Do we judge people on the way they speak?

Jul 9, 2014

Credit user dbphotography / flickr

It’s not hard to find an example of people being judged because of the way they speak.

Take the George Zimmerman trial. The primary witness for the prosecution was a young African American woman named Rachel Jeantel. She was Trayvon Martin’s friend and was on the phone with him the day he died. You can listen to some of her testimony here.

The minute she opened her mouth the critics went nuts. Jeantel got slammed by the media and the general public for the way she spoke. In this blog post by Stanford University sociolinguist John Rickford, he wrote about some of the responses to Jeantel's testimony:

On talk shows and social media sites, people castigated her "slurred speech," bad grammar and Ebonics usage, or complained that, "Nobody can understand what she's saying." ... Jeantel was compared to “a junkie,” an “animal,” and “the missing link between monkeys and humans.” One commentator opined that “You could swap her out for a three-toed sloth and get the same witness value and response.”

Another, eager to demonstrate that ignorance and viciousness were equal opportunity traits, fumed that: “She has to be the most ignorant, ghetto, uneducated, lazy, fat, gross, arrogant, stupid, confrontation black bitch I've ever seen in my fucking life. Yes, I said it . . . and I'm black.”

One juror told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that Jeantel wasn’t a credible witness in part because of the way she spoke – just one among many examples of how voice bias can have very real ramifications.

Teaching "The Standard"

Robin Queen is a linguist, and she teaches a class at the University of Michigan called Language and Discrimination. Queen says people often think there’s one right way to speak, what linguists call Standard American English, or "The Standard," and everybody else is just doing it wrong.

"Who gets to decide they can police someone else's language?" asks Queen. "I mean, when did we get to this point that shaming people for their language is fine?" She says this kind of attitude is particularly troubling when it comes to kids.

Queen says kids in school who speak "natively a variety of English ... that has some of the features that aren't part of the standard" – like using "ain't" in a sentence or double negatives – it is assumed that those kids "actually do know the inherently right way (to speak) and they're just willfully doing it wrong," says Queen.

Now Queen’s not saying students shouldn’t learn the Standard. The reality is people grade you and hire you based a lot on how you speak. And Standard American English is still the standard in the professional and academic worlds. But Queen says schools should appreciate linguistic diversity a little more and take a less punitive approach to teaching the Standard.

When students hold negative attitudes about their own language

April Baker-Bell is a newly minted professor at Michigan State University in the department of Writing, Rhetoric and American Culture. For her dissertation, she wanted to know how African American students viewed their own language. So she did a study where she had students at a Detroit high school read two sets of sentences – one set was called Language A, the other Language B.  Here's a sample sentence from each:

Language A: "People be thinking teenagers don't know nothing."

In April Baker-Bell's study, students had to draw a picture of what someone looked like based on how they spoke.
In April Baker-Bell's study, students had to draw a picture of what someone looked like based on how they spoke.
Credit Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio

Language B: "People think teenagers don't know anything."

Baker-Bell had the students read the sentences and then "respond to these language samples by drawing a picture of someone who speaks both of these languages." The students also had to use words to describe the speaker.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Most of the students, all of whom are black, reacted negatively to Language A; they judged the African American English speaker more harshly than they did the Standard American English speaker. 

One student who participated in the study said he felt he was "programmed to think a certain way" about African American speech patterns and that he "felt bad" about himself after he did it. When asked if he thinks others judge him because of the way he speaks, the student (who participated anonymously in the study so we can't use his name here) bluntly said, "Yeah, I know other people judge me by hearing me talk, but I know I'm not that type of person."

Linguist April Baker-Bell says, "When students hold these negative attitudes toward their own language, it interferes with their language and literacy development." You can see it play out in the test scores of African American students. 

So how do you erase decades of negative stereotypes surrounding African American language? Some experts say start in the classroom. Tune in next week when we explore a new program that aims to teach language diversity starting with students at a very young age – kindergarten.