Dialect Maps, Race and Immigration

News items are useful for teaching but they can sometimes provoke new research investigations. For example

I recently found this item on my Facebook newsfeed (I created an interest page and jammed together all of the major news and national group organizations into a single feed; it’s fairly efficient most of the time). It illustrates the rough contours of the various dialects of English spoken around the US, and brought to mind my previous post on race, immigration and region and linguistic code-switching.

It was interesting to me that the author, Rick Aschmann, was not a social scientist; he claims that this is his hobby! . Given my training, my impulse was to find more sources that might match or improve upon Mr. Ashmann’s assessment. A hobby is one thing, doing it from scholarly expertise is another. Further, I wound up turning this into a social science exercise.

I poked around on the web to see if there were more scientifically based treatments of his accent mapping. In my quick check, it looks like this was quite the hot topic in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard by William Labov and associates (Penn) and Bert Vaux (Harvard then, currently at King’s College)  seemed to garner the quickest hits for dialect mapping. Interestingly there are a lot of different ways in which dialects are identified and it’s fairly challenging to determine the boundaries of where one dialect ends and another begins. Some areas, according to Aschmann, contain a wide range of dialects, chief among these being Pennsylvania.

But as the other studies and their accompanying maps show, there are different ways of classifying dialects which consequently changes the location of the boundaries. Here is Labov’s version of the same area:

This is important sociologically on two different but related grounds. One is race. While I don’t have systematic evidence for this (that would be an empirical linguistic studies project I think), members of different racial groups might share some dialect patterns in common while at the same time share patterns across racial groups in the same area. So we might ask: to the extent that African Americans are more populous in the South, to what extent are Southern dialects a function of African Americans pronouncing English, and to what extent is it defined by Southern whites pronouncing English? Are regional dialects shared equally across racial groups and do they in some ways reveal commonalities between racial groups or persistent distance? For instance, if two African American families, one with a “Northern” dialect and one with a “South Midland” dialect arrived in Atlanta looking for work, would a white employer’s judgment be affected by the dialect in speech?

The second is immigrant and second-generation adaptation. Immigrants these days are usually drawn more from non-English-dominant environments. How might they relate to the linguistic differences in the environments in which they migrate? Since they were socialized in non-English environments, we would expect that they would have an evident disadvantage in trying to adapt to the local dialect. However, their children might not have this hurdle. So what might the English dialect of the second-generation sound like based on region? Let’s take second-generation Korean Americans (SGKA for short) for example. The ones in California where a large fraction of SGKAs reside might exhibit a Western dialect whereas the ones in Philadelphia and New York might pick up an Atlantic Midland or Greater New York City dialect. This too is complicated by the degree to which their linguistic exposure at home is entirely in the native language of their immigrant parents or that amazing mashup we call Konglish.

So I started to think about whether dialect discrimination might also play a role in unequal job hirings. Do employers hire those who sound like them over whether someone looks like them. Sociologists note that there is often a lot of subjectivity in job placement, and in many cases identically-skilled candidates might be differentiated on grounds like “fit” etc. So I hypothesized a few possibilities on what might happen in an experiment that tries to determine dialect or racial discrimination:

-H0: Irrelevant. Hiring a worker is completely unaffected by hearing dialect differences. This is what social scientists call the null hypothesis.

-H1: If race matters more, differences in dialect will not affect hiring of a worker.

-H2: If regional dialect matters more, proximal dialect similarity to the employer will favor one worker over another.

If I could imagine this experiment, you would need 4 types of applicants (all with equivalent credentials so basically they are all the same on paper), two who are white, two who are black. One interviewee from each race exhibits the “Inland South” accent and one interviewee from each race has the “Atlantic Midland” dialect. We need employers that meet the same criteria: 1 set who are white with an Inland South dialect, 1 set of white employers with an Atlantic Midland dialect. Ideally, we would have African American employers in both of these categories too, but they may be harder to find. Since dialects are a function of location, the interviewees need to visit these employers from both parts of the country. If we had a lot of funding, we could replicate this experiment and bring in second-generation Asian and Latino Americans with these same dialects to determine racial versus dialect bias. This is something like an audit study which has been done several times in demonstrating subjective evaluations in hiring decisions.

