‘Do I sound like that?’ A conversation about accent and language.
How do you sound, to yourself and others? Monitor listeners share their experiences and ask questions about accent and identity. A bonus episode for our podcast “Say That Again?”
“Oh my gosh, do I sound like that?” It’s a common refrain when people hear their own voices, as noted by one listener of the Monitor’s podcast “Say That Again?” Over the past few weeks, hosts Jessica Mendoza and Jingnan Peng have invited people to share experiences about their accents, languages, and identities.
Many of the responses are relatable, and point to the challenges of trying to communicate more effectively.
In this episode, Jess and Jing speak with Katherine Kinzler, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and adviser to the podcast, about the ways people navigate the complexities of language. Their conversation ranges from the difficulties of learning a second language to the so-called “Peppa Pig” effect, in which American toddlers speak in a British accent because of the popular television program. How we speak is deeply tied to how we connect to others, in ways both obvious and subtle.
“Language is so personal to all of us,” Professor Kinzler says. “We don’t realize the social weight of language in our lives.”
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Jessica Mendoza: Hey, everyone, welcome to “Say That Again?”, a podcast about how we sound, how we listen, and why that matters, from The Christian Science Monitor. I’m Jessica Mendoza.
Jingnan Peng: And I’m Jingnan Peng.
Mendoza: Today, we’re doing something a little different.
Mendoza: Over the past few weeks as we’ve released episodes, we’ve also been asking about people’s experiences when it comes to their accents, languages, and identities.
Peng: So we reached out to listeners, to friends and family, coworkers and people on social media. We heard some very interesting things.
Mendoza: Yeah, and we’ve had some really good conversations, too. I’ve had people reach out to me that I haven’t heard from in a long time just to say that they had experiences and stories about accent and language that they wanted to share, too.
Peng: Yeah, it’s like everybody has a story.
Mendoza: Seems like it.
Peng: Yeah. So today we want to talk about some of the questions and experiences we’ve heard and also bring in someone who can give us a little perspective on them.
Mendoza: We called up Katherine Kinzler. If you’ve been listening to the show, you’ll know she’s a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, and she’s been the special advisor to this podcast. Her book “How You Say It” is about the biases we have around the ways people speak.
Mendoza: Professor Kinzler, thank you for joining us.
Katherine Kinzler: Thanks for having me. I’m so glad to get this chance to chat with both of you again.
Mendoza: So one of the things that we’ve talked about throughout this podcast is this idea of liking or disliking an accent. Some of our listeners had written in: Barbara from the Seattle area, wrote, she has a German accent. And she said that sometimes people tell her they like her accent and it surprises her because she doesn’t like her accent. We also had a woman named Rebecca, she’s from the South, and whenever she hears herself on tape, she says, “Oh my gosh, do I sound like that?” And I feel like that’s such a relatable experience. So the question here is, you know, what goes into our ideas of what is a likable or unlikable accent?
Kinzler: I think the idea of hearing how you sound and then not liking it can resonate with so many of us, right? And so part of that is just like self-consciousness. You know, I love when you both talk about that because you’re experts in the podcasting format. And then if you know, if you can then feel insecure, how are the rest of us going to ever do it at all? And I think whenever we think about liking and disliking, you know, we can have these ideas like, oh, this language is just inherently beautiful. And this one’s, you know, not so beautiful. But actually, that more likely represents something about the cultural attitudes that are out there about different groups of people. And then you think you’re, you know, you’re processing this inherent beauty, but actually you’re processing societal attitudes.
Peng: So I can think, sort of like, people usually think French is a beautiful language. And German is not.
Peng: I mean, I personally, actually, I think Spanish is really pretty. I think it’s prettier than French, but I know it’s my own opinion.
Kinzler: So but I think it would be really hard to find a consensus opinion among people who had no preconceived notions about those languages or those groups of people. You might have stereotypes about the French language or maybe Italian being beautiful, but then you also probably have a lot of stereotypes that you’ve been exposed to about those cultures and that linguistic prejudice and other prejudices are often really wrapped up together.
Mendoza: Yeah, it’s interesting to develop that self-awareness, to pause and ask yourself: When I say beautiful, what do I mean? And where is that coming from?
Peng: So we know that part of what you study is how babies and kids process accent and language. And we have a really interesting anecdote from someone who has lived in the US for a few decades as an immigrant and he says that when he talks to kids, they don’t seem to have a difficulty understanding him. But grownups do. Like if he goes to a kindergarten or elementary school kids would understand him just fine. But the school teachers and administrators don’t. So, yeah, what do you make of that?
Kinzler: In a lot of my studies, I find that really early in life, kids are attentive of language and accent, and they see language as providing social meaning. Often they prefer familiar speakers. But what I think a really critical difference is between kids and adults and what I’m guessing this anecdote really illustrates, is that kids can have a preference for familiar ways of speaking, but they likely don’t have access to all of the sociolinguistic attitudes and prejudices that are out there. And so, you know, I think that they may be a little bit more flexible, malleable, open-minded.
