Author Archives: Katie Botkin

About Katie Botkin

Katie Botkin, Editor-in-Chief at MultiLingual, has a background in linguistics and journalism. She began publishing "multilingual" newsletters at the age of 15, and went on to invest her college and post-graduate career in language learning, teaching and writing. She has extensive experience with niche American microcultures across the political spectrum.

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Top 10 Worst Localization Influencers

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Nimdzi’s top localization influencers list has garnered a lot of online debate and commentary over the past few weeks. Who’s on it? Who’s not on it? Nimdzi has just released an updated version, so MultiLingual is following suit with the list that everyone will be relieved to be excluded from: the worst localization influencers. All of these are real in a purely abstract way, and some are even real in a real-world way.

1. Voldemort. The attempt to localize Hogwarts for serpent culture, through language and changing his own facial structure, didn’t win this guy any popularity points.

2. Dracula. He never really bothered to adapt to centuries or locales that weren’t Medieval Romania. Plus the eating people thing.

3. Fans of Esperanto who think everyone should learn Esperanto to communicate across cultures. Localization? More like nope-alization.

4. The true villain: the Bad Manager. Most notably, the “seagull” project manager who flies in every few weeks, makes a lot of noise, craps all over your work, and then flies out.

5. Donald Trump. Under his astute global-businessman leadership, in which he has blamed his competitors (Democrats, other countries) for his own performance, all but a handful of countries have closed their borders to Americans. Not great for international exchange.

6. Stalin. That guy was really opposed to people keeping their native languages. Two thumbs down.

7. Regarding the prohibiting-native-language thing, see also: Franco (Franscisco, not James), Andrew Jackson, and most other dictators and/or genocide enthusiasts.

8. Saruman The White. His rebrand did not cater to most of the peoples of Middle Earth, and his thirst for innovation was expressed in new, improved Orcs. Very culturally insensitive — and environmentally destructive.

9. Scammers who steal translator resumes, clog your inbox, and even drain your bank account.

10. That one guy. Don’t be that one guy.

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Katie Botkin, Editor-in-Chief at MultiLingual, has a background in linguistics and journalism. She began publishing "multilingual" newsletters at the age of 15, and went on to invest her college and post-graduate career in language learning, teaching and writing. She has extensive experience with niche American microcultures across the political spectrum.

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Federal police presence in Portland highlights fragmented American cultures

Travel and Culture

Portland, Oregon, is known for its bicycle culture, its book culture, and its general funkiness. It has a reputation among many of its residents and visitors as a safe city — and indeed, its violent crime rate (5.27 per 1,000 residents) is lower than Dallas, Texas (7.76 per 1,000) and less than half that of Anchorage, Alaska (13.13 per 1,000).

The city is often painted differently in right-leaning media, however — Fox News, for example, recently described the city in terms of “violent protest” that is “destroying businesses, infrastructure and quality of life in Portland.”

This doesn’t sit well with many residents of the city. “I am consistently confused by the Fox News narrative every time they talk about my city because it’s literally never unsafe here. I could walk my kids down every single street in downtown at any time,” said longtime Portland resident Tori Douglass of the protests.

On Monday, President Trump claimed that Portland had become so violent that he’d had to send federal forces to quell protests. However, nationally-shown videos of “riots” are localized to a small portion of the downtown, according to Portland residents like singer-songwriter Asher Nathan Weinbaum.

The impact of protest on businesses has been virtually nil, said Weinbaum — Portland looks like any other US city in the middle of a pandemic. Many businesses had been working from home for months, given the situation with COVID-19. Localization company Welocalize has a substantial workforce in Portland, for example. The company had already moved to working from home, and is currently operating as business as usual.

