How People Tawk Affects How Well You Listen


People from different places speak differently – that we all know. Some dialects and accents are considered glamorous or authoritative, while others carry a definite social stigma. Speakers with a New York City dialect have even been known to enroll in speech therapy to lessen their ‘accent’ and avoid prejudice. Recent research indicates that they have good reason to be worried. It now appears that the prestige of people’s dialects can fundamentally affect how you process and remember what they say.

Meghan Sumner is a psycholinguist (not to be confused with a psycho linguist) at Stanford who studies the interaction between talker variation and speech perception. Together with Reiko Kataoka, she recently published a fascinating if troubling paper in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. The team conducted two separate experiments with undergraduates who speak standard American English (what you hear from anchors on the national nightly news). They had the undergraduates listen to words spoken by female speakers of 1) standard American English, 2) standard British English, or 3) the New York City dialect. Standard American English is a rhotic dialect, which means that its speakers pronounce the final –r in words like finger. Both speakers of British English and the New York City dialect drop that final –r sound, but one is a standard dialect that’s considered prestigious and the other is not. I bet you can guess which is which.

In their first experiment, Sumner and Kataoka tested how the dialect of spoken words affected semantic priming, an indication of how deeply the undergraduate listeners processed the words. The listeners first heard a word ending in –er  (e.g., slender) pronounced by one of the three different female speakers. After a very brief pause, they saw a written word (say, thin) and had to make a judgment about the written word. If they had processed the spoken word deeply, it should have brought related words to mind and allowed them to respond to a question about a related written word faster. The results? The listeners showed semantic priming for words spoken in standard American English but not in the New York City dialect. That’s not too surprising. The listeners might have been thrown off by the dropped r or simply the fact the word was spoken in a less familiar dialect than their own. But here’s the wild part: the listeners showed as much semantic priming for standard British English as they did for standard American English. Clearly, there’s something more to this story than a missing r.

In their second experiment, a new set of undergraduates with a standard American English dialect listened to sets of related words, each read by one of the speakers of the same three dialects: standard American, British, or NYC. Each set of words (say, rest, bed, dream, etc.) excluded a key related word (in this case, sleep). The listeners were then asked to list all of the words they remembered hearing. This is a classic task that consistently generates false memories. People tend to remember hearing the related lure (sleep) even though it wasn’t in the original set. In this experiment, listeners remembered about the same number of actual words from the sets regardless of dialect, indicating that they listened and understood the words irrespective of speaker. Yet listeners falsely recalled more lures for the word sets read by the NYC speaker than by either the standard American or British speakers.

Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 3.23.28 PM

Figure from Sumner & Kataoka (2013) showing more false recalls from lists spoken with a NYC dialect than those spoken in standard American or British dialects.

The authors offer an explanation for the two findings. On some level, the listeners are paying less attention to the words spoken with a NYC dialect. In fact, decreased attention has been shown to both decrease semantic priming and increase the generation of false memories in similar tasks. In another paper, Sumner and her colleague Arthur Samuel showed that people with a standard American dialect as well as those with a NYC dialect showed better later memory for –er words that they originally heard in a standard American dialect compared with words heard in a NYC dialect. These results would also fit with the idea that speakers of standard American (and even speakers with a NYC dialect) do not pay as much attention to words spoken with a NYC dialect.

In fact, Sumner and colleagues recently published a review of a comprehensive theory based on a string of their findings. They suggest that we process the social features of speech sounds at the very earliest stages of speech perception and that we rapidly and automatically determine how deeply we will process the input according to its ‘social weight’ (read: the prestige of the speaker’s dialect). They present this theory in neutral, scientific terms, but it essentially means that we access our biases and prejudices toward certain dialects as soon as we listen to speech and we use this information to at least partially ‘tune out’ people who speak in a stigmatized way.

If true, this theory could apply to other dialects that are associated with low socioeconomic status or groups that face discrimination. Here in the United States, we may automatically devalue or pay less attention to people who speak with an African American Vernacular dialect, a Boston dialect, or a Southern drawl. It’s a troubling thought for a nation founded on democracy, regional diversity, and freedom of speech. Heck, it’s just a troubling thought.


Photo credit: Melvin Gaal, used via Creative Commons license

Sumner M, & Kataoka R (2013). Effects of phonetically-cued talker variation on semantic encoding Journal of the Acoustical Society of America DOI: 10.1121/1.4826151

Sumner M, Kim S K, King E, & McGowan K B (2014). The socially weighted encoding of spoken words: a dual-route approach to speech perception Frontiers in Psychology DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.01015

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