Saturday, September 17, 2011

Accepting Accents

Ben Trawick-Smith's Dialect Blog recently posted a short piece on "great minds who kept their accents." He lists, along with accompanying video clips, several renowned intellectuals who were able to achieve success despite speaking with a nonstandard and stigmatized language variety. Trawick-Smith comments:
It is a sad fact that we easily underestimate people because of their accents... I’ve long hoped for a world in which we no longer associate certain accents with intellectualism. And while such a world may never be possible, it’s worth noting that genius speaks in many different voices.
The major point here, of course, is that language variety is not a reliable indicator of intellectualism, and it is both unfair and unscientific to act as though it is. I've mentioned before how from an objective, scientific point of view no language form or style is inherently better or worse than any other, and it is also true that personal qualities such as intelligence cannot be linked to the way you speak. Nevertheless, people tend to act as though speech is something that can be done right or done wrong, and to discriminate heavily against those perceived as wrong. The common assumption appears to be that only one form of language is correct and that all others are wrong -- and therefore that anyone speaking differently than the standard is unintelligent. Trawick-Smith's blog post represents an excellent demonstration that language is no indication of ability.

If no accents are better or worse than any other, why do we act as though they are? And if we are interested in decreasing the amount of accent discrimination in society today, what steps can be taken to remedy the situation? As I see it, there are three broad factors that need to be addressed: under-exposure, hostile treatment, and misleading commentary.

The first factor that leads us to discriminate against people on the basis of how they sound is simply one of exposure. If we are used to a certain variety of speaking, anything different from that is going to seem unusual -- and it is all too easy to treat the unusual as incorrect. This, I think, is a natural human impulse: to treat what we are accustomed to as the norm, and any deviation as a deficit. Racists tend to have grown up without much exposure to people from other backgrounds, and I think the same can be said for people who discriminate based on accent. If we are used to everyone being similar to us, we are likely to assume that anything different must be a sign of something wrong.

The solution to under-exposure, of course, is to increase the representation of other language varieties around us, particularly for children who are growing up and still forming their conceptions of what is and isn't normal. Just as a child being raised in a multicultural environment is likely to be tolerant toward other cultures, so too would someone growing up amid a rainbow of sounds likely be open to people who don't sound exactly like themselves.

There are many possible steps toward achieving this sort of diversity. One is simply to welcome people of different backgrounds into our communities, and to foster a sense of welcomeness ourselves, so that more people will feel pride and not shame when using their natural speech patterns. Another strategy, however, is to increase the representation of different language varieties depicted in mass media, particularly those films, music, and television programs that are aimed at children. In her book English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States, Rosina Lippi-Green relates a study of English accent use in the 24 full-length Disney animated features released between 1938 and 1994. Among her conclusions is the following:
While 91 of the total 371 characters occur in roles where they would not logically be speaking English [such as characters in France in Beauty and the Beast, or the citizens of the mythical Arabic kingdom in Aladdin], there are only 34 characters who speak English with a foreign accent.
To children, this can send a message that certain language varieties are more normal or better than others, and make it harder to treat differently-accented people with fairness. (Children who do not speak the standard Disney accent might also infer that their language varieties, and thus they themselves, are in some way inferior.) Greater representation of accent variation in Disney films would certainly help acclimatize children to the widespread diversity of language that exists in the real world.

That people discriminate based on accent, however, is not just a reflection of representative exposure. There is also the greater issue of how language varieties are treated in society when they do appear. In that same study, Lippi-Green looked at how accent related to character motivations: what does the typical Disney 'good guy' sound like? And which accents are used to convey villainy? She concludes:
Close examination of the distributions indicates that these animated films provide material which links language varieties associated with specific national origins, ethnicities, and races with social norms and characteristics in non-factual and sometimes overtly discriminatory ways. Characters with strongly positive actions and motivations are overwhelmingly speakers of socially mainstream varieties of English. Conversely, characters with strongly negative actions and motivations often speak varieties of English linked to specific geographical regions and marginalized social groups.
Children are thus taught not only that certain varieties of language are more normal than others, but also that the less normal varieties can be taken as an indication of moral failing. It is only logical that individuals taught to discriminate will grow up to discriminate, and from the evidence Lippi-Green has provided, Disney is definitely teaching intolerance. Of course, such animated films are only one small facet of society, but they are nevertheless a representative look at how language varieties tend to be treated. And any time a variety is presented as substandard or its speakers are treated as such, children are learning not to treat others fairly. The solution, then, is to stop discriminating ourselves, both in our day-to-day lives and in the media materials we create for children's consumption. If our actions are being taken by children as examples of what is proper and right, then by all means, let us treat others with fairness no matter how they speak.

