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This issue is dedicated to language diversity and PRIDE Month


Language Bias: It’s Not How We Look, It’s How We Talk

by Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.

I’ll admit it – I have a major language bias. Let my ear pick up a hint of what has historically been called the “King’s English” and I’m all aflutter. Instantly, I find myself assuming the speaker is smart, sophisticated, knowledgeable, and probably has great manners. Of course all of that might be true, but it also might not.

We can giggle about that sort of bias as if it is harmless and vaguely charming. But, is it so harmless?

What happens, for example, in your workplace when a deeply hidden bias leads a manager to believe that one employee over another is smarter or quicker or more educated based solely on the way he or she pronounces words? That, you see, is exactly the trap that language bias lays for us.

Despite the dire consequences of language bias, it isn’t an often encountered element of the diversity / inclusion conversation. This is surprising because the issue has been repeatedly addressed in the academic and psychological research of such far-flung institutions as Harvard and Friedrich Schiller University in Germany.

The work at Harvard – specifically that conducted by developmental psychologist Katherine Kinzler (now at the University of Chicago) – found, for example, that verbal accents appear to be more important than race in influencing whom young people perceive to be “like them” and, therefore, a candidate for friendship. In particular, when replicating previous studies, they discovered that white students preferred a black child speaking with a native accent over a white child who spoke English with a foreign accent.

In a country blessed with a wealth of immigrants and the opportunities provided by a global marketplace, we cannot afford to ignore this destructive brand of bias.

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Spanish, English, Spanglish – Interesting Facts about Language Use among Latino Youth

Hispanics are the largest and youngest minority group in the United States. One-in-five schoolchildren is Hispanic. One-in-four newborns is Hispanic. Never before in this country’s history has a minority ethnic group made up so large a share of the youngest Americans. By force of numbers alone, the kinds of adults these young Latinos become will help shape the kind of society America becomes in the 21st century.

Language Use:

About one-third (36%) of Latinos ages 16 to 25 are English dominant in their language patterns, while 41% are bilingual and 23% are Spanish dominant.

The language usage patterns of Latinos change dramatically from the immigrant generation to the native born. Among foreign-born Latinos ages 16 to 25, just 48% say they can speak English very well or pretty well. Among their native-born counterparts, that figures doubles to 98%.

For the children of immigrants and later generations, embracing English does not necessarily mean abandoning Spanish. Fully 79% of the second generation and 38% of the third report that they are proficient in speaking Spanish. These figures are below the share of immigrant youths who are proficient in Spanish (89%), but they demonstrate the resilience of the mother tongue for several generations after immigration.

For both native-born and foreign-born young Hispanics, the boundaries between English and Spanish are permeable. Seven-in-ten (70%) say that when speaking with family members and friends, they often or sometimes use a hybrid known as “Spanglish” that mixes words from both languages.

When asked about media usage, about a third of Latino youths state that when they listen to music, they do so only (8%) or mostly (23%) in Spanish. An additional 29% listen equally in Spanish and English, 27% listen mostly in English, and 13% listen only in English.

Watching television in English is more prevalent among Latino youths than listening to music in English. Some 6% of Latino youths report that they only watch television in Spanish, while another 17% report watching mostly in Spanish. Two-in-ten (20%) report that they are equally likely to watch television in English or Spanish. Just under one-third (32%) of Latino youths report that they mostly watch TV in English, and an additional 24% report watching TV exclusively in English.

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A German, looking for directions in Paris, pulls up to a bus stop where two Americans are waiting.

“Entschuldigung, sprechen Sie Deutsch?" he asks. The two Americans just stare at him.

“Parlez-vous français?” he says. The two continue to stare, so the German tries again.

“Parlate italiano?” No response.

“¿Hablan ustedes español?” Still nothing. Frustrated, the German guy drives off.

The first American says, “You know, we should learn a foreign language.” “Why?” asks the other. “He knew four languages, and it didn’t do him any good.”