when you’re not speaking a particular language. You don’t have the practice. So, yeah, my French is gone. Whatever I had before it’s – yeah. I mean, I do understand some of it. Not as much as I used to. But production, yeah, it’s not great.
Megan Figueroa: I’m thinking about how ya’ll are talking about second languages/third languages you speak. I feel like for some people they’re intimidated by learning another language because they’re afraid of sounding accented or having an accent.
Ethan Kutlu: That’s the biggest issue in bilingualism and multilingualism, especially in the North American context right now. Because when we look at European countries, being a bilingual or multilingual is actually the standard. You have to maintain a bunch of different languages, and people don’t make fun of your accent, or they don’t label you, “Oh, you don’t sound as someone from Belgium.” We don’t hear those. People generally say, “Oh, you speak Belgian French,” for instance.
But when it comes to the United States, we actually have, again, studies looking at immigrant populations or people who came here a long time ago, and their children right now are actually showing a lot of depression patterns because they feel that they’re singled out, they’re left out in their communities or at school – especially in the school environment, so at the education level – because their friends or peers call them as, “Oh, you sound weird” or “You sound different than us.” That us versus them distinction happens a lot when you speak more than one language.
It’s such a shame because, again, a lot of bilingual studies are suggesting that the bilingual population is actually very unique in a way that you know when to use which language. Because sometimes those people use both languages at the same time, which we call the “codeswitching” context, that they know that the population actually understands both languages at the same time. So, they maintain both languages. But in another context, they might say, “Oh, no, this is specifically an English-speaking context, so I should maintain English and” – for instance – “stop my French coming out.” They have that control ability of two languages.
It’s amazing because it’s lifelong training. When you hear that, oh, but these people are left out because they sound different, it’s just heartbreaking because that’s gonna be our future. Those kids will be growing up feeling left out, and questioning themselves, and that also leads to another problem about identity. A lot of bilingual kids want to leave one of their identities just to sound perfectly American or sound perfectly, I dunno, Southern American English. They cannot maintain it because their communities don’t allow them to maintain both. That’s a huge problem.
Megan Figueroa: I guess I’m the only American here. So, let me just say the biggest problem in America, one of them, is –
Carrie Gillon: I was gonna say, “Wait, what?”
Megan Figueroa: One of them. Sorry. Sorry. [Laughter] One of the biggest problems with America is this us versus them mentality. It’s horrifying to me. It’s disgusting. You said it – accented speech or kids that grow up speaking Spanish and they try to get rid of Spanish because they wanna fit in when they go to English-speaking schools, it’s just horrible that we’re doing this to kids. It’s totally the us versus them thing. They want to be an “us,” right. It’s survival. It’s absolutely just heartbreaking. We really need to fix it. America needs to fix a lot of things.
Ethan Kutlu: There’ll be a lot of power coming from understanding different populations and how we can make everything – instead of looking at separate groups as out-groups, maintaining an in-group mentality. Then we can actually advance because from all our individual uniqueness we can form a better society. I think it’s kind of a utopia, but still, I think we should work on that.
Carrie Gillon: Me too. I mean, it’s true that you’re never gonna get a perfect society because that’s just not how humans are, but we can make things better. One way we can make it better is to be more accepting of other people and other ways of talking.
Megan Figueroa: I mean, the first step is realizing how we are othering people so much by the way we speak, or how we’re judging people by the way that we speak. I think the first step is acknowledging it. It really is.
Ethan Kutlu: Some evolutionary linguists actually assume that accentedness, at least, evolved with our own evolutionary path, that it was an alert system for us to, “Oh, this person is not from our group. This person is not from our community.” We got very sensitive to certain phonological or phonetic differences or variants that we can detect that single feature not being from our community, so we can easily say, “Oh, this person is from the outside. This is an outsider.”
But in time, we take that alert system to an extreme level of leaving people out and labeling them and causing them depression. It’s the unfortunate way of using our evolutionary path to make sense of the world. Because when you look at it, it could make sense that, okay, yeah, I understand the difference, that it sounds different, that that person might be an outsider, but it doesn’t mean that that person is less of a human or less of my own kind. That’s the part that’s killing us.
We don’t do it when Queen Elizabeth speaks RP. We don’t do that when someone with a slight French flavored English speaks to us because we love those other accents that are prestigious. We love to hear them. Again, studies suggest that when people have that European-sounding, Americans actually love that, and they fall in love easily. It’s not always a threat for us.
