University study reveals biases in the Spanish-speaking community

Vanessa Adrian/Staff Writer

A new University study shows that people in Miami likely judge others on how they speak Spanish.

Philip Carter, the assistant professor of English and Linguistics in the University’s Department of English, said the study seeks to understand the extent to which people have preferences or biases for language varieties or dialects.

The study was conducted with 300 participants, each given quick auditory speech samples from men aged 30-34 speaking their home variety of Spanish, which would be either from Havana, Cuba; Barcelona, Spain; or Bogota, Colombia. Each man is college-educated in his native country, and has lived and been employed in Miami-Dade County for at least one year.

Out of the 300 participants, 67 percent identified as Latino/Latina, 52 percent identified as native Spanish-speakers and 40 percent were non-Latinos.

“We told participants that they were participating in a study in which people could make snap judgments based on receiving a small piece of information about a person with a photo of their room or article of clothing,” Carter said.

Carter said participants were unaware that they were looking at differences in Spanish dialect. Applicants were asked to provide rankings based off of the voices they heard, on their labor and employment situations in wealth.

For each voice heard, participants were given background information about the speaker, including their parent’s country of origin.

“Participants would type a dollar amount on how much money they believed the person in the audio earns per year,” Carter said.

The Spaniard was assigned an annual income of $62,300, which was $12,625 more per year than the Cuban and $13,125 more than the Colombian.

The findings were that the Spaniard voice samples were ranked with white-collar work, family wealth, and opportunities to get ahead and with more annual income than they did with the Colombian or the Cuban voice.

People who speak Cuban Spanish are perceived as being less educated, having lower income and coming from a family with less money than Spaniards, as well as having blue-collar jobs. People who speak the Colombian variety fall somewhere in between depending on the category. The strongest opinions were on the European and Cuban varieties.

“This was based on the participants hearing someone speak for a matter of seconds,” Carter said.

Carter said that all of the audio samples were based off of the same texts from a standard passage, so the partakers were not getting different types of content.

“We chose the Cuban voice because Cuban Americans are the largest origins Hispanic Latino group in Miami, and they have a lot of local power,” Carter said. “We chose the Colombian voice because we wanted someone from South America since there is a lot of immigration coming from them and we wanted to triangulate that with European Spanish.”

Carter said in Miami-Dade County, where nearly 64 percent of people spoke Spanish at home between 2009-2013, Cubans and Cuban Americans are the numerical majority and they are among the economic and political elite.

“Compared to other Hispanic groups in the country, Cubans have higher incomes, are more educated, are more likely to own a home, and are more likely to have health insurance,” Carter said.

Carter said he was surprised that despite this, Miami people still tend to introduce themselves by mentioning their European highlight.

“I would constantly hear people say ‘oh my great grandmother is from Spain,’ so I wondered if there was a language element in that too,” Carter said.

The study results do not show who ranked whom specifically, however, the largest number of study participants were the Cuban Americans.

“We can draw inferences from the results and say that if we know people harbor biases about people based on language differences, then we can imagine that those biases come out in key moments such as making a hiring decision, choosing a romantic partner or choosing a colleague for a project,” Carter said.

Carter said these snap judgments about a person’s intelligence, their socioeconomic status and their personality could be problematic.

“The study doesn’t have the participants make employment decisions, but to make inferences based on voices in the contents of work and labor situations,” Carter said.

The participants were asked to make predictions on what employment job the speaker might have.

“Some people would predict that a person worked at a café or as an attorney based off of the way they spoke Spanish,” Carter said.

Carter said he wasn’t surprised by the results of the study because the varieties spoken by the elites, the people with European heritage, are normally constructed as the best or most educated.

“It wasn’t surprising because taking a further step back in history, it is often the case that in the Spanish speaking world, that which comes from Europe is considered superior to that which comes from the Americas. That is a Eurocentric ideologies built in Spain. What was shocking was that we stumbled across this, in Miami,” Carter said.

Carter is a scholar of language and culture in U.S Latino communities and said he was interested in finding a way to show people the insidious way that biases work with language in order to overcome those biases.

“I hope that the study sparks conversation about the nature of language variation and that people are able to recognize that Spanish is an extremely diverse language with lots of different ways of speaking it that represent lots of different cultural traditions and geographical locations. That is something that we should take pride in,” Carter said.  


Feature Image retrieved from Flickr.

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