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Language is one of the first ways that we make meaning of the world and evaluate those around us. Children as young as 10 months old respond to people differently based on the language they speak, revealing a hidden language bias from a young age. In addition to showing a preference for familiar language, children pick up on societal and cultural stereotypes to determine what is considered a high value or prestigious way of speaking. University of Chicago psychology professor Katherine Kinzler’s research and book “How You Say It” explores this topic, offering insights into the origins of language and accent prejudice and proposing potential ways to mitigate this bias in our daily lives.

Kinzler spoke to some of her findings at a recent virtual event hosted by The Hong Kong Jockey Club Programme on Social Innovation and Chicago Booth’s Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation, alongside Jan Gube, assistant professor at The Education University of Hong Kong. Gube offered a local lens, sharing how parents in Hong Kong contend with issues around language differences when deciding whether to send their child to a school with English, Cantonese, or Mandarin-language instruction. This decision, Gube said, can shape a child’s dialect and accent, which can impact their social standing long term.

Below are four takeaways from the talk:

Social signifiers in language

The link between education, social status, and English accents in Hong Kong is a “potent example” of how a student’s language of education can be perceived as a status symbol – with major consequences down the road, said Gube. Students who go to English schools in Hong Kong are “almost automatically seen as more capable” while students at Chinese schools are often perceived as “second class students.”

In Hong Kong, this phenomenon has its roots in the British colonial education system, but it also offers a broader example of how language and accent often divide social groups – an issue explored by Kinzler in How You Say It. “The way we speak can be this really important and sometimes primary way that we evaluate each other, and often we’re sometimes unaware of this,” Kinzler said. “I think this awareness could be helpful. In my research and in my book, I make the case for language as a social category that structures our social interactions, our lives, and how we judge others.”

In-group accent dynamics

Both Kinzler and Gube spoke about a related bias for people who speak a language with a similar accent. In her research, Kinzler has also found that both adults and children find “native-accented speech more credible,” which has huge social implications across the legal system, education, and even hiring between people who speak with a native and non-native accent.

This phenomenon can be seen in Hong Kong, said Gube, where even among Chinese speakers, an accent can be an important signifier of “in-group” status. Speaking Cantonese marks one as local, while speaking Mandarin or northern-accented Cantonese frequently sets groups apart in social and political settings. “The preference for (the Cantonese) accent can manifest in remarks, for example, when Hong Kongers hear newcomers from China speaking with an accented Cantonese,” he said, adding that in this scenario, “We can see that language can exclude and alienate people, so when a person fails to use this accent, he or she would likely be seen as the ‘Other.’”

Language as a tool for inclusion

While language can be a tool of exclusion within social groups, Kinzler’s research found that students who were exposed to a bilingual environment -- whether they speak multiple languages themselves or simply hear family members speaking another language -- were more likely to experience different perspectives.

“I think this really is a note of optimism that being exposed to linguistic diversity is something that's really positive for children and allows them to take themselves outside of their own perspective and to join the perspective of somebody else,” she said.

Toward greater cultural perspectives

Kinzler’s findings on empathy and bilingualism are underpinned by contact theory, according to Gube, where educators try to bring together people of different cultural backgrounds to interact in a meaningful way to reduce prejudice. It may be worthwhile then, he said, to not only consider exchange programs in other countries as a way to expand global perspectives, but that this kind of multicultural perspective-taking can be facilitated within a local community.

“In my view, the hardest wall to dismantle is not one made of unbreakable material, but one that puts a distance between us and others that we do not even know exists. These walls could be the biases and the misunderstandings of people that partly constitute our social world,” he said. “So I think it is worthwhile to not just think but rethink what and who constitutes our social world…Who are we living with in our society? Who are Hong Kong people? Who do we choose to interact with? Who do we not interact with?”

Interested in hearing from other academic thought leaders? On February 15 (CDT) and February 16 (HKT), join us for the next Social Impact Leadership Series event with Booth Professor Sendhil Mullainathan, who will speak to the social impact of A.I. Keep an eye out on the Rustandy Center events page for updates.

About The Hong Kong Jockey Club Programme on Social Innovation
The Hong Kong Jockey Club Programme on Social Innovation provides resources and programs to help the city’s NGOs, non-profit leaders, and social entrepreneurs do their best work. Operated by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, the Programme offers a range of opportunities, including scholarships, social entrepreneurship workshops, and trainings for NGO boards of directors and board members.

All the content of works are independently produced by the organiser and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Hong Kong Jockey Club Programme on Social Innovation nor The Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust.

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