Letter: “I can’t understand my prof”: Linguistic diversity at UBC

Around this time last semester, I stumbled upon a Ubyssey article listing reasons to drop a course. One reason in particular, “I can’t understand my prof,” evoked the many challenges of linguistic diversity at UBC. As a student here, I have heard many hurtful comments about the way instructors, profs and TAs speak, particularly about those who were not born in Canada. With the drop deadline approaching, I decided to see what the research said about why people sometimes react negatively to different ways of speaking. What I found was both interesting and practical. I share a condensed version of the findings here in the hope that students will take a step back and think next time they can’t understand a prof.

We all make assumptions about those that speak differently. Researchers refer to this phenomenon as linguistic profiling, or the identification of a person’s social characteristics, such as level of intelligence, based on aspects of their speech. In the university context, linguistic profiling often surfaces in the form of negative attitudes towards instructors who speak non-standard varieties of English (think Texan English or Chinese English). Raisler (1976), for example, found that 730 students rated lectures delivered by a prof with noticeable accents as less convincing than the same lecture delivered by a standard speaker. In a similar study, students rated exactly the same science lecture as more difficult to understand when played beside a photograph of an Asian man as opposed to a white man (Kang & Rubin, 2009). What this tells us is that when we don’t understand, it’s not always about the prof -- our unconscious expectations and attitudes about what “good language” sounds like and who normally speaks it also play a role.

Recently, Kang, Rubin, Lindemann (2014) found that students’ ability to understand different accents was improved through critical discussion and exposure. With that in mind, here are a couple of practical tips to take away with you as you consider which courses to keep this semester.

Put your assumptions on hold: when you first saw your instructor, what did you expect? When they spoke, what did you think? Now put your ideas aside for a moment. Give you and your instructor the benefit of the doubt: they work at UBC because they are leaders in their field. You attend UBC because you’re an amazing student.

Remind yourself that it’s useful to understand other ways of speaking: learning to communicate effectively with a variety of English speakers is one way to tap into a vast transnational network. Viewed this way, linguistic diversity is not a burden, it is an additional opportunity that UBC provides. Take advantage!