Although Portland protests have been ongoing since May, the oft-overbearing local police tactics did not contain them. Residents said the protests, which encompassed tens of thousands of people, were largely peaceful until unbadged federal forces showed up in fatigues, started beating people, deploying teargas, and even grabbing protestors off the streets — and then, said residents, Portland started fighting back for real. On Sunday, the state’s attorney general, Ellen Rosenblum, announced that she had filed a lawsuit against the federal agencies that had descended on Portland. Rosenblum said the tactics of this ad hoc occupying police force infringe on the civil rights of protesters.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has additionally requested that the federal forces vacate the city, but the White House ignored that request. “What they are doing is sharply escalating the situation,” Wheeler told CNN. “We want them to leave.”

Protests have indeed escalated since federal agents started fighting civilians. Some protesters lit the Portland Police union headquarters on fire, and the protests grew to 2,000 people Monday night. “As a Monday tradition, we are all waiting to be assaulted by federal agents,” conflict journalist Robert Evans, who covered the war in Iraq, quipped on Twitter.

The question remains: if the city was relatively safe, why did President Trump choose Portland as a testing ground for the deployment of federal troops against civilians?

The long history of protest in Portland

Quite separate from its crime scene, Portland has a long history of protest, and specifically, protesting Republican policy. In the 1990s, it earned the nickname “Little Beruit” for the protests against the First Gulf War that greeted George Bush Sr. upon his visit to the city. The city gentrified extensively in the following decades, trading punk music venues for whacky donuts and swank coffeeshops. But an underlying leftist streak remained. In the national mind, the city still represented an upstart, anti-authoritarian ethos that had been blunted in other coastal cities like Seattle and San Francisco when the tech giants moved in. Where Portlandia celebrated the weirdness of Portland, Frasier toasted the intelligentsia of Seattle.

And importantly to Republican leadership, anarchy, as a belief system, was alive and well in Portland. Anarchists believe that society should ultimately be free from the rule of any government, and for Portland, that took the form of shared housing, activism for the houseless, and resistance to neo-Nazi presence. Evans, a gun-rights activist and journalist who has trained federal agents, has written about how cozy far-right groups are with Portland police, and how this has led to clashes between police and Portland residents.

A small riot in 1993 helped set the stage for what is currently happening in Portland. Protesters from the scene described tactics that have become familiar in many viral videos in recent months: police in riot gear surrounding a crowd they deemed suspicious — in the 1993 case, concert-goers who had exited the once-famous X-Ray Cafe music venue — refusing to let them leave, and then arresting them en masse when chaos ensued. Many of the concert-goers were self-described anarchists. Five were charged with felony riot.

Oregon law states that “A person commits the crime of riot if while participating with five or more other persons the person engages in tumultuous and violent conduct and thereby intentionally or recklessly creates a grave risk of causing public alarm.”

The riot case was dismissed in 1994 because the judge deemed the statute to be overbroad — “a grave risk of causing public alarm” could mean just about anything, including the current actions of police themselves. However, the decision was reversed on appeal, and the statute is still in place in Oregon.

Being charged with rioting does not necessitate that participants engaged in otherwise illegal activity. Merely being in the vicinity of other people who vandalize property, for example, is enough for a riot charge, legally speaking. In Portland, protesters snatched off the street by federal police describe not knowing why they were being held, and not even necessarily being charged with anything.

The language of political opinion

The presence of federal agents in Portland cuts to the heart of a growing divide in America — a divide so deep, the factions speak different languages. For example, the claim that “Portland is full of anarchists” is true in one sense, and untrue in another. Language does not exist outside of historical precedent, and historically, worldwide, anarchists of various persuasions have been committed to fighting fascists — perhaps most notably during the Spanish Civil War, when they fought against dictator Francisco Franco. Most anarchists define their propensity for violence in the same terms that the average American would define it: fighting is only appropriate if it’s against tyranny or in defense of the vulnerable.

If you define anarchism as a belief system protected by the First Amendment, Portland is indeed full of anarchists. But if you mean that Portland has committed itself to crime, lawlessness and burning down businesses, this is untrue. The challenge lies in the different cultural meanings of “anarchy,” and the way language such as this is used to justify political policy.

“Our city has not been decimated by anarchy and violent upheaval. And for those of you outside Portland that believe that it has, you are being fed a repulsive and profoundly dangerous false narrative,” said Portland resident Johnna Wells. “My city is under siege by a federal ‘army’ that the President of the United States has unleashed. A fascist move that I fear will carry forth into other cities as well.”

