Racial stereotypes may affect how we perceive language: study

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How you perceive language may have to do with your own racial biases, according to a new study out of UBC.

Participants listened to audio recordings of Canadian-born people who are white and of Chinese descent and found they perceived both groups equally as well when they were not aware of their race.

They found people of Chinese descent harder to understand only when they saw their picture.

“At face value, it makes humans sound awful,” says assistant linguistics professor and study head Molly Babel.

“It’s a pretty depressing finding. One of the things about these results is that it was really hard to talk about them in a class of 200 students where half of them are of Asian-Canadian descent.”

Babel says the loss of intelligibility starts from the moment people perceive someone’s race. She says that the brains of people who embody racial stereotypes gear up to hear an accent that may or may not exist.

“What we think is happening here is that listeners have this really unfortunate association that if you’re of Asian descent, English isn’t your first language and you’re going to speak English with a non-native accent.”

She says in order to undo ingrained racial biases, people need to be more conscientious.

“What results like this show is that a lot of what you think is hard to understand comes from your end. It’s about listeners being aware that they’re also contributing to whether or not an interaction has effective communication along with it.”

Babel adds when people in the study knew the voice they were listening to belonged to a white person, they were rated as having less of an accent, whereas results for the people of Chinese descent remained consistent.

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