Thursday, December 20, 2018

Attitudes toward language varieties

Attitudes about language are often attitudes about the people who speak it.  You can see this in some stereotypes:

What do you think about the German language? harsh, strict, clipped
What do you think about the German people? organized, strict

French? The language of love and of course the French are great lovers.

Southerners in the US? They speak slowly and are slow people, as in not smart.

We recognize these attitudes and realize they may be stereotypes, but still TV newscasters not so long ago worked to make their accents something like the Midwest. Not because it is the best accent (everyone has an accent; it just means how you pronounce words). There is no "best" accent; all accents fulfill the purpose of communicating with other people. No, it was because the Midwestern accent (which is a misnomer; there are different Midwest accents) is not strongly marked, that is, it doesn't obviously come from say, Alabama, or Texas, or NYC, or Boston. Thus it could appeal to listeners all over the country.

I still remember JFK running for president. While his being Catholic was considered a big deal, his Boston accent also marked him as perhaps something of an elitist.

And then Jimmy Carter, with his Georgia accent and we suspected he wasn't very smart in spite of his advanced degrees. Carter made it easier for Bill Clinton, with his Arkansas accent.

Lambert and others conducted experiments in the 1960's called "matched guise". An individual, unseen, would read a short text in English. That same individual would read that same text in French. Listeners were asked to judge the presumed two speakers and the results showed that people make judgements based on language alone. In the English guise, the speaker was judged to be more intelligent and more formal, someone you might want to hire for a high level job. In the French guise, the speaker was judged to be less intelligent but friendlier, someone you would want to be buddies with.

And that's interesting....but even more interesting is that both French and English listeners had similar judgements. That is, the French speakers listening to the French guise thought the speaker was less intelligent--they ascribed lower intelligence but more friendly about themselves. Both English and French speakers revealed similar biases toward French and English speakers regardless of which group they belonged to.

This is a powerful insight. Of course we don't judge only on the basis of accent. We also judge on grammar, vocabulary, style, and so on. But accent is often the first perception we have of a speaker's language. This can work to or against us.

When I lived in Colombia and was more fluent than now, I was told I had an excellent accent. That predisposed listeners to think highly of me and pay less attention, perhaps, to the grammatical slip ups I made. Similarly, when I hear someone speak Spanish with a strong American accent, I start out assuming they aren't very good in the language. And as one might expect, I've been proven wrong.

As an applied linguist, I am sensitive to accents and can pick up on northern or Canadian attributes.  I can hear underlying foreign accents of people who are extremely fluent in English but are not native speakers. I can hear differences between British, Australian, Indian, American accents.  I am not bragging. This is simply part of my training and experience.

I think it is our human nature to judge others, as in determining their social status, how much they are like or not like us, whether they are likely to become friends or not, and so on. First impressions do matter. How we are dressed, how clean our hair and clothes are, and how we speak.  Of course it is not limited to English. Virtually all languages have different dialects, or varieties. England has many . more varieties than the USA because of its age. German, French, Swahili, Japanese, Chinese, Russian--all have distinct varieties AND speakers have attitudes about those varieties and the people who speak them.

I suspect, though I can't prove, that many Americans secretly believe that the English spoken in England (by which they mean Received Pronunciation) is superior to the English spoken in the USA.

Similarly, the Spanish speaking countries of Latin America often view the Spanish of Spain as superior. And then there are rankings.....The next best variety is spoken in Colombia. Colombians believe this and speakers in other South American countries also believe it. It is likely related to the rich history of literature that Colombia can boast of.

Other South American varieties are judged based on their perceived "purity". It comes as no surprise, then, that Mexican Spanish (and again, there are multiple dialects of Mexican Spanish) is seen as one of the worst varieties. Due to the large number of words taken from Native Indigenous languages and the number of Anglicisms mixed in, it is seen as not being very pure at all. And sadly, many Mexicans feel that their language is inferior. Still, they are somewhat more highly ranked than Puerto Rico!

There is no such thing as a good or bad language, superior or inferior, better or worse. All languages are used for communication and all languages fulfill this task quite well. But quite often people don't believe it. And I have found that it is difficult to convince them; a Mexican Spanish speaker insists he speaks an inferior language no matter what I say. Unfortunate, in my view, but rectifiable were we to build this perspective into our educational system. When teachers judge their students as inferior due to a different dialect or an entirely different language, it is internalized by the students and the sense of inferiority spreads from the language spoken to the person as a whole.

Native Americans sent to boarding schools to promote assimilation know this. They were told not to speak their first languages, the languages of their home, family, community, all they knew. All they knew suddenly became nothing....and their mastery of English dictated how intelligent they were thought to be. Some--many?--lost their native languages. Lost the intimacy of those languages, since they weren't brought up with English.  (check out Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriquez--his name alone is significant).

We need to begin seeing languages with the same tolerance we should be showing to people of different cultures, social classes, sexual orientations, etc. And we need to become more aware of our tendency to judge quickly and never revisit our judgements.

There is a need to discuss Black English, or African American Vernacular English (AAVE), or African American English (AAE), or Ebonics. But that means wading into pidgins and creoles so that will be another post another day.


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