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Katie Botkin, Editor-in-Chief at MultiLingual, has a background in linguistics and journalism. She began publishing "multilingual" newsletters at the age of 15, and went on to invest her college and post-graduate career in language learning, teaching and writing. She has extensive experience with niche American microcultures across the political spectrum.

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Featuring translators into the new year

Marketing, Translation

Heading into the new decade of 2020, we can be sure of one thing: translation as an industry is on the rise, and is projected to increase further.

Translation, of course, is the life blood of global commerce and what we do. We acknowledge it, but don’t always actually feature translators when we talk about globalization. However, a coffee table book featuring translators called Move the World with Words is out from Smartling, and I like that Smartling has chosen to showcase these linguists in their brand strategy both online and offline.

For example, when you land on their Move the World with Words webpage, the company features freelance translator Oana — only her first name is given — who lives in Southern France. Like many other freelancers, she’s chosen to travel; she’s learning Spanish during trips to Spain, she says. She’s interviewed and beautifully photographed in the Pyrenees. Between the style of the prose — the first-person essay interview style popular with high-end celebrity profiles — and her first name (not Beyonce or Sia or Cher, but Oana), as well as her photos, I could imagine her being some kind of celebrity. And I don’t think this is accidental.

I had a couple of questions, and Adrian Cohn, director of brand strategy and communications at Smartling, answered them for me.

How did Smartling choose which translators to feature in the book?

We have built relationships with so many amazing translators worldwide — the people featured in the book were selected based on their experience, their customer base and their location. We wanted to showcase the way people live in different parts of the world, and with different lifestyles (urban and rural, single and family and so on).

Why is it important to feature the lives of translators?

Translators are the heroes behind global commerce. For too long, they have gone unrecognized for their part in making global businesses successful. It also helps to show there are real people behind the solution. Especially for those unfamiliar with translation, we wanted to demonstrate that while the translation process is automated, there’s still a person that we depend on to get the message right. Machine translation is certainly on the rise and a big part of how we think about scaling content for the enterprise, but humans will always play a big role.

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Katie Botkin, Editor-in-Chief at MultiLingual, has a background in linguistics and journalism. She began publishing "multilingual" newsletters at the age of 15, and went on to invest her college and post-graduate career in language learning, teaching and writing. She has extensive experience with niche American microcultures across the political spectrum.

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Localizing for holidays in a changing world

Localization Culture

Localizing holidays thanksgivingSomething we don’t talk a lot about when we talk about localization is keeping up with changing cultural ideology. Thanksgiving is a prime example. Held the fourth Thursday of November every year in the United States, this year the holiday is celebrated tomorrow, and the days surrounding it are often treated as holidays as well.

If you’re marketing products for the US market, Thanksgiving could mean any number of things. For ecommerce, it might mean Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales, and getting a jump on competitors by starting deep online discounts the evening of Thanksgiving. But that comes with its own set of complications: a subsegment of the US population dislikes commercializing a holiday built around sharing the simple pleasures of family and gratitude for what you have. Homemade apple pie from Grandma. Watching little Jane take her first bite of cranberry sauce, make a face, and decide she hates it. The uncles sharing a jug of hard cider made in the basement. Single auntie Fran trying to sleep on an air mattress in the TV room while Jane jumps off the couch and tackles her. Commercializing Thanksgiving leaves a bad taste in some people’s mouths.

And then, there is the question of whether to celebrate the holiday at all. Some argue that it represents the pilgrims taking the hospitality of Native Americans and repaying it with centuries of genocide, thievery and broken promises, and prefer to commemorate a National Day of Mourning or Unthanksgiving Day instead.

Others remember keenly during the holidays that they’re estranged from their families for any myriad of reasons. That they can’t go home because their parents have rejected them, or maybe because they just can’t handle Uncle Jim’s political rants anymore.