But when we hear, for instance, someone speaking with an Indian English, in the United States, or with features of Asian languages, then we kind of stop, and it’s like, “Okay, no, I cannot accept that. I cannot even understand it. I cannot even listen to this.” It surfaces a lot in institutions like universities because in the United States a lot of the graduate students are international students, and a lot of these students have fellowships that requires them to teach or to interact with undergraduate students.
On that side, for instance, I am very lucky because at the University of Florida we don’t have the same policies, especially my department. I am very lucky because I’m an international student, and I’ve never been treated like that. But I also know cases in the United States where certain international students were banned from teaching because undergraduate students did not like their accents. That’s a terrible thing because you come to a country to have an education, but then people say that, “Oh, I don’t understand you, so you cannot teach me.”
Carrie Gillon: Another problem is student evaluations, by the way. I’ve seen horror stories about student evaluations where students just totally shit on people’s way of speaking and their accents. It’s terrible.
Ethan Kutlu: Yeah. Carrie, I think you guys shared on Vocal Fries about the Canadian incident where one lecturer was labeled as being accented, and students hated her on RateMyProfessors, I think. Those stories are always emerging because students don’t appreciate the variety – or students don’t appreciate accents. They just look at it from a perspective that, okay, this person sounds different and they look different from what we look, so I’m just gonna go ahead and not listen to that person.
Megan Figueroa: I think that’s important, too, the they look different than we look because, as Carrie said at the beginning, British accents we’re like, “Ooo!” Or like, Australian, like, “Oh, it’s very” – I’ve heard like, “Oh, it’s very sexy.” People will actually think it’s an advantage. But these people are mostly white, right, when we talk about –
Ethan Kutlu: Exactly. There’s that part of accentedness going with race and ethnicity because if you belong to a race or an ethnic group that’s totally different from the context that you’re looking at, and if you have slight deviations with the language at the language level, then you are more likely to be judged heavily in terms of your accent, whereas if you’re falling under being white and being in countries that are close to the United States, then you’re likely to be judged as, “Oh, it’s a prestigious accent. If they’re from Britain or if they’re from Australia, they’re good people.”
Carrie Gillon: This is why I’m a little bit suspicious about the evolutionary claim because we only use these differences against other people when it suits other agendas. I mean, maybe we were evolutionarily – not “designed” exactly – but pushed to hear differences, but we only use it in a bad way when it suits us.
Ethan Kutlu: Exactly. At that level, it really interacts with the political situation all around the world because we take that evolutionary path in a way that, “Oh, I’m gonna use it for my purposes because if it serves me, then I’m fine, but if it doesn’t, then I’m gonna just keep labeling other people.” It goes really well with the political situation and geographical situation right now in the world. Definitely, yeah.
Carrie Gillon: What I’m hearing is that some of the accents that are the most judged – and I agree with this, so let me know if I’m getting this wrong – but mainly Asian accents are treated as the worst. Is that right?
Ethan Kutlu: I would say Asian and South Asian. If you’re looking at any type of societies that are falling under East Asia or South Asia, they will be judged as heavily accented.
Carrie Gillon: From my own personal experience, I would definitely say that that’s true. I remember when I first got to university as an undergrad, one of my professors was I think Korean, certainly East Asian anyway, and many of the other students were just like, “I can’t understand him at all.” And I was like – he did speak fast, and it was math, so it was very difficult – but I didn’t think that the intelligibility was as bad as many of the other students said. I definitely noticed the racism back then.
Ethan Kutlu: And right now, again, because universities are also changing in a way that, “Oh, we have to have this as a marketing issue that, oh, we have all lecturers speaking in the best way possible because all our students will benefit from that.” And we maintain the idea, unfortunately, that is affecting a lot of graduate students and also lecturers, even tenure track position faculty members as well. Because if one student says, “Oh, no, I couldn’t understand this person because they had an accent,” then it’s probably the ending for that person, which is terrible.
Carrie Gillon: Agreed. I actually was on a – not a committee – every once in a while, I would be asked to come in and judge people’s ability to be TAs. One of the criteria was really “How intelligible are they?” It was very unsettling, but I was really trying to make sure that, yes, actually this person is not being a good teacher as opposed to only being slightly accented. Because there were a couple of times when the other judges on the panel would be like, “Oh, I just didn’t understand them at all,” and I was like, “No. They were fine.”