A study like this could help reveal new complexities in our diversifying environment.

Texans and Second-Generation Code Switching

In a recent post I shared some reflections on the importance of second-generation Asian American research. While attending this conference I had the privilege of spending time getting to know my new colleagues who shared similar research interests. As much as scholarship has an autobiographical influence, it’s not surprising that members of the immigrant and second-generation share an interest in second-generation outcomes. In conversation over coffee or massive Korean meals, I was reminded of the challenges that many professors face who did not grow up in the US. While gifted in their particular profession, a common dilemma that many face is language accessibility. We all know that we make distinctions between people who “speak like me” or who “speak good English.” It’s a subtle acknowledgment that there is a dominant culture embodied not only in the words and syntax but in the manner of speech itself. It’s also a way of acknowledging embeddedness in a linguistic community. In most situations, if you’re part of a community that speaks the language and tone of the dominant culture, you will likely have little problem experiencing otherness from most people you encounter on a day-to-day basis. For many immigrants and their children, the second-generation, this is unlikely. Most immigrants today do not come from English-speaking nations and their access to this language varies by education and personal skill. So when I think about many of my foreign-born research-university colleagues I am struck by the hurdles they must overcome to do their job well. It’s not enough that they can analyze statistical data or interpret the activity of a local community, they have to articulate this in their secondary language both on paper and in person. Will they be discriminated against if someone reading or listening identifies non-native language capacity? The process of getting tenure and promotion is anxiety-ridden already; imagine adding on language access and you might have a slight understanding of what life is like for faculty who are immigrants. 

Language access is less likely a problem for the second-generation since most of their experience has been in the US. They have been exposed to media, teachers, and their multigenerational peers to make sense of “proper English.” They are also aware that their parents continually struggle with grammar and syntax in ways that native speakers take for granted. For some second-geners, they resort to limiting their own language ability to more effectively communicate with their immigrant elders and peers. This mix of foreign and native words along with a restructured grammar and syntax is known variously as “Spanglish” “Konglish” “Chinglish” and the like. For the second-generation, they have the challenge of code switching, the practice of adapting one’s language and behavior to one’s specific context. With their immigrant community they speak in another language or in some hybrid form as I just mentioned. National Public Radio for example has a post on several different popular examples of how code-switching works, and another on how it sounds in our popular culture.

What code-switching also reveals is the tacit awareness that the dominant culture enforces its expectations on our language ability and it places a kind of cognitive bind on those who navigate multiple linguistic environments. I suspect that for many in the second-generation, the pull is to conform, which can (but not always) weaken language ties to their ethnic culture. In order to fit in with the dominant group, their capacity to articulate the language most familiar to their immigrant community drifts from high fluency to near incoherence. Think about your second-generation friends and how many of them are very fluent in the language preferred by their immigrant parents, and how many of them code-switch using a hybrid of English and another language. Here’s an example of Indonesian, French and English code-switching:

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And here’s an example of English and Japanese (apparently a class project that’s garnered over 13,000 views!):

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It’s not only second-generation Americans that deal with linguistic marginalization from the mainstream. Scholars and activists have been well aware that even native-speakers have varying acceptability to the dominant group based on an audible accent. Some people “sound black” or “sound hick,” and in these cases, discrimination also rears its ugly head. Not surprisingly, in some multigenerational American families that experience potential upward mobility, successive generations sound less and less like the community from which they originate, and more and more like the intonations that dominate our media. This has been documented in a study of the central Texas accent, as narrated in this NPR story.

As Texans gain more influence in American society, the desire for respectability entails a weakening of the central Texas accent. Here again we see this inescapable pull toward conforming to the dominant group that clearly sounds different from them. In this way, it’s interesting to observe how marginal multigenerational groups function similarly to second-generation groups that grapple with language in their journey toward upward mobility.

Update 7/11/2013: the sociology website The Society Pages included this post abut the archiving of the German Texas accent which is slowly fading out.


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