Thus, saying “if you want to localize for the US market in late November, be sure to acknowledge Thanksgiving and have a nice turkey theme” would be overly simplistic. And this goes for other celebrations around the world as well. Just because you figured out the best way to portray a multicultural holiday celebration last year, that doesn’t mean it will be the same this year or the year after. Traditions change. Cultural ideology shifts over time.

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Katie Botkin, Editor-in-Chief at MultiLingual, has a background in linguistics and journalism. She began publishing "multilingual" newsletters at the age of 15, and went on to invest her college and post-graduate career in language learning, teaching and writing. She has extensive experience with niche American microcultures across the political spectrum.

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Nyepi and global internet

Travel and Culture

The entire island of Bali, Indonesia, grinds to a halt one day a year. No planes may arrive or depart from the airport, and all commerce ceases. Even checking in and out of hotels is forbidden. The streets are deserted aside from patrols ensuring that everyone stays inside. The holiday takes place in March and sometimes April, depending on the lunar calendar. It is Nyepi, the Balinese New Year, a Hindu holiday and the national day of silence and self-reflection.

Inside their homes, people nap, pray and sometimes fast, resting from the festivities of the night before. On the eve of Nyepi, villagers parade ominous paper mâché giants through the streets, carried by grids of young men holding bamboo poles.

The giants are called Ogoh Ogoh, and often represent characters from Hindu mythology, particularly demons. However, each team of locals has their own take, collaborating together to produce creatures that can easily reach over 30 feet. One Ogoh Ogoh in a small village not far from the picturesque Tegallalang rice terraces is a giant “monkey king,” according to its creators, with prominent muscles and fur made from plant fibers. A tattered tarp protects it from the rain while the villagers wait for the festivities to begin.

Oogh Oogh nyepi
Villagers direct traffic around an Oogh Oogh north of Ubud, Bali.

In the town of Tampaksiring, known for producing intricate bone carvings, local artists have gone all-out, elaborate creations on every corner. One Ogoh Ogoh gives the crowd a gilded middle finger, snarl fixed on its painted face. In Ubud, a cartoonish topless woman careens out of control on her yellow moped — a different kind of monster.

The Ogoh Ogoh are believed to represent the evil spirits and malevolent forces plaguing human beings. Building them, ceremoniously presenting them throughout the town and finally burning them is thought to purify the natural environment in preparation for the new year. As the villagers carry Ogoh Ogoh through the streets, musicians play percussion and gongs in a traditional gamelan Baleganjur style, the same eerie cadence across all the villages in the region.

The parade is a community affair, often requiring careful navigation of power lines, which villagers prop up with long forked poles. Locals follow the Ogoh Ogoh or watch from the sidelines dressed for the occasion in sarongs, with long-sleeved lace shirts for the women and white head wraps for the men. Girls may carry torches in twin lines behind the paper mache creations. Officials direct traffic, waving lone mopeds through the crowd or stopping cars on the main road for long periods of time — roads with parades may be closed to traffic, and for some villages, this can be a significant portion of the town.

Girls pause during a Nyepi parade in Ubud, Bali.
Girls pause during a Nyepi parade in Ubud, Bali.

The actual date of Nyepi changes every year, being based on the Balinese lunar calendar. This year, it fell on March 8, ending at 6 am March 9. Next year, it will fall on March 25 and similarly continue throughout the night.

On Nyepi itself, tourists hole up in their homestays and resorts. Some resorts offer food services, and otherwise guests will (hopefully) have been warned in advance to stock up on snacks.

The air is clean, free from the smog of traffic. Because lights are also forbidden, when night falls, the sky is resplendent with stars — unless, like this year, the sky is cloudy.

Internet outages around the world

There are few instances when the internet of an entire island, region or country is deliberately shut down. Most of the time, the action is taken to silence dissent, or potentially even to stop cheating on tests. But limited, slow internet in certain locales has similar effects — one reason John Yunker, in our upcoming issue of MultiLingual magazine, advises global websites to slim down so pages can load quickly during times or places of poor connectivity.

