Communication Conundrum

Is there bias in Linguistics research against speakers with accents?

The word kept popping up in study after study: “degradation.” This intrigued Drew McLaughlin.

As a linguistics major, she was exploring a specific communication problem: the challenge of nonnative English speakers communicating effectively in English. Sometimes the challenge is a matter of vocabulary or grammar, but McLaughlin’s main interest is what is commonly called an accent.

People who learn English as a second language sometimes have difficulty with certain English phonemes that aren’t part of their native language—for instance “th” (as in “that”—which a native French speaker might pronounce “zat”) or “w” (as in “wish”—a German speaker might say “vish”).

We’re all familiar with people who speak accented English, but McLaughlin (below) noticed that researchers often described accented speech as a “degradation.” She felt the word choice was unnecessarily negative—is one’s use of a second language to be considered “degraded” simply because it is accented?

McLaughlin, who graduated earlier this year, was deep into her senior research project when she came across this terminology. She was inspired to learn more and soon identified two schools of thought in linguistics—one in which the speaker with an accent is described as the “problem,” she said, and another holding that the listener shares the burden for effective communication.

Despite the work necessary for her senior project, she made time for a second investigation, exploring possible bias in linguistics research against speakers with accents. She examined several studies and for each asked the question: Does the study address the role of the listener—or place the burden of clear communication solely on the speaker?

McLaughlin has her own opinion on this matter. She believes that the comprehension of accented language is a duty shared by the speaker and listener. It’s like moving a couch, she said—it’s easier if two people work together rather than one toiling alone.

Working closely with assistant professor Melissa Baese-Berk, McLaughlin reviewed 49 research papers published since 1980 that dealt with nonnative speech. She categorized each as belonging to one of two groups.

In the first category, the research focused solely on traits of the speaker such as the severity of the accent. In the second, the studies characterized the listener as a “contributor,” with an active role in effective communication. In this category, testing included traits of the listener such as social biases, cognitive skills and language experience.

McLaughlin found that, over time, a trend emerged. In the 1980s, research papers split evenly between the two groups. In the 1990s, linguists concentrated mostly on the speaker; since 2000, they appear to have reversed course, testing not just the speakers’ communication traits but also the listeners’ characteristics.

The project earned McLaughlin a $2,500 prize for undergraduate research in the humanities and she also won an award for her presentation of the topic at the 2017 Undergraduate Research Symposium, a showcase for undergraduate research.

More important to McLaughlin than the recognition, though, is the shift that might be occurring in this corner of linguistics research—her belief is that, if nonnative speakers are to be understood, then researchers must account for the role of the native listeners.

“As researchers, the questions we ask and the way that we go about answering them matter,” McLaughlin said. “If we are only answering questions related to the speakers, we are essentially only answering half of the research question.”

—Matt Cooper