The way we speak unites and divides us
In a new book, Professor Katherine D. Kinzler argues that the way you speak reflects who you are.
Have you ever thought that the way you speak can determine who you are friends with, what job you have, and how you view the world? Even if you don’t realize it, “the way you speak is, in a very real way, a window into who you are and how others see you.”
This is the argument University of Chicago psychologist Katherine D. Kinzler explores in her first book, How do you say it: Why do you talk the way you do and what it says about youwhich was released on July 21. Described by one reviewer as “an articulate examination of a little-understood aspect of human communication”, the book highlights the immense power of speech and explores how speech underpins all facets of social life.
A leading developmental psychologist, Kinzler’s book analyzes speech from infancy through adulthood, specifically how children think about language to divide the world into groups and find social meaning. “Language is so personal to people,” said Kinzler, a professor in the UChicago Department of Psychology. “The way you speak can be such an essential part of your identity, so I wanted the book to reach people who it would really have an impact on, including beyond an academic impact.”
In the following Q&A, Kinzler talks more about the impact of speech in everyday life and how speech-based discrimination acts as another form of prejudice.
You write in the introduction to the book that it’s not exactly what you say, but how you say it that gives speech immense power. Do you think the way we speak determines the course of social life?
I do. It was also a motivation for writing the book: that the way we speak is such a powerful force in our lives, and people are often not aware of it. It’s both so critical for the people we connect with, but it also has enormous power for those we don’t get along with and the people we hold prejudice against. I believe that at more societal and institutional levels, there is a bias against what is perceived as non-standard discourse that is somehow integrated. People are also unaware of the difficulty of feeling marginalized because of their speech, and we need to be aware of this.
“The way you speak can be such an essential part of who you are, so I wanted the book to reach the people it would really impact.”
—Professor Katherine Kinzler
You also discuss racial discrimination based on speech, for example, negative views of African American English. Can you tell us a bit more?
Speech bias is something that people don’t always talk about, but it’s absolutely there. A branch of racism is to say that African American English is not as good as other dialects of American English, while no dialect of English is good or bad, or better or worse. . This is an example of how we fail to think about speech in our lives and the role of speech bias. I recommend checking out Asst’s extensive work. Professor Sharese King of the linguistics department here at UChicago – she and I just published an op-ed together in the Los Angeles Times about the underappreciated role of speech in racial justice that people need to consider. If we are having a larger conversation about understanding privilege and marginalization, speaking should be part of the conversation.
Where does this type of speech discrimination come from?
Parents and educators have a lot of impact on the categories their children learn. One example I talk about a bit in the book is the use of gender categories. Even if it’s done in a seemingly benign way – like teachers saying “boys and girls line up” at school – if you take a look, you’ll probably find that gender is labeled constantly to children. Because it is continually marked and verbally labeled, it can make children believe that gender is a broader category than they otherwise would have thought. So from there, they’re like, “Oh, that’s a really big deal. What is it about gender that is so important? Then they look at the world and observe many gender stereotypes and may think that these stereotypes are causally responsible for gender categories. Similarly, at home, parents may say something like, “We love Muslims! Muslims are nice! Something like that sounds positive, but usually when you’re referring to a whole category of people, it can actually backfire. It’s better when you can talk about people as individuals rather than focusing on an entire category of people. It’s very easy for stereotypes to take off when you think a group of people are all the same.
As for how our accents work, you can make those split-second judgments about someone when you meet them, even if you’re not necessarily aware of it. For example, in Montreal in the 1960s, it was a time of social discord between language groups, where English-speaking Canadians (compared to French-speaking Canadians) held the lion’s share of economic opportunities. Experimental linguistics studies would present people with voices, and from their ratings you could measure their language bias (even if they wouldn’t explicitly admit it). English Canadians would hear someone speaking English and think, “Oh, that person looks a lot smarter, taller, and nicer than the person speaking French,” but it was actually a bilingual voice recording both languages. Even French speakers would often say that English voices had a higher status.
So when you hear someone speak for even a fraction of a second, you can get information that may not be real about the individual, but is actually about the cultural attitudes that have permeated your Evaluation. In this way, stereotypes about groups of people can easily lead to prejudice against individuals.
Part of your book explains how teaching multilingualism to children from an early age can widen our language circles and help break down those stereotypes about accents and language. Do you think this is the solution to reducing language bias globally, or is it at least a step in the right direction?
It would be nice if that was a perfect solution, but there are plenty of places in the world that are both multilingual and experience wars and conflicts. So it’s not a panacea. That said, I also believe there is good evidence that being in a multilingual environment – and in an environment that has and values diversity more generally – has positive influences on children’s development and enables them to think from different perspectives and think outside the box. . So, in general, I think early exposure to linguistic diversity is very positive for children.
“If we’re having a larger conversation about understanding privilege and marginalization, speaking out should be part of the conversation.”
—Professor Katherine Kinzler
How has speech discrimination factored into how different individuals have experienced the coronavirus pandemic?
Health care disparities are a huge problem in our country, based on racial and ethnic lines. There is a study by my colleague at UChicago Psychology Boaz Keysar and others showing miscommunication breakdowns in the health care background. In general, communication is not this perfect system; there is plenty of room for error. This can be especially difficult when people communicate across languages. Additionally, research shows that people aren’t always aware when, in a communication context, they shut down and stop listening because they don’t like the way someone is speaking. Health care is so critical – especially right now – and we need to be really aware and tired of misunderstandings. So I think recognizing linguistic diversity in this context is extremely important.
Is your goal for the book to inspire these kinds of changes?
Absoutely. My goal is to keep in mind the social role of speech in our lives. We need a shift in our understanding of the importance of language and its importance for a range of different social interactions. In the book, I talk about the fact that there aren’t always enough job protections for people who speak in nonstandard ways. There is also evidence of discourse-based discrimination in housing markets. When we think about economic opportunities, there is so much evidence that speaking in a way that is considered non-Indigenous or non-standard can limit the economic opportunities people can have. So if we’re thinking about a recession in particular — and jobs that require virtual communication, which can be more difficult than face-to-face communication — it will be important to consider the social psychology of language.