Does language discrimination really exist?

As a society, we are all aware of our differences. Yet there is considerable evidence that unconscious bias affects many of our daily decisions. We tend to think that unconscious bias exists only in relation to issues such as race, sexuality or disability but in fact it impacts recruitment, access to healthcare and education.

Over the summer I watched a TED video of Safat Saleem. He spoke about the fact that he was often mocked for his accent. Intrigued, I searched online for similar stories. In recent years I too have experienced discrimination about my accent and where I come from. Have you ever heard of linguicism – discrimination based on a person’s language or dialect? How common is it to judge people for the way they sound?

What is linguicism?
Linguicism, also known as linguistic discrimination, is the unfair treatment of a person due to their language, accent, vocabulary, tone, rhythm or phrase structure. Linguicism is not new and unfortunately, it is quite common. The term was introduced by Tove Skutnabb-Kangas over 30 years ago. There is a field of study called sociolinguistics that examines the sociological aspect of language.

The accent is often seen as one of the main characteristics when identifying someone as a being foreign. However, bias against a foreign accent is not formally recognized as a form of discrimination. An accent may influence one’s opinion about someone else. Research shows that “it takes us less than 30 seconds to linguistically profile a speaker and make quick decisions on their ethnic origin, socioeconomic class, and their backgrounds.”

The way we speak is a part of our identity. It gives the listener some indication as to where we were born or grew up. This means that in less than a minute we may assume someone’s origins background, and draw upon stereotypes and often make negative assumptions.

How your brain processes accent?
Scientists have been studying this area to try to understand it more. If you are not used to hearing foreign accents it is more challenging to understand them. Each language has its own melody, phonetics, rhythm, the structure of sentences, stress and intonation. Each language uses the organs of articulations differently, so that phonetic sounds in every language are different. Jurgen Habermas explains in his Theory of Communicating Action that in a perfect world to understand each other correctly, we would have to speak the same language. When we are born, we are capable of pronouncing every single sound of the human language. As we grow, we learn the sounds that are specific to our language. As a result, the older we get the more challenging it becomes to learn new sounds as a part of another language. Shiri Lev-Ari, a psychologist at the Max Planck Institute of Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, put forward the idea of linguistic discrimination in an experiment and asked both native and nonnative English speakers to record the sentence “Ants don’t sleep”. Later, the recordings were rated for their accuracy. Interestingly, the voice with the heaviest accent was rated as being the least accurate. The recording by a native English speaker was ranked as the most accurate. LevAri explains that when listening, our brains parse information and understanding a foreign accent requires extra effort. As a result, we often question the accuracy of non-native speakers.

The linguist Vivian Cook showed in her 2016 study that foreign-language speakers are often not evaluated on skills and achievements but on their linguistic distance from an “ideal” native accent. It is often assumed that non-native speakers are less knowledgeable and capable in their work. We all have been in a situation when we struggle to understand someone’s idea. However, when it happens with a non-native speaker, the assumption is that they don’t understand the language.

We are all biased!
During HubTalk this year, Khalil Smith from Neuroleadership Institute explained that everyone who has a brain has a bias. It stems from an evolutionary standpoint. The first step to tackle bias is to accept it! Once this is done, we must label them in order to reduce them. Smith identifies five seeds of bias: Bias for similarity, where we tend to think that people like us are better than those different from us; Bias for Expediency: fast is the best and slow is bad; Bias for my personal experience: out self-perception and perception of the world are accurate; Bias for distance: closer is better than distant; and Bias for safety: The bad around us is stronger than the good around us. We have to reflect where we see bias showing up within ourselves.

Embrace where you come from!
In 2013, 232 mln people lived outside the country that they come from and used their non-native language daily. We are more than ever exposed to different languages and accents. We should never be ashamed of our roots and accent but rather embrace where we come from.
We are all different and we all sound different. Let us not forget how much effort people put into communicating clearly in a second language (here comes a couple of examples of how positive impact it has on your brain as well).