Workshops talks dialects and identities in the workspace

Thursday, March 28, 2019 - 10:25pm

Experimental linguist Kelly Wright shares her research on speech perception and dialect discrimination during the LSA Opportunity Hub: Celebrating your Voice at Work event Thursday afternoon.

Experimental linguist Kelly Wright shares her research on speech perception and dialect discrimination during the LSA Opportunity Hub: Celebrating your Voice at Work event Thursday afternoon. Buy this photo
Zachary Goldsmith/Daily

On Thursday evening, the LSA Opportunity Hub hosted a workshop in the LSA Building on celebrating your voice at work. About 20 students attended the event, which explored different dialects and the identities they represent in an attempt to answer questions about the roles they play in professional industries. The workshop was the third installment of the Hub’s bigger campaign to engage with identities while pursuing a career.

Kierra Trotter, director of student engagement for the Opportunity Hub, explained the purpose of the campaign.

“We’re trying to help students explore and learn and develop, starting with who they are and how they want to see themselves in the future,” Trotter said.

The Thursday seminar and discussion was led by Kelly Wright, an experimental linguist in the Linguistics Department whose research involves dialect discrimination.

Wright began the seminar by explaining categorical perception and the role it plays in interpreting dialects. The relationship between people’s cultural expectations, their physical senses as well as the words that come out of their mouth all play off of one another, she said.

Wright explained that each specific dialect reflects individuals who think alike and talk about the same thing.

“We use all of our perspectival systems, every one of our senses and experiences in the world,” Wright said. “And we adapt to the patterns around us and the dominant languages in our community.”

According to Wright, where an individual is from and their own lived experiences often lie at the root of how they relate to others. Citing the “Michigan accent,” as an example, Wright explained that people often associate what is considered a “normal” accent with whatever their regional accent is.  

“It’s all about our understanding of culturally defined categories in the world,” Wright said. “We really do have very strong expectations of what we are going to see —  how we parse up our signals and senses have to do with our interactions within the physical world.”

The workshop then transitioned into an interactive activity for its participants. Wright handed out a map of the U.S. and asked participants to circle the regions they thought could be associated with an accent or a dialect.  

“We have an egocentric perception — we are carrying all this information around about where we are in the world,” Wright said. “Who we are and where we are has a lot to do with how we hear other people.”

According to Wright, sociolinguistic variables are attached to different groups of people. That is, vowels, consonants and the sounds words make are often associated with specific communities. In this way, people are able to garner social information from a mere voice because their brains are keyed into social conditions.  

“Subject position is really strong for the ways we categorize,” Wright said. “Sometimes we hear things that aren’t there, but also that we don’t hear things that are there. This means that voice matters.”

This becomes a problem, Wright said, when linguistic discrimination occurs. In other words, when individuals are treated differently based on the way they sound. Such instances correlate with social stereotypes that are already present.

“This natural phenomenon of recognizing social knowledge has some pretty nasty consequences,” Wright said.

According to Wright, when people start to equate the way individuals speak with certain social groups, it can influence the natural speech perception system.

“Black voices are seen as aggressive or lazy, female voices sound shrill or pitchy, southern voices sound uneducated or slow-paced, New England voices sound fast-paced or confident to a fault,” Wright said.

After the event, LSA senior Carly Marten reflected on how different perceptions and generalizations can negatively impact communication.

“People need to think about how they have ideologies about language that are based on ideologies about groups of people who speak those languages,” Marten said. “They need to consider and deconstruct those narratives in order to interact with people as their true selves, rather than a caricature that is based on stereotypes in larger discourses.”

Wright noted how dialect discrimination is not addressed by the law explicitly.

“The law doesn’t feel that a voice is enough to establish social class membership,” Wright said. “It’s not provable that something fell out of my mouth and you heard me being in a particular group, but we know it works that way.”

Marten spoke about recognizing her privilege and keeping others in check when it comes to linguistic discrimination.

“Everyone changes the way they speak given who they are around,” Marten said. “I think people with power need to be intentional about the way in which they use language to judge and ultimately marginalize other people.”

Wright used the U.S. housing market to illuminate the real-world impacts of dialect discrimination. Before segregation laws, housing discrimination was overt; policies such as Eisenhower’s highway project, where a physical highway divided regions by class, illuminated that. With policies such as the Fair Housing Act, discrimination, instead of being eradicated, was pushed under the table, becoming covert.

Wright discussed the implications of this.

“Homeownership is the cornerstone of economics,” Wright said. “It determines things like generational wealth, school districts and tax bases. Keeping me out of the door when I call on the phone affects everything. This is about systematic, covert oppression based on race, voice and class.”

The workshop ended with Trotter emphasizing the importance of identity expression within the workplace.

“We want to make an impact on the employer, not just tell students to change who you are,” Trotter said. “We treat culture as a coat we have to take off before we go to work. You should be able to wear that coat in the workplace.”

Though career and style guides are changing to focus on the individuals themselves rather than fitting a mold, listeners were encouraged to become part of that change — to incorporate their personal stories into their professional prospects.

Alia Orra, global alumni and employer relations manager for Communications and Outreach at the Hub, explained the importance behind reframing the foundation of professional career advising.

“So much of career coaching is about adjusting your identity to match a norm,” Orra said. “We want to empower students to ask who created the norm and why.”