Whatever the reason they’re happening, internet delays and outages can become a localization issue. Much of what we talk about in our industry is internet-dependent, with the underlying assumption that in this day and age, the internet is available to everyone all the time. I had been in the industry for a decade before I learned that one day a year, on the regular, the internet disappears in Bali. And I didn’t learn that until the actual day the internet was shutting down, as I was trying to send work email and getting a mysterious message in Indonesian.

At the least, Indonesia, in the interest of localization, maybe consider translating this message into English for the poor tourists text time — maybe even give them a heads-up the day before the outage so they can send any imperative emails.

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Katie Botkin, Editor-in-Chief at MultiLingual, has a background in linguistics and journalism. She began publishing "multilingual" newsletters at the age of 15, and went on to invest her college and post-graduate career in language learning, teaching and writing. She has extensive experience with niche American microcultures across the political spectrum.

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Localization and mobile in Asia

Localization

It’s happened: the most populous country in the world has almost reached peak smartphone saturation among internet users. “According to the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) which is a branch of the country’s Ministry of Industry and Information, 788 million people are mobile users, a whopping 98 percent of the country’s total user base,” Statista notes. This “illustrates just how efficient China has proven at rolling out network coverage as well as how mobile technology has become an indispensable facet of everyday life in the country.”

localization mobile asiaChina is not the only country in Asia with significant mobile internet use. Business Insider reported that 2018 was set to be a huge year for Southeast Asia in that regard, and that “consumers in Southeast Asia spend more time on the mobile internet than any other market.” Thailand leads with consumers spending 4.2 hours per day on average on the mobile internet; the United States, by comparison, averages two hours per day per consumer.

What this points to is a need for companies expanding into Asia to consider how all-important the mobile internet is to consumers there. In Thailand, screens are far more ubiquitous than businessmen in Western high-rise offices might assume. Screens play ads in the subway. At the dentist, patrons watch Thai television while simultaneously attending to their phones. Attention spans, as a result, may be short. Companies have less time than ever to make an initial impression. So the first impression had better be well-researched, and well-localized.

In our issue on Asia, hot off the press and making its way to various locales around the globe, companies can find some tips on how to succeed when they’re localizing for Asia. If you’re not a subscriber, try browsing our Insights articles on the topic or browse through our free magazine articles — recognizing the big-picture challenge is just the first step.

recognizing the big-picture challenge is just the first step #l10n #mobile #china #techdev #mobile Click To Tweet
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Katie Botkin, Editor-in-Chief at MultiLingual, has a background in linguistics and journalism. She began publishing "multilingual" newsletters at the age of 15, and went on to invest her college and post-graduate career in language learning, teaching and writing. She has extensive experience with niche American microcultures across the political spectrum.

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The perfume of bad translation, part 2

Translation, Travel and Culture

Apparently my new favorite hobby on small airlines is to read their in-flight shopping catalogues — specifically what appear to be their worst and most amusing translations. I discovered this pastime a year ago, as some of you may remember. In this case, I was flying Aegean with a flightload of Greeks, nearly all of whom were engaged in loud conversation with someone behind them or across the aisle; the aisle itself was clogged with happy people standing around chatting. I personally had nobody to talk to except the in-flight literature. Fortunately, it did not disappoint.

 

Watches, your first accessory for hunting wooly mammoths

perfume of bad translationReminder: Cavemen don’t wear watches. Buy this watch because you’re a Northern caveman, hunting Ice Age creatures, unconcerned with time.

 

Matt Sylicon is the best

Sssh, we totally didn’t mean “matte silicone” or whatever the heck this is made of; Matt Sylicon is actually the name of the inventor.

 

The iconic misguided brand

I always like using memo-style ad copy. Key fragrance notes include:

  1. sensual
  2. essence
  3. pear
  4. musky
  5. desire

This perfume comes with its own parental advisory for adult content

I think it’s called “cool water” because that’s what you turn to in order to pretend that this copy does not make you strangely uncomfortable as you read it next to strangers.

