How does Linguistic Profiling hurt businesses and teams?

Read time: 7 minutes

To speak a language is to speak a version of that language or a dialect. For example, the English language alone has about 160 dialects spoken worldwide, with over fifty-five territories and countries that consider English their official language. But not all dialects of English are treated the same.

Did you know that the style, or dialect of English that you speak can influence your chances of getting hired, or even getting considered for an apartment? (Purnell, T., Idsardi, W., & Baugh, J., 1999)

Study Results: Renowned linguistics expert Dr. John Baugh and colleagues set out to perform a study on how one’s language-use can affect the ways others treat them; and in this study, they made various calls inquiring about a property for rent, using either African-American, Chicano or Standard English dialects. They referred to these different dialects as linguistic guises. However, when using a non-standard English guise, such as African-American or Chicano, they were told that the property listed was no longer available, which conflicted with what they were told when they called using the standard English guise.

What’s more, a 2019 study found that your dialect of English can also determine how likely it is that a jury will give you a guilty verdict in a court case. 

We’re talking about a phenomenon called linguistic profiling, and we all do it. 

The truth is there are stereotypes, or predetermined social qualities attached to dialects of English — which are perpetuated by sources such as media representations — and these predetermined qualities we attach to a person’s way of speaking can and do affect how we treat a person. Here are some more examples of linguistic profiling that are happening around us all the time.

Example 1: Teachers have been found to lower their expectations for educational achievement with students who speak a dialect outside the standard English dialect, for example, students who speak with the African American Vernacular dialect. 

Harmful Outcome: Even a teacher with the best of intentions may be harming a student by holding them to lower standards.

According to Entwisle and Alexander,

“When teachers have low expectations or a deficit view of children from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, teacher-student interaction is reduced to the management of behavior, which contributes little to the improvement of academic performance. The negative attitudes and beliefs of teachers also can impact the type of literacy instruction that students receive.”


Example 2: As another example, employers and hiring managers have openly admitted to not hiring individuals based on their dialects of English, for example a native English speaker from India or Nigeria. 

According to a 2021 BBC article by Christine Ro: 

“Cognitively, it takes more work to understand a less familiar accent. The extra brainpower involved, as well as warmer feelings toward members of one’s own group, can lead to negative attitudes toward a person speaking a different type of English.”


Ro also argues that we tend to see people as “less truthful, less intelligent and less competent” when they speak a different style of English than we do, and we lend them less credibility as a result.

Harmful Outcome: Highly skilled individuals who speak English as a first language are discriminated against due to their English dialect being outside what is considered the standard dialect.

So what is considered standard or correct English?

Merriam-Webster defines Standard English as: 

“the English that with respect to spelling, grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary is substantially uniform though not devoid of regional differences, that is well established by usage in the formal and informal speech and writing of the educated, and that is widely recognized as acceptable wherever English is spoken and understood.”


The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of Standard English is a bit more simple: 

“the form of the English language widely accepted as the usual correct form.”


We argue that a person’s dialect does not indicate their education level or their ability to do a job well. In fact, organizations are not only discriminating and breaking legal boundaries by excluding people, but they are also missing out on potentially highly valuable individuals by limiting themselves based on a person’s dialect. 

The bottom line

We need to re-think what we consider to be “good” English because we’re missing out on valuable people due to arbitrary negative associations.

Linguistics professor and author Dr. Valerie Fridland wrote the following in a 2020 article for Psychology Today:

“The problem is not really with the speech itself, but with the attitudes we hold about the speakers of these dialects.”

— Dr. Valerie Fridland

Take-away

Understanding and overcoming your unconscious biases around language-use can be an empowering and advantageous experience. You may just begin to see what you’ve been missing out on.

Consider these 3 tips for building awareness around your own unconscious biases:

1. Think critically about your beliefs and expectations concerning people who speak a dialect outside the standard English dialect.

2. Personal bias that can cause us to exclude others does not go away because someone says it is wrong. Therefore, you need to work actively on NEUTRALIZING PERSONAL BIAS.

3. Be aware of hidden bias that FILTERS what you observe. Neutralize by asking: What would I expect to see if my belief and expectation about the dialect were false?

For more tips and exercises, schedule a webinar or online course on Unconscious Bias for yourself or your team, or contact us to get your questions answered.

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