Let’s Talk Language Bias

This week on #MeetAScientist, get to know Dr. Okim Kang, Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics at North Arizona University. Her research centers on linguistic stereotyping, and she was recently interviewed about her work on NPR’s Code Switch. She shares how her interest in the field began and why we need to be raising awareness and having conversations around language bias.

When did you find your research area, what led you to it, and what is something you are excited about researching now?

I was my first student or research subject, which started when I was a college student. I knew that I had some English issues which couldn't be fixed by teachers or others. Therefore, I pinpointed the differences in my English and that of a standard American English speaker, correcting sounds and identifying features related to clarity of speech. This process became my master’s thesis. Now, helping others to develop their intelligibility is a big part of my research. 

Then, in April, 2018, I received my first patent, for a computer program that evaluates speech to determine accents. The program can assess what contributes to someone’s accent and how “far” removed it is from the standard American accent. It is targeted toward non-native English speakers but can be applicable to different dialect detection. I developed this program, the first of its kind to recognize intonation. The program is important because it allows non-native English speakers to identify where they are having the most difficulty and how to adjust the sounds they make or where to accent a syllable to speak more intelligibly.

I also recently finished a project funded by Educational Testing Service about intelligibility of different varieties of English. In this three-year project, I explored various ways of measuring intelligibility, the intelligibility threshold of diverse accent varieties and the effect of international accents and shared first language on listening comprehension tests.

I just like research. There are just so many research questions out there to be investigated. 

You were recently on NPR’s Code Switch and on the local radio in Flagstaff talking about language bias in our society. Why is communicating this bias to the public so important to you? 

Non-native speakers of English are often subjected to evaluations of their spoken English that have profound consequences for their education, employment and even citizenship. However, native speakers’ judgments of non-native speakers’ speech are often biased. At least, that's what my research shows. Native speaker listeners often hear what they expect to hear rather than accurately perceive non-native speakers’ speech. We see these examples from US undergraduate students' perception of international instructors or international teaching assistants. And what they expect to hear is often quite unsatisfactory. I’ve spent my entire research life on this accent issue and communication success. I’ve seen so many immigrants treated badly, who have all different kinds of accents. I hope my research can help them in any way possible. Spreading awareness of language-related bias is more important in the U.S. right now than ever before.

Language bias doesn’t (or hasn’t been) getting as much attention as other biases, though it is likely just as important in shaping how society views a person. How have you gone about communicating your research and have you seen progress or acknowledgement by the public?

I agree. I've tried to send this message out to the public as much as I can, but I noticed that the public media doesn't get my point right all the time. The public's interest is mostly pointing out the problem rather than providing the solution. The public wants to find out what needs to be blamed rather than how we can solve the problem. Therefore, it's been somewhat frustrating. 

Do you talk with your classrooms, students, colleagues, community about bias? How do you go about this?  

Yes, definitely. I teach a PhD seminar class this semester, for example. I teach students about this language bias, let them read relevant research findings, and do some research with me as a class project. Early this year, I presented a research study with my students about this language bias issue at one of the biggest conferences.  I also encourage students to be more proactive about this issue. 

Perhaps the most important question we ask of all, when you're not science-ing, doing outreach, or teaching, what do you do to unwind?

I intentionally try to do research using a real-life situation. As my career progresses, I am stepping outside the experimental more often, going into the real world and observing communication between different groups. I work with a local high school teacher to determine how students reacted to teachers with accents. I also try to do a study  about local restaurant managers’ reaction to potential employees with accents, etc. At the moment, my effort is to send out messages about this language-related biases out there to the public and let them be aware of this issue. Also, I talk to people around me, and tell them about it (starting from my family members too). 

Okim Kang is Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics at Northern Arizona University. Her research specialties are language attitudes, speech perception and production, L2 pronunciation, oral proficiency assessment, and automated scoring.  She has published two books by Routledge as a lead editor/author: (1) Assessment in Second Language Pronunciation (2017) and (2) The Routledge Handbook of Contemporary English Pronunciation (2018).  She serves on an Editorial Board various journals such as TESOL Quarterly, Language Testing, and Journal of Second Language Pronunciation. She is finalist of Jacqueline Ross TOEFL Dissertation 2009 Award and winner of Christopher Brumfit PhD Thesis 2009 Award, and recipient of 2013 TOEFL Outstanding Young Scholar Award based on her numerous professional activities and contributions to the field of language assessment. She was selected as a 2016 Language Learning Scholar in Resident as well.  Her articles have appeared and are scheduled to appear in TESOL Quarterly, Language Learning, Language Testing, Modern Language Journal, Language Assessment Quarterly, System, TESOL Journal, Journal of Language and Social Psychology, Speak Out, Cambridge Language Assessment Research Notes, Journal of Excellence in College Teaching, Journal of Educational and Psychological Assessment, New Zealand Studies in Applied Linguistics, Speech Prosody, and several times in Proceedings of Pronunciation in Second Language Learning and Teaching. She is the Co-Editor of TESL-EJ Book reviews.