Actress Claudia Quesada remembers a college professor who made it a point to point out her Cuban accent when she was in class.
With English as her second language, the Evanston resident was aware of her accent but not afraid that it would get in the way of her future on the stage or in front of the camera. But she did get that feeling when the teacher drew attention to the way Quesada spoke.
“I think mainly she had issues with me and two other Latina students with an accent,” she said. “The other Latinx students in the class were born here, but for us, we had an accent.”
New research shows that speech patterns strongly affect a person’s wages, particularly African Americans. The report by Jeffrey Grogger, the Irving Harris Professor in Urban Policy at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, and published in the Journal of Human Resources, found that workers with racially and regionally distinctive speech patterns earn lower wages compared with those who speak in the mainstream or Standard American English (SAE). Grogger said he decided to delve more into speech patterns when he heard the star of his son’s baseball team, an African American, talking to the coach.
“I’m sitting there thinking that I really don’t understand this guy, and I’m thinking how out of touch can I be, but then to my surprise, the coach turns and says, I didn’t understand a word,” he said. “And on the way home, I’m thinking what are the disadvantages of you growing up and speaking the native language in a way that people don’t even understand. Then I realized that this is probably not an isolated thing, and this is something that someone should probably be studying.”
Data for the report came from audio collected during the 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY97), a large, nationally representative panel survey of the labor market behavior of males who were ages 12-16 in 1997. After reviewing each audio file, listeners were asked to specify the speaker’s sex, race/ethnicity, and region of origin. Linguists have shown that listeners can generally identify the race of a speaker based on a very short audio clip. Meanwhile, social psychologists have shown that both African American and white listeners routinely rate African American Vernacular English (AAVE) speakers lower than SAE speakers in terms of socioeconomic status, intelligence and even personal attractiveness.
In his analysis, Grogger found that the impact on wages can be in the magnitude of 20% for blacks, as well as for whites who live in the rural South.
“By studying the dialects of African American and Southern white workers, it appears that since listeners generally prefer mainstream to nonmainstream speech, this results in higher wages for mainstream-spoken workers in highly interactive sectors,” Grogger said.
For the black community, the wage difference is explained by what Grogger terms “sorting,” which is when mainstream-spoken African American workers sort into jobs that involve intensive interactions with customers and coworkers and earn a sizable wage premium in those jobs (i.e. medical/health service managers and first-line supervisors/managers of nonretail sales workers). For Southern whites, the wage differences are largely due to location, with Southern-sounding workers who live in rural areas earning less than those in urban areas.
“Twenty percent is pretty substantial. … The other thing that surprised me was, if you take two groups of African American workers and break them into thirds, you got one-third whose speech is racially indistinct and another group where you have two-thirds whose speech is racially distinctive. It turns out that the earnings of the indistinct group, on average, are about the same as their white counterparts with the same education and same experience.”
Grogger said the information poses the question: Why do people have such strong opinions about the speech of others? He said social psychologists have played audio clips for different audiences and then asked: What do you think about the person who was speaking on the clip? Those studies show that people have extremely strong feelings about the way other people speak, across races and geographical regions.
“It’s not just that I have a lower image of people that don’t sound like my group. Even within my group, people who sound different tend to be rated lower on lots of different dimensions, and so that sounds like, to me, another facet of prejudice,” Grogger said. “Speech is not highly correlated with characteristics that we can measure that influence productivity, but clearly people are drawing conclusions based on speech.”
Grogger is doing more research on this speech/wage disparity in Germany. There, he said dialects are different, but the wage differences are more regional. Sorting happens there, too — a worker from the same region who speaks with a stronger accent than his counterparts experiences a reduction in wages by an amount that is comparable to the gender wage gap. In addition, workers with distinct regional accents tend to sort away from occupations that demand high levels of face-to-face contact.
“I think understanding where that comes from and why it gets so explicit in the labor market is where this goes next,” Grogger said.
Meanwhile, Quesada, 31, who immigrated to the U.S. with members of her family in 2003, is prepping for a role in “A Xmas Cuento Remix,” a modern-day take on “A Christmas Carol” at the 16th Street Theater. And although she’s aware that her accent may be the cause of missed acting opportunities, she’s staying positive. She said that thinking about how her accent is going to come across in auditions puts limits on her and her economic possibilities.
“I’m aware that it could an obstacle, but for me, being an immigrant, I embrace who I am,” she said. “I spent half my life in Cuba. You either love me for who I am or you don’t.”
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