Tag Archives: language

ZERE ees a reason ze villain alvays speaks like zees.

I’ve always had a theory that America’s film villains reflect our country’s changing axis of evil.  In the 1920s and 30s it was sexual women (we continue to have issues with those), in the 1930s and 40s it was Germans, then commies and Russians…. Fast track to the 80s and we’ve got a rise in Eastern Asian and Middle Eastern villains.  Now it’s Muslims or home-grown terrorists.  And there’s always been the fear of the black burglar or rapist.  Let’s not even get into WHY we have these stereotypes.  (ahem, media sensationalism, ahem)

I’ve even read an article about how the upsurge in Zombie attack films reflected the fatalistic and apocalyptic character of 1970s Americans.  You can’t get deny it – our films relay our fears.  And our villains’ thick accents give away our xenophobic discomfort.  Or so we thought?

This is a fascinating article about a social psychology study proving  a) we do distrust people with accents  and  b) we still marginalize these non-native speakers even after learning of our xenophobia.

With the most sensational, xenophobic media at our fingertips, and some crazy racist and xenophobic conservatives claiming Obama isn’t American and that ethnic studies programs should be banned – this will only continue to get worse.  Especially for my accented job-searching friends.  Sorry guys.


A Failure to Communicate

By PAMELA PAUL, The New York Times

THE GIST Many Americans are wary of people who speak with foreign accents.

THE SOURCE “Why Don’t We Believe Non-Native Speakers? The Influence of Accent On Credibility,” The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

ZERE ees a reason ze villain alvays speaks like zees. But it may not be the reason you think. A new study says distrust of those who speak with a foreign accent goes beyond common xenophobia. Apparently, when we don’t understand what someone’s saying, we lose confidence in the speaker altogether.

According to recent research, words and pictures that we can process easily — ones that we don’t have to work to decipher — tend to be perceived as not only more pleasant, clearer and less risky, but also more truthful.

Most data on the subject pertains to the written word. So, for example, if a statement is written in a clear, easy-to-read font, people are more likely to find it true than were it to appear fuzzy, as in a wet newspaper. Likewise, if a statement rhymes (“Woes unite foes”) people are more likely to believe it than if it doesn’t (“Woes unite enemies”).

Could this simplicity-sincerity effect apply to speech as well? “We both have an accent, so we’re interested in questions about how having an accent impacts you,” Boaz Keysar, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago and an author of the study, explained. He and Shiri Lev-Ari, a postdoctoral researcher and the lead author, were born in Israel.

The trick is figuring out whether a person’s distrust of non-native speakers stems from prejudice or incomprehension. To tease these factors apart, the researchers designed two experiments. First, they asked a group of 35 people to judge the truthfulness of trivial statements, like “Ants don’t sleep” and “A giraffe can go without water longer than a camel can,” recited by people with various accents — Turkish, Polish, Korean, Italian and Austrian-German — as well as native English speakers. In all cases, the subjects were told that the speakers were merely reciting statements provided by the experimenter and were not the source of the material. Yet even when speakers were “only the messenger,” listeners distrusted non-native speakers more than they did native English speakers.

The researchers then told the subjects up front that difficulty in understanding leads people to distrust non-native speakers. Would knowing about an accent’s effects erase the effects? Not entirely. While people were capable of adjusting their impressions of people who spoke with mild accents, they still distrusted statements from those with heavier accents. “Even awareness was unable to overcome the effect on credibility,” Dr. Boaz said.

These findings won’t likely assuage an already nervous job applicant who speaks with an accent. “In today’s globalized world, interactions between native and non-native speakers are rampant,” Dr. Lev-Ari said. Businesspeople, newscasters and witnesses often appeal to our capacity for trust, she said, “but we’re judging non-native speakers as less credible than they really are.”

One thing you can believe, though it may offer little consolation: The giraffe is, in fact, able to go longer without drinking water than the camel.

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Lost in Translation – The Power of Language in Pop Culture

I read this ABSOLUTELY INCREDIBLE article on the power of language.  As a historian in training you learn that history is, in fact, subjective – not objective – simply due to the power of words.  Events can be described any number of ways and the words chosen to describe these events have connotations.  Which is why many of us abhor textbooks.

Lera Boroditsky, professor of psychology at Stanford and editor in chief of Frontiers in Cultural Psychology, argues that language is crucial in determining causality:

“In addition to space and time, languages also shape how we understand causality. For example, English likes to describe events in terms of agents doing things. English speakers tend to say things like “John broke the vase” even for accidents. Speakers of Spanish or Japanese would be more likely to say “the vase broke itself.” Such differences between languages have profound consequences for how their speakers understand events, construct notions of causality and agency, what they remember as eyewitnesses and how much they blame and punish others.”

Here’s a segment from Boroditsky’s essay in the Wall Street Journal on the cultural influence of language.  Although most of the essay is on the use of language by different cultures, here Boroditsky explains the pop cultural significance of language using the example of Janet Jackson’s and Justin Timberlake’s controversial Superbowl performance in 2004.

In another study, English speakers watched the video of Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” (a wonderful nonagentive coinage introduced into the English language by Justin Timberlake), accompanied by one of two written reports. The reports were identical except in the last sentence where one used the agentive phrase “ripped the costume” while the other said “the costume ripped.” Even though everyone watched the same video and witnessed the ripping with their own eyes, language mattered. Not only did people who read “ripped the costume” blame Justin Timberlake more, they also levied a whopping 53% more in fines.

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