 

Attracting one of the most memorable senses, the scent

The first sentence of the ad copy seems like it came straight off a neural machine translation engine with no post editing. It has all the pretense of English and none of its sense… and the sense is scent, obviously.

The first sentence of the ad copy seems like it came straight off a neural machine translation engine with no post editing. Click To Tweet
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Katie Botkin, Editor-in-Chief at MultiLingual, has a background in linguistics and journalism. She began publishing "multilingual" newsletters at the age of 15, and went on to invest her college and post-graduate career in language learning, teaching and writing. She has extensive experience with niche American microcultures across the political spectrum.

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Linguistic prejudice, race and machine translation

Language

Linguistic prejudice

Linguistic prejudice, race and machine translation

There are two basic approaches to grammar: the kind that says “this is what the rule book has said since 1858” and the kind that says “language evolves, and this is how it’s actually being used in the current world to communicate these specific concepts and grammatical differences.” The way pockets of minority speakers use language has always fascinated me, although when I was young it would make me cringe. As a teenager, I thought it was extremely strange, for example, that the black-cap Mennonite community that I sometimes mingled with used word constructions I’d never heard of in real life; they greeted me with “welcome here” instead of “hi;” their pronunciation of “school” sounded more like “skewel.” It sounded super-archaic to me, like in eschewing modern forms of dress they’d also decided — subconsciously or consciously — to eschew modern linguistic constructions.

During grad school, one of my linguistics professors delved into the linguistic nuances of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). He told us that there was a grammatical dialectical difference between “this coffee cold” and “this coffee be cold” and the difference did not exist in standard American English. “This coffee cold” was a remark about a temporal state; “this coffee be cold” was a remark about a known, habitual quality of this specific genre of coffee. Similar to “le café a été froid” and “le café était froid,” I imagine, or perhaps more accurately, “this coffee is cold” and “this coffee is usually cold.”

AAVE drops certain sounds (but not others) in spoken language; there’s a regularity to the practice. Because there are rules, this is no more “incorrect” in English than when it happens in French or in certain dialects of Spanish; Cuban Spanish, for example, may also drop sounds with a practiced regularity. AAVE drops “to be” verbs in some instances, but then, so does standard Hebrew and Russian. Standard English drops the verb in phrases such as “every man an island unto himself.” White dialectical English drops it in phrases such as “this floor needs swept.”

In short, contrary to the opinions of grumpy white grammar nazis, AAVE isn’t “wrong,” it just does its own thing, having adapted the way language always adapts. And this is important because for a certain portion of the population, these grammatical differences become a reason to mistrust African-Americans, to dismiss them as “uneducated” or “lazy” because they sound different. To treat them with less innate respect.

For a certain portion of the population, these grammatical differences become a reason to mistrust African-Americans, to dismiss them as “uneducated” or “lazy” because they sound different. Click To Tweet

A study put out in June of this year, for example, concluded that police use less respectful language with black members of the community than white members of the community, even controlling for heavy-crime areas and reasons for the police stop. The study could find no difference, in fact, than the race of the people being spoken to by police.

Now, I find it hard to believe that the majority of police are linguistically reacting purely to the skin color of the person in front of them. What seems more likely to me, as a linguist, is that they react linguistically to linguistic difference (real or perceived). When a person speaks a non-standard dialect, or is assumed to speak a non-standard dialect, that person is usually placed in a more suspect category. If their speech itself is not “correct,” what else is not correct about them?

I consider myself open-minded on such matters, but I am by no means immune to this. I noticed as I was recently watching an interview with Seattle Seahawks-turned-Oakland Raiders player Marshawn Lynch that I couldn’t stop the subconscious commentary in the back of my head on his pronunciation of ask as “axe,” or the myriad of ways he sounded like a stereotypical black man. His way of speaking sounded incorrect to my brain; the unintentional emotional result ranged between slight irritation and amusement. Neither are particularly respectful reactions. The guy standing next to me, on the other hand, remarked “I love that he’s himself, and he isn’t dumbing himself down for the media. He sounds so black. He’s such a badass.”

