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How Perceptions of Accents Affects Communication

Posted: September 07, 2018

Can a person look hard to understand?

The answer, Northern Arizona University researcher Okim Kang found, 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 distorted evaluation of the speaker’s speech pattern even before he or she said a word.

This research was recently highlighted on the “Talk American” episode of Code Switch, an NPR podcast about race in the United States. (Code switching refers to when a speaker talks one way to one group and in a different way to other groups, such as when multilingual speakers speak Spanish at home and English at work.) It is, however, just one piece of the larger communication question to which Kang has applied her research.

“For successful communication, we need not only a clear, intelligible speaker but also responsive, unbiased listeners,” Kang said. “Conversation is a two-way street.”


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