Ethan Kutlu: That’s another issue, especially – that’s one application. But we when we look at linguistic studies, we also see that emerging a lot in the data that we’re collecting right now because most of linguistic research is focusing on native speaker judgements and how native speakers judge certain linguistic phenomena. But then we see variation even within the United States. There are differences – grammatical differences – in Southern accents and Southern dialects, I would say, and Northern dialects. And west and east coast are different.
So, when we look at, again, linguistic studies just focusing on one single population and targeting them as standard in that – we’re not saying that that’s not how people speak or should speak, but we’re actually implicitly saying that because we are only collecting data from monolingual speakers or native speakers. I mean, thankfully, that changed a little bit in the last couple years, but still, we’re not doing a lot of progress in terms of having varieties in our own research.
Carrie Gillon: That’s true. I’m curious to know what the situation is like in Turkey. Is there any sort of similar judgement against regional dialects or foreign accents or anything like that?
Ethan Kutlu: Yeah. It happens, again, probably all around the world because in Turkey – okay. So, Turkey is a maze. There are a bunch of different ethnic groups peacefully, I think, lived in the same area for a long time, and then they lost their peace, unfortunately. We also have a lot of outsiders who moved to Turkey back in time, and they just wanted to stay there because of the nature of other opportunities.
But when we look at the populations, if you’re from the Western part of the world, you’re judged as being more polite, more educated, you sound better, whereas within Turkey, if you speak slightly with Anatolian dialects, which is the central part of Turkey, you’re not educated, people should not listen to you because probably you’re not an urban citizen, but you’re a rural citizen. And it surfaces a lot in the southern part of Turkey where we have the border with other Middle Eastern countries and where we see a lot of Kurdish-Turkish bilingualism.
So, back in time, it was a huge problem because Turkey’s constitution did not allow people to speak other languages after the republic was formed. There are reasons behind that. One reason was to form a unified county and taking extreme precautions towards separating a bunch of different ethnic groups. But then in time, it created a lot of stress on people because we didn’t let people speak their own mother tongue. Then that created a harsh environment for both Turkish people and people who live on the border and identify themselves as Kurdish or half-Kurdish/half-Turkish.
Recently we have implemented the new constitution saying that people can speak Kurdish. In some schools they can actually maintain their Kurdish. They can take Kurdish classes. But at the government level, we still don’t have enough support. I think they’re still working on that. Honestly, I don’t get updates much from Turkey as much as I did in the past. But I think they’re still working on maintaining at least Kurdish as one language in the southern part.
But then there are other dialects – we have the Black Sea Region dialect which has a lot of features from Russian and eastern parts of Turkey. They have a bunch of different dialects in there. We don’t maintain those, and they’re dying. That’s really unfortunate because, again, we singled out those individuals like, “Oh, you’re from the Black Sea Region. You probably are not educated. You’re just probably working on a farm collecting tea. You are not a good person.” Those things also happen in Turkey, even back when I was there. I’m pretty sure it’s still happening.
Carrie Gillon: It’s always the same bullshit. I mean, what’s wrong with picking tea? I drink tea every goddamn day. It’s the best.
Ethan Kutlu: That region is almost providing 95% of the entire country’s tea consumption. It’s coming from there. Turkish people love tea, so we should treat them better.
Carrie Gillon: Exactly! We should respect the people that feed us and – I guess in this case it’s not really feeding – but still, comforts us, nourishes us.
Ethan Kutlu: Exactly, yeah.
Carrie Gillon: Stop being assholes, people! [Laughter] I mean, in some ways, it makes me feel better that everybody does this. It’s just a common thing about humans. But in another way, it makes me feel worse because then I’m like, “Can we ever fix this?” I think we can get better – baby steps we can get better. But it’s still upsetting.
Megan Figueroa: I mean, that’s why we have the podcast, right? We’re hoping that there is some room for growth.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah, we’re not just titling at windmills, I hope.
Megan Figueroa: But I get what you’re saying that you’re happy – or not “happy” – but you’re glad to know that it’s not just us that are assholes.
Carrie Gillon: I mean, I knew that. It’s amazing how this urban/rural divide is just so common.
