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.

Choose your Own Speech Role Model

In a couple of recent posts I talked about the idea of speech role models for language learning, specifically on fluent, clear non-native speakers providing more accessible models for students learning after the teenage years. I ended with a caution against “cloning” a single non-native speaker, raising the specter of a class of students who all come out speaking English like Javier Bardem. I believe this can be avoided by giving students a greater range of options for role models, and a greater role in choosing them.

Again, I can speak from personal experience in this area. As a second-language learner of French and later Portuguese I chose a variety of speech role models. No one has ever said I sound like Jacques Dutronc or Karl Zéro when speaking French, but I was motivated to reach for those goals because I believed I could sound kind of like them.

Thinking back on my speech role models for French, and even for my native English, it was clear that my unique voice is a result of having a diversity of speech role models, and my comfort with my voice was due to the fact that I had chosen all those role models. I sound like me because I sound like a combination of several people that I have admired over the years.

As language teachers, we owe it to our students not to turn them into Javier Bardem clones, or to discourage those who feel like they could never be Bardem. John Murphy’s study of reactions to Bardem is valuable because it establishes that a non-native speaker can be an acceptable role model, but we can’t stop at him, or even at the other fourteen that Murphy lists in his Appendix A.

With sites like YouTube at their fingertips, students have access to millions of non-native English speakers. We need to give them the opportunity to choose several non-native speakers, and be prepared to evaluate those speakers as potential role models, so that they can sound like their unique selves, but speaking clear, fluent English (or French or Hmong or whatever).

Non-native speech role models

In a recent post, I talked about using speech role models to teach English as a Second Language (ESL). In my class at Saint John’s University I told my students to find a native English speaker that they admired and wanted to sound like, but some of the students seemed discouraged and the distance between their accents and the accents of their role models was very large. I guessed that they may have felt that the gap was insurmountable.

I wondered if non-native English speakers might make better role models, so I asked the students to find online video clips of people who were from their country and native speakers of their own language, and who they felt spoke English well. For examples, I showed them clips of interviews with native English speakers speaking other languages, like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in Spanish (this was before the El Bloombito nastiness, which deserves its own post) and John Beyrle, then US Ambassador to Russia in Russian.

The students’ answers revealed two problems with the assignment. The first was that some of the speakers were too good, and for a specific reason: they had the unfair advantage of living in the United States as teenagers, which made them almost native speakers. Some, like boxer Oscar de la Hoya, were from immigrant families. Others, like tennis player Maria Sharapova, were sports stars who moved to the US as teenagers for training camps. The English of these role models was as inaccessible to my students as those of people who had lived in the US their entire lives.

The second problem was that it was simply hard to find examples of non-native speakers with accents who were not stigmatized. Some of my students found good examples: Columbian singer Shakira, Russian tennis player Elena Dementieva, Chinese television presenter Rui Chenggang, Serbian tennis player Jelena Jankovic and Chinese basketball star Yao Ming. For students who were unable to find an acceptable role model, I found UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon from Korea, Salvadoran computer scientist Luis von Ahn and Mexican film director Guillermo del Toro. The students readily accepted these speakers as role models.

I followed this up with transcription tasks and two further assignments: “Your Second Speech Role Model’s Accent,” where the students identified a feature of their role model that marked them as non-native, and “Outdo your Second Speech Role Model,” where the students recorded themselves trying to say the same sentences without that marked feature. I have the impression that this was valuable for the students, but I did not have a chance to study it systematically.

In my own searches, I came to appreciate the difficulty of finding good non-native role models, and of second language acquisition in general. I was simply unable to find a single non-native speaker who had achieved nativelike pronunciation in English without being immersed in English during the critical period of adolescence. Discussions with other ESL faculty confirmed this. I had already prioritized clarity over correctness, and this confirmed that I was on the right track. I took this into account when grading the students’ in-class presentations and assignments.

While it is difficult to find non-native speakers who express themselves clearly in English and have prestige, the existence of people like Yao Ming, Guillermo del Toro and Ban Ki-Moon shows that they are out there. It would be valuable to introduce non-native role models like these earlier, to help the students with setting goals and to give them perspective on the second language enterprise.

I was a bit disturbed by the term “cloning” coined by Joanne Kenworthy and Jennifer Jenkins and used by Robin Walker, because to me it implies copying another person’s accent wholesale, leading me to imagine an ESL program where every graduate sounds like Javier Bardem. There are two elements that can counteract this: having a variety of role models and allowing the students to participate as much as possible in choosing their role models. I’ll talk about those more in a future post.

Speech role models

John Murphy of Georgia State published an article about using non-native speakers, and specifically the Spanish actor Javier Bardem, as models for teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) or as a foreign language (EFL). Mura Nava tweeted a blog post from Robin Walker connecting Murphy’s work to similar work by Kenworthy and Jenkins, Peter Roach and others. I tried something like this when I taught ESL back in 2010, more or less unaware of all the previous work that Murphy cites, and Mura Nava was interested to know how it went, so here’s the first part of a quick write-up.

When I was asked to teach a class in ESL Speech “Advanced Oral/Aural Communication” at Saint John’s University in the fall of 2010, I had taught French and Linguistics, but I had only tutored English one-on-one. My wife is an experienced professor of ESL and was a valuable source of advice, but our student populations and our goals were different, so I did not simply copy her methods.

One concept that I introduced was that of a Speech Role Model. When I was learning French, I found it invaluable to imitate entertainers; I’ve never met Jacques Dutronc, but I often say that he was one of my best French teachers because of the clever lyricists he worked with and his clear, wry delivery. He was just one of the many French people that I imitated to improve my pronunciation.

This was all back in the days of television and cassettes, and most of the French culture that we had access to here in the United States was filtered through the wine, Proust and Rohmer tastes of American Francophiles. As a geeky kid with a fondness for comedy I found Edith Piaf and even Gérard Depardieu too alien to emulate. I found out about Dutronc in college through a bootleg tape made for me by a student from France who lived down the hall, and then I had to study abroad in France to find more role models.

With today’s multimedia Internet technology, we have an incredible the ability to listen to millions of people from around the world. At Saint John’s I asked my students to choose a Speech Role Model for English: a native speaker that they personally admired and wanted to sound like. I was surprised by the number of students who named President Obama as their role model, including female students from China, but on reflection it was an obvious choice, as he is a clear, forceful and eloquent speaker. Other students chose actresses Meryl Streep and Jennifer Anniston, talk-show host Bill O’Reilly and local newscaster Pat Kiernan.

One notable choice, hip-hop artist Eminem, gave me the opportunity to discuss covert prestige and its challenges. Another, the character of Sheldon Cooper from the television series “The Big Bang Theory,” was too scripted, and I was debating whether to accept it when I discovered that it was just a cover so that the student could plagiarize crowdsourced transcriptions.

In subsequent assignments I asked the students to find a YouTube video of their role model and to transcribe a short excerpt. I then asked the students to record themselves imitating that excerpt from their Speech Role Models. Some of the students were engaged and interested, but others seemed frustrated and discouraged. When I listened to my students and comparing their speech to their chosen role models, I had an idea why. The students who were engaged were either naturally enthusiastic or good mimics, but the challenge was to motivate the others. There was so much distance between them and the native English speakers, much more than could be covered in a semester. That was when I thought of adding a non-native Second Speech Role Model. I’ll have to leave that for another post.