Arts & Sciences

Color-blind conversations: Listeners can look beyond race when processing speech

A study by researchers in the Linguistics Program and the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences finds that the race of a speaker doesn’t affect comprehension — challenging a prominent study on the topic.

When we have a face-to-face conversation with someone, we’re taking in more than just the sound of their voice. “It’s generally accepted that the way a person looks can affect the way you process their speech,” said Kristin Van Engen, PhD, an associate professor in the Linguistics Program and Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences.

Van Engen

But a new study published in Language and Speech offered a surprising twist: Studying several accents and racial types, researchers found that a speaker’s racial features had minimal impact on a listener’s ability to comprehend their voice. This is good news, Van Engen said. “We should be glad that people didn’t have trouble understanding language just because of the race of the speaker.”

The study was co-authored by Van Engen and Drew McLaughlin, a former WashU PhD student who is now a postdoctoral researcher at the Basque Center on Cognition, Brain and Language in San Sabastián, Spain.

Earlier research by other scientists had suggested that listeners are particularly sensitive to — and occasionally flummoxed by — the race of a speaker. For example, an oft-cited study from 1992 found that American students had more trouble understanding a lecture in American-accented English if they were shown a face with East Asian features. “People have taken these original findings and run with them as a sign of racial bias,” Van Engen said.

Van Engen noted that another previous study found that English-speaking American listeners better understood Mandarin-accented speech when shown an East Asian face. That result, she said, suggested that racial information could shape listeners’ expectations of what a given speaker will sound like.

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