The final factor that leads to accent discrimination follows quite logically from under-exposure to diversity and unfair treatment of language varieties, but it bears mentioning independently. I am speaking here of commentary: the lessons we explicitly teach our children about language. Under-representation and skewed portrayals of language varieties can associate negative qualities with the speech of others, but the clearest way in which that message spreads is by people actually voicing the opinion to others. And once again, children are key. We cannot blame children for believing the lessons that parents, teachers, and other role models present to them as truth. But we can try, as role models ourselves, to rectify this situation. We can stop telling children there are incorrect ways of speaking, and actively inform them that differences in speech are not deficiencies. (I am speaking here primarily of accents, although I do think the same lesson applies to differences of grammar and word choice.)

I am not pretending that these strategies would be easy to carry out, or that most people would be receptive toward them. But if you believe, as I do, that it is unfair to discriminate against someone on the basis of his or her accent, then I encourage you to take such steps in your own life and in the environment in which you raise your children.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Thoughts on a New Year of School

Welcome back, students! It's a new semester at the University at Buffalo, where I have the good fortune to study and teach in the department of linguistics. Over the coming months I will be TA-ing LIN 200, Language in Pluralistic America. That course is very dear to my heart, as it focuses on matters of linguistic diversity and prejudice, which are topics I tend to blog about here. It is a class aimed at non-linguists, and serves as an introduction to the idea that differences in people's speech are not necessarily a problem to overcome (or a sign of low intelligence, laziness, poor education, and so on).

After the first meetings with my two discussion sections, I find myself reflecting on the fact that linguistics is not a field that the average person knows a lot about. There are two false assumptions about the discipline in particular that I commonly encounter, and I should expect that at least some of my students will hold them already. Some may in fact have signed up for their first linguistics class because of these assumptions, and I should be prepared to face some surprise. I'm not entirely sure of the readership of this blog, but if you are a newcomer to linguistics yourself (especially if you've found it as one of my students), this short post might help set some of the facts straight.

Common Assumption #1: Linguists speak and study many languages. By far, the most common question linguists are asked is, "Oh, how many languages do you speak?" And as a descriptivist, I have to admit that this is a legitimate alternative definition to the word 'linguist': a person who speaks many languages. But in an academic context, the word more often refers to someone who studies language for a living, regardless of how many languages they happen to speak themselves. Some of us may speak multiple tongues, but asking about that is sort of like asking a veterinarian how many pets he or she has. The answer might be more than one, but that fact is entirely coincidental to the person's profession. (For what it's worth, my kind of linguist refers to a person who can speak multiple languages as multilingual or a polyglot.)

Common Assumption #2: Linguists are there to enforce standards on languages. Language is a beautifully complicated thing, and it's true that linguists are interested in making sense of it all. But to borrow a metaphor from Erin McKean's excellent TED Talk on lexicography, that does not make us the traffic cops of speech and writing. Our goal is to accurately describe language as it's already being used, not to endorse or enforce a standard. As scientists we want to observe raw data, and dictating what that data should look like is only going to weaken the conclusions we can draw.

One final note: Because of the scientific benefit of remaining objective, almost every linguist employs a descriptive approach to the language(s) that they study. I personally identify as a linguistic descriptivist (and not just a linguist) because I consider it my obligation to extend this objectivity into public outreach and social activism. There are a lot of unfounded stereotypes and prescriptivst notions in the world today, and I try to use my education to help counter this ignorance. This blog is part of my effort to spread the fact that from a scientific point of view, everyone’s language is inherently correct. There are no wrong ways to say something, and telling someone they’re using language incorrectly can be as hurtful as saying they’re of the wrong religion, sexual orientation, skin color, etc. My advocacy for language equality and tolerance is not something that every linguist engages in, but it stems from everything I've learned as a scientific observer of language.

In general, of course, a linguist is someone who is very interested in language. So the main thing to remember, when you happen across one of us in our natural setting, is that we like to talk about talk. This means that if there's anything you've ever wondered about how language works, feel free to ask a linguist! As long as you're okay with the possibility of having your opinions challenged, then we should get along just fine.

Class dismissed!