Hear Me Out: Accent Bias

Podcast

Voices are more than just sounds; they’re auditory “faces” that can give clues to who we are. But are these clues always accurate? How might accents skew our decision-making?

Dive deeper

11 million people in France say they’ve been the subject of discrimination due to their accent. A November 2020 legislation seeks to change that statistic – accent discrimination is now criminalized in France with up to three years’ jail time and a fine of up to 45,000 Euros. Learn more about the legislation at The Guardian.

If you watch The Simpsons, you’ll know Apu Nahasapeemapetilon: the thick-accented Indian proprietor of the Springfield’s Kwik-E-Mart voiced by non-Indian actor Hank Azaria. The recent outcry regarding the character shows that what used to be considered funny 30 years ago, isn’t anymore. Watch the trailer for Hari Kondabolu’s documentary The Problem with Apu and read Matthew Haag’s New York Times article to learn more.

“Different hosts with different voices tell different kinds of stories. And vocal styles communicate important dimensions of human experience. What are we missing out on by not hearing the full range of those voices?” Listen to Chenjerai Kumanyika on “Challenging The Whiteness of Public Radio” (NPR’s All Things Considered).

“Now, algorithms are deciding whom to hire, based on voice.” The claim, in this episode of NPR’s All Things Considered, is that algorithms are neutral, and do not rely on things like age, race, gender or sexual orientation. But is this true? As organizations begin to rely on automated methods of evaluating candidates, it’s worth asking: what do we infer from the voice, and how might biases be baked into technology and possibly reduce the quality of our decisions?

Do accents make us sound smarter? Further explore this question with the BBC’s Chi Luu.

“Words leisurely unfold out of my mouth. They glide off my tongue with the smooth ebb and flow of the rolling blue Appalachian mountains I grew up on; the drawling vowels stretch long like valleys and consonants tumble down sloping ridgelines into reluctant contractions … I knew the North didn’t hear many voices like mine. What I did not know, or rather, expect, was how my distinct accent would become my identifier” From Emilee Hackney’s article in The Harvard Crimson: Y’all and Drawl.

References

Calderon, J. (2016, March 18). Inside the secret world of accent training. BBC Capital, Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20160317-inside-the-secret-world-of-accent-training.

Cooper, R. P. & Aslin, R. N. (1989). The language environment of the young infant: Implications for early perceptual development. Canadian Journal of Psychology, 43(2), 247.

DeCasper, A. J. & Fifer, W. P. (1980). Of human bonding: Newborns prefer their mothers’ voices. Science, 208(4448), 1174-1176.

DeCasper, A. J. & Spence, M. J. (1986). Prenatal maternal speech influences newborns’ perception of speech sounds. Infant Behavior and Development 9(2), 133-150.

Delitsky, M. L. & Baines, K. H. (2013). Diamond and other forms of elemental carbon in Saturn’s deep atmosphere. In AAS/Division for Planetary Sciences Meeting Abstracts, 45.

Dixon, J. A., Mahoney, B., & Cocks, R. (2002): Accents of guilt? Effects of regional accent, race, and crime type on attributions of guilt. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 21(2), 162-168.

Dobrow, J. R. & Gidney, C. L. (1998). The Good, the Bad, and the Foreign: The use of dialect in children’s animated television. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 557(1), 105-119.

Dvorkin, J. A. (2005, May 18). Why doesn’t NPR sound more like the rest of America? NPR, Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4656584.

Emsley, J. (1998). The Elements. 3rd edition. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Fifer, W. P. & Moon, C. (1989). Psychobiology of newborn auditory preferences. Seminars in Perinatology, 13(5), 430.

Foulkes, D. (2002). Children’s Dreaming and the Development of Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Fuertes, J. N., Gottdiener, W. H., Martin, H., Gilbert, T. C., & Giles, H. (2012): A meta-analysis of the effects of speakers’ accents on interpersonal evaluations. European Journal of Social Psychology, 42(1), 120-133.

Hackney, E. (31 January 2018). “Y’all and Drawl”. The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved from: https://www.thecrimson.com/column/southern-accented/article/2018/1/31/hackney-yall-and-drawl/

Kinzler, K. D., Shutts, J, DeJesus, J., & Spelke, E. S. (2009). Accent trumps race in guiding children’s social preferences. Social Cognition, 27(4), 623-634.

Kinzler, K. D. & DeJesus, J. M. (2013). Northern = smart and Southern = nice: The development of accent attitudes in the United States. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 66(6), 1146-1158.

Rakic, T., Steffens, M. C., & Mummendey, A. (2011). When it matters how you pronounce it: The influence of regional accents on job interview outcome. British Journal of Psychology, 102(4), 868-883.

Stein, W. E., Mannolini, F., Hernick, L. V., Landing, E., & Berry, C. M. (2007). Giant cladoxylopsoid trees resolve the enigma of the Earth’s earliest forest stumps at Gilboa. Nature, 446(7138), 904.

Vrij, A. & Winkel, F. W. (1994). Perceptual distortions in cross-cultural interrogations. The impact of skin color, accent, speech style, and spoken fluency on impression formation. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 25(2), 284-295.

Credits

“Hear Me Out” was created and developed by Mahzarin Banaji and Olivia Kang with funding from PwC and Harvard University.

Narration by Olivia Kang, featuring Emilee Hackney

Sound editing and mixing by Evan Younger

Music by Miracles of Modern Science

Artwork by Olivia Kang