Mendoza: Yeah. That reminds me of what you told us in Episode Two, which was about linguistic representation in the media. I really loved your metaphor of kids being, you know, a statistical calculator that absorbs things in the world. And then the more they’re exposed to a particular type of experience, the more they categorize that as right or wrong or familiar or unfamiliar, and then start to kind of overlay the biases or prejudices that we have.
Kinzler: Yeah. And I think for parents, you know, a lot of parents want to do the best job that they can in raising kids who aren’t prejudiced, who are open minded, right? But you have to realize that your kids are these statistical calculators out there in the world adding up all the instances of evidence that they see. And so they’re not just getting input from you at home, they’re also, as you know, as you explored, getting lots of input from the media. I love that you’re highlighting these amazing examples, but also probably a fair amount is, you know, not so great. And they’re watching patterns in the world of who has power and who doesn’t and who is seen as respected and who isn’t.
You know, my 8-year-old has heard from me a lot about how I’m concerned about media exposure and the kinds of messages it’s, you know, giving to kids. And so sometimes, she’ll kind of roll her eyes and say, “I know, mom, it’s an, it’s an older movie. I know that, you know, you might not like the messages you think it’s giving me, but I really like the music!”
Mendoza: I could just imagine an 8-year-old being like, “Ugh, mom.”
Mendoza: “You’re so behind the times. I already get it.”
Kinzler: Yeah. You know, one thing I’ve also noticed about kids and what they’re picking up on, you know, is we’ve talked about so much of language learning is about your peers and about what you see as being valued by society, but it’s also by your peer group, like, how do your friends sound, you know? So anyways, my two-year-old is obsessed with “Peppa Pig,” which is spoken in a British accent.
Kinzler: And you know, he’s a COVID baby. And so he just hasn’t had that much peer influence, I would say, you know? And so anyway, so he’s been saying a lot of things in a British accent.
Mendoza: So funny.
Kinzler: Which makes me feel, you know, concerned. Is this kid watching too much Peppa?
Mendoza: Right, right.
Kinzler: But also, you know, I’m kind of like, uh oh, is Peppa his peer? I mean. You know, maybe –
Mendoza: Does he need other peers?
Kinzler: Right? Yeah. Like, you know, Peppa’s kind of his, is she his bestie at this moment? I’m just, I’m just not sure. So, you know, we’re going to work on some more socializing with real people as, as the summer progresses and it gets a little warmer out. But yeah.
Mendoza: It’s interesting, though, because this actually leads well into one of our other anecdotes, our former intern sent us a note about this. She says, you know, she was born in India, she’s lived in India, considers herself Indian, but she spent a lot of time in international schools and in the US. And so her accent now to a lot of other people, sounds American. And so to her, it’s like, well, that’s not how I self-identify.
Kinzler: Yeah. I mean, I think that the way you speak, your language and the accent you use to speak it or your, you know, your languages, they often reflect the voices that you heard as a child, right? So, you know, as you’ve talked about a bunch, it can be so difficult to learn a non-native language or accent into adulthood. And of course people do all the time, but often the way that they speak will still identify them almost instantly as being somebody who learned that language as an adult as opposed to as a young child. It sounds like she’s reflecting the voices of her youth in her current way of speaking. But then there’s this flip side of it that people make all these assumptions about others based on how they sound, and you kind of infer somebody’s native group identity or native group affiliation, and that may or may not be how they see themselves, and it may or may not be exactly who they are today.
Peng: Yeah. So for our Episode Four, we talked to two women who are Black and who in their own way come to realize the value, the history behind Black English. And they’re pushing back against the idea that “talking Black” is, you know, broken English or wrong. I guess a lot of us grow up maybe having the conception or learning that there’s a single correct way of speaking English and other ways are wrong. So how can we begin to break this link of, you know, one way of speaking English is good and other ways are bad?
Kinzler: And I think what you said is just so important that people often just aren’t aware of this, you know, and I think part of this can come to the notion of something like, well, you know, I learned grammar in school and it’s often taught in a way like, you know, you should say this, you shouldn’t say this. Or if you’re learning a foreign language, you’d work on some grammatical rules. But I love talking to linguists who you’d think you know as an outsider might think would be the most into proper grammar. And in fact, linguists will tell you that grammar is what people say and what they hear, and language is constantly changing. So if everybody’s saying it like this, that’s how the grammar of the language works. And when you think about different dialects of English or of any language, any dialect of that language is equally good at expressing the, you know, the full range of human thought and communication. And there isn’t a right or a wrong way to speak. Different languages and dialects are really tightly wrapped up in different cultural experiences.
Mendoza: I think what I’ve come to realize through this process of reporting this podcast has been it’s really about how you, your attitude towards people who speak a different type of English than you, right? Like this is our standard for our organization, for example. That’s fine, but there is this wall that you have to hit, and just like we are not going to shame people who do it differently.
Kinzler: I think that makes a lot of sense, this kind of value judgment and that that’s where the trouble lies. Like, imagine a kid coming into school speaking in a dialect of English that the teachers don’t value, or that you know that they’re the kid’s made to feel that they’re not as good or worthy or smart. And then imagine some other kid who maybe they come from the UK or some other place in the world where there’s not the same potential biases, and you could just imagine the kinds of reactions that somebody would have to a different dialect being really different.
