Prejudice and intelligibility

Last month I wrote about the fact that intelligibility – the ability of native speakers of one language or dialect to understand a closely related one – is not constant or automatic. A major factor in intelligibility is familiarity: when I was a kid, for example, I had a hard time understanding the Beatles until I got used to them. Having lived in North Carolina, I find it much easier to understand people from Ocracoke Island than my students do.

Prejudice can play a big role in intelligibility, as Donald Rubin showed in 1992. (I first heard about this study from Rosina Lippi-Green’s book English With an Accent.) At the time, American universities had recently increased the overall number of instructors from East Asia they employed, and some students complained that they had difficulty understanding the accents of their instructors.

In an ingenious experiment, Rubin demonstrated that much of this difficulty was due to prejudice. He recorded four-minute samples of “a native speaker of English raised in Central Ohio” reading a script for introductory-level lectures on two different subjects and played those samples to three groups of students.

For one group, a still photo of a “Caucasian” woman representing the instructor was projected on a screen while the audio sample was played. For the second group, a photo of “an Asian (Chinese)” woman was projected, with the same audio of the woman from central Ohio (presumably not of Asian ancestry) was played. The third group heard only the audio and was not shown a photo.

In a survey they took after hearing the clip, most of the students who saw the picture of an Asian woman reported that the speaker had “Oriental/Asian ethnicity.” That’s not surprising, because it’s essentially what they were told by being shown the photograph. But many of these students went further and reported that the person in the recording “speaks with a foreign accent.” In contrast, the vast majority of the students who were shown the “Caucasian” picture said that they heard “an American accent.”

The kicker is that immediately after they heard the recording (and before answering the survey), Rubin tested the students on their comprehension of the content of the excerpt, by giving them a transcript with every seventh word replaced by a blank. The students who saw a picture of an Asian woman not only thought they heard a “foreign accent,” but they did worse on the comprehension task! Rubin concluded that “listening comprehension seemed to be undermined simply by identifying (visually) the instructor as Asian.”

Rubin’s subjects may not have felt any particular hostility towards people from East Asia, but they had a preconceived notion that the instructor would have an accent, and they assumed that they would have difficulty understanding her, so they didn’t bother trying.

This study (and a previous one by Rubin with Kim Smith) connect back to what I was saying about familiarity, and I will discuss that and power imbalances in a future post, but this finding is striking enough to merit its own post.

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