Why Linguistic Stereotypes Hurt
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Why Linguistic Stereotypes Hurt

Listen to what others have to say, not how they say it.

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Why Linguistic Stereotypes Hurt
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Stereotypes represent the traits we view as characteristic of a social group or individual members of a group. The traits that particularly stand out are the ones that differentiate groups from one another. In short, these are the traits that come to mind quickly when we think about a group of people that share an identity or ethnicity. But the tendency to simplify these traits has led us to discard some of the presumed characteristics of stereotypes and prejudice that were integral to early conceptualizations. This includes inaccuracy and overgeneralization, so stereotypes turn out to be generally negative.

America has become a very diverse playground for linguistic study. From coast to coast, we see many variations and dialects of English. The more remotely you go, the stronger the dialect or accent. Historically, English settlers brought the accents of their regions of the United Kingdom or other places in Europe. As you go east to west, it becomes harder to distinguish accents. And when it comes to regional linguistic differences, most people think that their version of English is the correct way of speaking and other dialects are either hard to understand or not a proper way of speaking. Most people are very opinionated; you already have preconceived notions about a person just by how they speak. Do they sound like a Southern belle? A hillbilly? A beach bum?

A classic example of this stereotyping is with African-American Vernacular English. YouTuber Philogynoir explains how when black people use AAVE, it is seen as “uneducated” to white people because this is the general stereotype toward the people who speak the AAVE dialect of English. Although society may cast aside this way of speaking as “ghetto,” I am here to reassure readers that any way you speak is valid and you should not feel ashamed about how you speak. Speech is a part of who you are as a person; if someone criticizes the way you talk, they are criticizing your identity. Philogynoir can speak to that!

The AAVE example just goes to show people judge others by how they talk. It’s inevitable, but this does not give anyone grounds to question someone’s level of intelligence, social status or academic success. With linguistic stereotyping, listeners make assumptions and judgments about speakers based on those speakers’ language varieties. Based on even just short samples of pronunciation, listeners naturally attribute social identity to speakers, and then judge those speakers in accordance with their stereotypes of the speaker’s putative social group.

We ascribe these stereotypes to a good majority of our population for no good reason. Take children who learn two languages or dialects, one from peers and one from home. Most people can identify better with their original dialect. It is because of this intimacy that some people really have it in for other types of accents or tend to stereotype other accents. A study done by Maria Medvedeva examines the relationship between perceived discrimination and self-reported proficiency in English and non-English languages among adolescent children of immigrants. Findings show that adolescents who felt discriminated against by school peers along with teachers were more likely to report speaking and reading English less than "very well." According to American Community Survey estimates, there were 10.5 million children of immigrants in the United States in 2005. They accounted for 20 percent of American children five to 17 years old, and the vast majority of them reported speaking a non-English language at home -- I am sure that number has grown exponentially since.

Late learners to a language rarely become native-like, and although age is often thought to constrain attainment, it is unlikely to be the unitary cause of incomplete acquisition. Pronunciation conveys linguistic meaning, and at the same time it indicates social identity and communicative stance. Resistance behaviors related to accent underscore the close connection between accent and identity. In a classroom with mostly first language speakers of English, where the psychological stakes are relatively low compared to immersion contexts, some students purposefully mispronounce words to express solidarity with their peers. So where we might assume that the classroom learners are motivated by a desire for accuracy, we may in fact be more responsive to the discomfort felt by sounding like "someone else."

People view their senses as documentary devices that faithfully translate the environment into understandable and manageable units; in short, we accept what we hear and see in ways we can simply understand the world around us. But the world is not a simple place, and inaccuracies about stereotypes hurt our potential to move toward a more articulate and comprehensive society. Next time you talk with someone who speaks differently than you, be willing to listen closely to what they are saying, not how they say it.

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