Peng: Earlier you mentioned that linguists would say the grammar is what the people say and what we hear. For example, when you go to like Whole Foods, there’s going to be a lane like a sign that says “10 items or less.”
Peng: Even though by standard grammar, you know, we would say “10 items or fewer.”
Kinzler: Yeah, ‘cause you can’t divide each item into into parts.
Peng: Yeah, yeah. But then because everybody says “10 items or less,” I don’t know, is that – in a way does that become correct?
Kinzler: Yeah. Mm-hmm.
Mendoza: That’s so interesting. I never noticed that. It becomes part of the language over time.
Kinzler: Yeah. And it changes over time, right? And then that’s, you know, that’s OK. Like, I love examples about older adults not liking the way that teenagers speak. And then, of course, realizing that when they were teenagers, the adults didn’t like the way they spoke and that, yeah, you know, that’s how we do it as humans.
Mendoza: So I wanted to turn it towards you a little bit, professor. I know you’ve had a lot of personal interactions with language and accent as well, especially in parenting. What’s been your experience trying to get them to learn – it’s French, right?
Kinzler: Yeah, so I speak French and English, although I’m not a native speaker of French, but I have some extended family who lives in France, and so I learned it as a teenager. So I would say that, you know, my French is quite good, but I don’t sound quite native. And so, you know, around the time that I had my first child, she’s now 8, I was working on these research projects about the potential social advantages of a child being raised in a multilingual environment. We found that these bilingual kids and kids who were exposed to another language were better at taking the perspective of someone else than were some monolingual kids. And I think that in the US, we’re often just not thinking enough about that, right? Like if you look at statistics on second language learning in schools, they’re really not great. Of course, there are some schools that do it, but a majority of schools don’t teach languages other than English until kids are, you know, in middle school or high school, when they’re so much better at learning it as young kids.
Mendoza: You know, it’s interesting, something that I hadn’t brought up before, but like has been simmering in the back of my mind for a while is … how surprised I was actually the first time I realized that multilingualism wasn’t valued? In some ways it doesn’t surprise me. Right? But growing up in the Philippines, I think we understood almost implicitly that there was value in learning English, but there was also value in learning like other languages. I think there was sort of this understanding that you wanted to be able to have all of those in your arsenal. Like it looked good on your resume or whatever. And it just was sort of like I had to sort of pause for a second and think like, oh, I guess, yeah, there are spaces in the world where like, you know, if you know English, that’s really all you need and – or it’s perceived that way.
Kinzler: Yeah, and it feels like teaching a little kid more than one language. It’s like you’re giving them this superpower, you know? It’s so hard to get it later on, and then they just get it for free. They just learn it, whereas adults taking a foreign language class or, you know, kind of muddling through and it’s really challenging.
Peng: I just remember I had this Lyft driver who I remember. I think he speaks Twi, the language spoken in Ghana, and he has a little daughter. And he shared with me that during vacation time, when his daughter is at home, she would be speaking Twi with him. But then once the semester starts, she goes to school. She comes back. He speaks Twi to her, she replies in English. Somehow, even though he understands Twi, she chose to speak English to him. So I was just thinking about maybe some parents thinking about, like maybe the difficulty of having their children speak the non-dominant language.
Kinzler: One important thing to think about there is that probably the dad also understands her in English. And so from the child’s perspective, right? Like, she’s communicating, she’s socially connecting either way. And it sounds like, you know, the Twi is there, right? She understands him when she responds appropriately in English. It’s suggesting that she did understand what he said. But yeah, you see how our language choices reflect communication, but also social affiliation and bonding and the social environment that we find ourselves in and where we want to be.
Mendoza: One of the things that has really helped us in our reporting for the series really was your book, Professor Kinzler. So I’d love for you to have a chance to talk a little bit about it and tell folks to check it out.
Kinzler: Thank you so much. My book is called “How You Say It.” I am so glad that you had the time to read it. And I love the way that you know your work focuses on real people’s lives and stories because language is so personal to all of us. We don’t realize the social weight of language in our lives. And when you know when you’ve talked in the series about how we can be prejudiced against language and think that we’re just being a good judge of who’s a communicator or not, or not even realize that we’re doing it. And so I think this kind of awareness of the critical nature of, you know, language and accent and how much it defines us is really important to have out there.
Mendoza: We really appreciate your help throughout this podcast, so thank you so much.
Peng: Thank you.
Kinzler: Thank you all.
Peng: We hope you enjoyed this conversation. Next time we talk about what happens when you physically lose your voice and technology’s potential to help us find ourselves.
Mendoza: That’s going to be our last episode. So if you haven’t listened to any of our previous ones or you’ve missed a couple of them, please go check them out now. They’re on our website, csmonitor.com/saythatagain. You can also subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and Stitcher.
Peng: This episode was reported and produced by me, Jingnan Peng.
Mendoza: And me, Jessica Mendoza. It was co-produced with Samantha Laine Perfas.
Peng: The script was edited by Clay Collins. Sound design by Morgan Anderson and Noel Flatt.
Mendoza: This podcast was produced by the Christian Science Monitor. Copyright 2022.