Ethan Kutlu: Again, we started doing that back in time sometime, and then we start labeling people for being hardworking and for feeding other people. That’s why we’re losing our farms today. That’s why we’re losing everything. Because those people stopped doing that after a long time of being treated as, “Oh, you’re not a good citizen. You’re just a person who’s working for us.”
Carrie Gillon: Are there any other questions, Megan?
Megan Figueroa: I guess I would ask, as a takeaway for our listeners, Ethan – why is judging foreign accents so shitty? If you just had one takeaway – if our listeners, if someone asks them tomorrow, “Why is it so shitty to judge people on their accents,” what would you want them to say?
Ethan Kutlu: What goes around comes back around. If we judge people right now with their accents, one day, another future population might judge us for our own American English, maybe. We shouldn’t do that. We should teach the world that everyone has accents, and it’s unique, and it’s what makes us perfect, and it’s what makes us human that we maintain that uniqueness about our conversations. We should just appreciate it instead of singling out people.
I had the opportunity to work with Caroline Wiltshire who works on world Englishes and Indian Englishes. She gave this example from other scholars that she heard back in time. She said accents are kind of like viruses, but they don’t damage us. We just carry them to places, and we just implement them, and from that, we grow new things. It’s one thing that we take with languages is that everyone carries without knowing it, and then we share it with other people, and other people share it with other people. And it just grows like that. We should just stop for a second and listen to people with both of our ears fully engaging in a conversation, and understand them, and try to understand, for instance, their background – why they’re here – and we should appreciate that.
Megan Figueroa: Oh, my goodness.
Carrie Gillon: That’s very sweet.
Megan Figueroa: I love it. I never thought I’d get glisten-y eyed over a virus analogy, but here I am! I love it. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: Well, we carry virus RNA in our DNA, I believe. It’s a part of us. They’re not always bad.
Ethan Kutlu: Yeah. Viruses are actually for us to connect with each other.
Megan Figueroa: I love it!
Carrie Gillon: Me too.
Megan Figueroa: Thank you so much, Ethan.
Ethan Kutlu: Thank you. Thank you for having such a great platform for – related to linguistics, first of all. I teach Introduction to Linguistics, and I keep telling my students to listen to your podcast. Some of them are listening to you. Sometimes after class they come and talk to me about the podcast. And we’re just having this great conversation. So, thank you very much for making linguistics great. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: Aww, thank you so much. That makes me very happy.
Megan Figueroa: Me too.
Carrie Gillon: This is exactly what I wanted, you know.
Ethan Kutlu: I really think we needed something like this in linguistics because linguistics is not a new field, but it was getting into this weird notion of, “Oh, we’re scientific, and we have to exclude everything,” but then we were trying to be inclusive, but then we stopped doing that. We were not inclusive. And you guys are including both linguists and non-linguist people and trying to educate the public which I think we should all do in linguistics and in other fields.
Carrie Gillon: Me too.
Megan Figueroa: Yes.
Carrie Gillon: I mean, other fields do a better job, I think, of communicating. Not all fields, but many fields do a better job of communicating what they’re doing. There’s famous physicists and famous biologists talking about their field, but there’s not that many linguists who talk about linguistics to the public – a few, but not enough.
Megan Figueroa: I mean, language is the most human thing, right, and a lot of linguists – I’m gonna say it – forget about the person, forget about the human, when they study language. I think it’s important that we don’t forget that this is a very human thing that we’re looking at.
Carrie Gillon: Perhaps the most human thing. Because remember back in the day there were all these things that humans were supposed to be unique for, like having tools and all these other things, and all of those things have been knocked down, and the only thing that really remains is language.
Megan Figueroa: Crows were like, “Bitches” – [laughter]
Carrie Gillon: “Hold my beer!”
Megan Figueroa: Yeah, exactly. “Give me that goddamn stick.”
Carrie Gillon: I love crows, by the way.
Megan Figueroa: They’re amazing.
Carrie Gillon: Okay, well, again, thank you so much. We will always leave our listeners with one final word, which is, “Don’t be an asshole!”
Megan Figueroa: Don’t be an asshole!
Ethan Kutlu: Don’t be an asshole, people!
Megan Figueroa: Yay!
Carrie Gillon: Thanks!
Ethan Kutlu: Thank you very much, guys. Thank you.
Megan Figueroa: Bye.
Carrie Gillon: Okay, bye.
Carrie Gillon: The Vocal Fries podcast is produced by Chris Ayers 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.