Interview by Paola Medina González
Paola Medina González: In your book, you address a variety of topics including speech, English history, gender differences, professions which rely on the voice, forensic speaker analysis, and transgender language. What are the sociocultural and ideological links you found between these topics? Specifically, speaking about minority communities of practice, what can we learn from your research?
Jane Setter: The main thrust of the book is to help readers understand that accent and/or voice prejudice is real, and to task them to re-examine their conscious or unconscious bias about this aspect of a person’s identity. Listeners make all kinds of assumptions about people based on the way they speak; these assumptions can be just as biased as those made based on how people look, what they wear, how they wear their hair, whether they have a job and what it is, what music they listen to, and so on.
Paola Medina González: One of the things I was most surprised about in your book was the incorporation of QR codes. Why did you make this innovative decision and how was this connected to your ideas about who might read the book?
Jane Setter: I wanted people to be able to access media other than print so they could really hear (and see) examples of some of the things I have written about. As an educator, I find visual cues to be invaluable to the learning process. Phonetics is often thought to be a dry subject and just about sound; I wanted it to come alive so readers could really get a sense of how this technical subject relates to the real world and to them. I always use video examples in my teaching and students have commented on how this helps them understand the content, so I wanted to give my readers that experience, too.
I suppose the book is targeted at anyone who is interested in speech as a social and communicative phenomenon, so that is who I imagine will be reading the book.
Paola Medina González: In your book, you talk about teachers and famous people who change their accents consciously in order to integrate into society. Are there situations in which we change our accent unconsciously? Are these changes imposed by something else, perhaps social factors?
Jane Setter: While several studies and the interviewees in the book show that some people are very much aware of the way they speak and have chosen to modify it, I think most people change the way they speak unconsciously when they move between different social settings. In general, humans are social beings, and showing you identify with a particular speech community at any one time is a way of being accepted by that community, and getting your social needs met. This could be conscious or unconscious. An example which is often given is how teenagers speak differently with their friends, their parents and their friends’ parents. I would certainly switch in and out of (slightly) different accents at school or home because of the expectations in those settings, and it becomes second nature if they are settings you are used to. If you find yourself moving into a new social setting where the speech features are different, you will either chose to try to change, or you may decide not to, depending on how you want to express your identity. Changing the way you speak to be more accepted by a certain speech community, and to show you accept that community, is called accommodation.
The fact that it is often unconscious is reflected in the accounts I have had from many people over the years who have moved around the UK – or the world – to study and, when they have gone back home, people have told them that they don’t sound like themselves any more. This kind of comment can make the speaker feel like they have lost part of their identity (rather than gaining a new one), but it is also a reflection of how their social group might feel rejected by the speaker.
Paola Medina González: According to your book, some professions pay more attention to voice and speech inflection. Relating this idea to my own experience, when I studied how to teach my native language, one of my professors used to evaluate us in terms of performance, besides teaching techniques and designing didactic materials. She used to tell the male students that they had a really good teacher’s voice. Female students were not so lucky. What could be the reason for this? Is it true that there are better voices for teaching? Are there better voices according to professions?
Jane Setter: It sounds like your professor was biased against female speech, which is very common indeed, and something I look at in the book. But she may also have been biased against other women in general or felt threatened by them; the negative comments about your voices sound like something called competitor derogation, which people use to make themselves feel more superior. This is a very complex issue and I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t feel qualified to make further comments.
Concerning whether there are better voices according to professions, I can’t think of any research that looks specifically at this, but I would suggest that stereotyping would play a role in people’s opinions of which voice and/or accent fits which profession best.
Paola Medina González: In many chapters of your book, you say that when people speak, the way they sound plays a role in social relationships. In this sense, there could be cases in which an accent can be linked with social stereotypes and people try to avoid it. What do you consider is the best practice to avoid creating and reproducing negative social stereotypes related to accents? What dialogue do you want your book to establish with people working in education? What can teachers and professors do in order to eliminate the stereotypes associated with some accents or particular phonetic phenomena?
Jane Setter: Education, education, education!
Again, education is key here. We need to be discussing these issues and helping people understand what their (un)conscious biases are and how they acquire them, so that they can question these biases when they realize they are in the process of making them. I would recommend this starts as early as possible in educational settings. And it will require those teachers and professors to undergo unconscious bias training where speech is concerned.
We, as people, need to be able to take a step back, appreciate that cultures are different, and try to move towards mutual understanding, rather than making assumptions which can lead to a breakdown in communication.