In her debut book How You Say It, UChicago psychologist Katherine D. Kinzler examines how we interpret language to divide the world into social groups.
In a new book, Professor Katherine D. Kinzler argues that the way you speak reflects who you are.
Have you ever thought that the way you speak can determine who you're friends with, what your job is, and how you see the world? Even if you don't realize it, "how you speak is, in a very real way, a window into who you are and how other people see you."
Professor Katherine Kinzler. Photo credit: University of Chicago
that's the pointUniversity of ChicagoIn her first book, psychologist Katherine D. Kinzler examineshow do you say it:Why are you talking like that and what does it say about you?, which was released on July 21. Described by one reviewer as "an articulate examination of an underappreciated aspect of human communication," the book highlights the immense power of language and examines how language underpins all facets of social life.
In his book, Kinzler, a leading developmental psychologist, looks at language from childhood to adulthood, specifically how children think about language to divide the world into groups and find social meaning. "Language is very personal to people," said Kinzler, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago. "The way you speak can be such an integral part of who you are, so I wanted the book to reach people where it would really have an impact, even beyond academic impact."
In the following Q&A, Kinzler talks more about the impact of language in everyday life and how discrimination based on language works as another form of prejudice.
You write in the introduction to the book that it is not exactly what you say but how you say it that gives language immense power. Do you think that the way we speak determines how social life develops?
Yes. That was also a motivation for writing the book: that the way we speak is such a powerful force in our lives and people often don't know it. It's so important to the people we relate to, but it also has tremendous power for those we don't get along with and are prejudiced against. I think on a societal and institutional level there is a bias towards what is perceived as embedded non-standard discourse. People also don't realize how difficult it can be to feel left out because of your speech and we need to be aware of that.
"The way you speak can be an integral part of who you are, so I wanted the book to reach people where it really makes a difference."
— prof. Katharina Kinzler
He also discusses racial discrimination based on language, such as negative views of African American English. Can you tell a little bit more about it?
Prejudice against language is something people don't always talk about, but it's definitely there. One arm of racism says that if no dialect of English is good or bad, better or worse, then African American English is not as good as other dialects of American English. This is an example of how we fail to think about language in our lives and the role of language bias. I recommend checking out Asst's detailed work. Sharese King of the Department of Linguistics here at UChicago—she and I just published a joint op-ed in the Los Angeles Times about the underappreciated role of language in racial justice that people need to consider. As we have a larger conversation about understanding privilege and exclusion, speaking needs to be part of the conversation.
Where does this type of language discrimination come from?
Parents and educators have a lot of influence over which categories their children learn. One example I talk about a little bit in the book is the use of gender categories. Even if it's done in a seemingly innocuous way, like teachers at school say "boys and girls line up," you'll likely find that gender is labeled.constantfor kids Because it's constantly being tagged and verbally labeled, it can make kids think that gender is a bigger category than they might think. Because of that, they say to themselves, “Oh, this is really important. What is so important about gender? So you look at the world and you see a lot of gender stereotypes and you might think that these stereotypes are causally responsible for the gender categories. Likewise, parents at home could say something like, “We like Muslims! Muslims are cool!” That sounds positive, but in general, referring to an entire category of people can backfire. It's better if you can talk about people as individuals rather than focusing on an entire category of people. It's very easy for clichés to vanish when you think of a group of people who are all the same.
In terms of how our accents work, you can make split-second judgments about someone when you meet them, even if you're not necessarily aware of it. In Montreal, for example, in the 1960s it was a time of social discord between language groups when English-speaking Canadians (compared to French-speaking Canadians) had the most economic opportunity. Experimental language studies would introduce people to voices, and their ratings would allow you to gauge their linguistic bias (although they don't explicitly admit it). English Canadians heard someone speak English and thought, "Oh, that person sounds so much smarter, taller, and cooler than the French speaker," but it was actually a bilingual voice recording in both languages. Even French speakers often say that English voices sound louder.
So if you listen to someone for a split second, you may get information about the person that may not be real, but are actually cultural attitudes that influenced your assessment. Stereotypes about groups of people can easily lead to prejudices against individuals.
Part of her book looks at how teaching children about multilingualism from an early age can expand into our language circles and help break down these stereotypes about accents and language. Do you think this is the solution to reducing linguistic bias in general, or is it at least a step in the right direction?
It would be nice if it was a perfect solution, but there are many places in the world that are multilingual and have wars and conflicts. So this is not a panacea. That being said, I also believe that there is good evidence that living in a multilingual environment, and in an environment that has and values diversity in general, has positive influences on children's development and allows them to learn from different perspectives think and think outside of box. . Overall, I think that dealing with linguistic diversity at an early age is very positive for children.
"If we're going to have a broader conversation about understanding privilege and exclusion, talking has to be part of the conversation."
— prof. Katharina Kinzler
How has language discrimination affected how different people have experienced the coronavirus pandemic?
Health care inequalities are an enormous problem in our nation, along racial and ethnic lines. There is a study conducted by UChicago psychology colleague Boaz Keysar and others that highlights misunderstandings in communicationHealthcare context. In general, communication is not this perfect system; there is a lot of room for error. This can be especially difficult when people communicate in multiple languages. In addition, there is research that shows that people are not always aware when they close their mouths and stop listening in a communicative context because they do not like the way someone is speaking. Healthcare is so critical, especially now, and we really need to be mindful and tired of the miscommunication. Therefore, I consider the recognition of linguistic diversity to be extremely important in this context.
Is it your goal for the book to inspire that kind of change?
Absolutely. My goal is to keep in mind the social role of language in our lives. We need a shift in our understanding of the meaning of language and its importance for a variety of different social interactions. In the book I talk about how there isn't always enough job protection for people who speak atypically. There is also evidence of language-based discrimination in real estate markets. When we think about economic opportunities, there is a lot of evidence that a language that is considered non-native or non-standard can limit the economic opportunities people can have. So when we think in particular of a recession and jobs that require virtual communication, which can be more difficult than face-to-face communication, it is important to consider the social psychology of language.