Can a person look hard to understand?
The answer, Northern Arizona University researcher Okim Kangfound, is yes. And that expectation of listeners—that the person standing in front of them will be less intelligible because English is likely their second language, before the speaker opens their mouth—is harmful both to speakers and to listeners and the ability of all us to effectively communicate.
With that in mind, Kang, an associate professor of applied linguistics, has spent her career figuring out why listeners are biased against people they perceive will be harder to understand and what interventions both speakers and listeners can take to improve understanding and communication. Her research started with a study that brought her to international prominence in the field of linguistics—demonstrating that students reported more trouble understanding a speaker they thought was Asian than they did a speaker they thought was Caucasian, when the same man was speaking both times and the students were looking at different pictures.
This phenomenon, known as reverse linguistic stereotyping, indicates attributions of a speaker’s group membership create
This research was recently highlighted on the “Talk American” episode of Code Switch, an NPR podcast about race in the United States. (
“For successful communication, we need not only a clear, intelligible speaker but also responsive, unbiased listeners,” Kang said. “Conversation is a two-way street.”
Read more on NAU.edu.