This guy had grown up siding with his black friends against stereotypical white jock bullies and Klansmen in the south, so his firsthand experience with African-American dialects was way more intimate than mine. More friendly, more familiar. His subconscious was trained differently than mine.

And I thought, you know, he’s totally right. It’s pretty badass that this guy is refusing to change who he is, refusing to give up his linguistic heritage, in the pursuit of fame or being more palatable to the money machine of corporate America.

I posit that, given my own reaction, white Americans are less likely to believe a man committed a crime if he sounds like them; if he speaks with the cadence and vocabulary of a white man. This is, of course, a difficult theory to prove in a double-blind study, but it bears out anecdotally. As this study shows, it is true that many people are implicitly biased against accents unlike their own and certain accents in particular, whether or not they realize it. It is also true, for example, that all-white juries are 16% more likely to convict a black defendant than a white defendant.

It seems likely that linguistics play a role, and they certainly have on a trial-by-trial basis. After Trayvon Martin was fatally shot in Sanford, Florida, by George Zimmerman, Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel, who had been present, testified against Zimmerman. Jeantel spoke non-standard English. Her speech patterns were widely mocked on social media, while her testimony was ignored by jurors. A prize-winning linguistics write-up put it this way: “one of the six jurors (B37) said, in a TV interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper after the trial (July 15, 2013), that she found Jeantel both ‘hard to understand’ and ‘not credible’. In the end, despite her centrality to the case, ‘no one mentioned Jeantel in [16+ hour] jury deliberations. Her testimony played no role whatsoever in their decision’ (Juror Maddy, as reported in Bloom 2014:148). In a sense, “Jeantel’s dialect was found guilty as a prelude to and contributing element in Zimmerman’s acquittal.”

Accent and dialect influence how you’re perceived. I once conducted my own experiment on accent: during my first semester of grad school, I was employed taking phone surveys about Charmin Ultra toilet paper. This was extremely boring, so I ran my own secondary experiment in the background: I would alternate calls in an Irish accent, in a standard American accent, and in a Southern accent. I was curious if accent played any role in people’s willingness to take a survey about toilet paper; the majority of people hung up on any accent, but maybe there was a competitive edge I could use to complete more surveys, and thus to earn more money per hour.

I was calling non-Southern white Americans, by the sound of it; the call’s geography was random numbers pulled from somewhere like northern Arizona or Wyoming. I kept track of completed surveys in each accent. After doing this enough times, a pattern started to emerge: people slightly preferred talking to a woman who spoke in a soft-and-subtle Irish accent, followed by standard, crisp American English; Southern American English was a distant last. Few people seemed to take Southern Accent Girl seriously enough to complete a toilet paper survey with her voice on the other end of the line.

Southern accents are often associated with being “uneducated” or “dumb,” even to listeners as young as five years old, so this was not a huge surprise. And what American, on the other hand, doesn’t love the Irish?

And lest this be considered an American phenomenon, British studies have found that speaking with a Birmingham accent (like Ozzy Osborne) makes listeners assume that you are less intelligent compared to standard British English or a Yorkshire accent.

Humans make judgments about dialect and language, often without realizing it. However, machines only do this where their data is prejudiced in some way. Data-driven linguistic models collect data removed of innate prejudice, studying how humans use language and deriving rules from this. Although this has certainly resulted in subtle and non-subtle human prejudice being codified into machine learning, it also presents an opportunity to create programs that may correct for human prejudices. Data-driven models often work best when the linguistic field is narrowed, actually, because human language is so broad. Because of this, I wonder if there will be — could be — machine translation settings in the future that take into account the dialect of English being spoken; certainly this is a question that speech-to-text MT applications have to take into account. And I wonder if this, somehow, could be used to “translate” dialects in places like the courtroom, for the benefit of everyone.

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Katie Botkin, Editor-in-Chief at MultiLingual, has a background in linguistics and journalism. She began publishing "multilingual" newsletters at the age of 15, and went on to invest her college and post-graduate career in language learning, teaching and writing. She has extensive experience with niche American microcultures across the political spectrum.

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