Two undergraduates in the Lobo Language Acquisition Lab at The University of New Mexico are studying linguistic bias and its impact on society. They are also working to raise teachers’ awareness of it in the classroom.

The LLA Lab teacher outreach team is currently comprised of one graduate student and two undergraduate students, with a third undergraduate student intermittently involved, explained Professor of Linguistics Naomi Shin, who co-directs the Lab along with Assistant Professor of Linguistics Melvatha Chee and Professor of Linguistics Jill Morford.

What is ‘linguistic bias’?
“Linguistic bias is when we judge people based on the way they talk,” Shin explained. “There are many ways this affects people.” Shin cited the research of linguist John Baugh, who found ads advertising apartments for rent and then called to inquire, using different accents such as African-American, Chicano, or a so-called “standard” American English accent. Baugh was told that the apartment was no longer for rent more often when he used his African American accent or a Chicano accent.

“Linguistic bias is when we judge people based on the way they talk. There are many ways this affects people.”

- UNM Professor of Linguistics Naomi Shin

Research also shows that children in school are judged more negatively and might receive lower grades and other penalties if they use a so-called “non-standard” or “foreign” accent, Shin added.

The LLA Lab student experience
Audriana Sauceda is a junior majoring in Speech and Hearing Sciences and minoring in Family and Child Studies. She plans to enter a master's degree program after graduation to become a certified speech-language pathologist specializing in pediatric care. Born and raised in Pueblo, Colo., she said the rich Hispanic culture of Albuquerque drew her to UNM as a reminder of her own cultural upbringing. 

Dawnadine Yazzie-Harvey is Diné, of the Many Goat (Tł’ízí łání) clan, born for the Yucca Fruit Strung Out (Hashk’aa hadzohí) clan. The mother of seven, she is a senior majoring in Elementary Education with a focus in Language Arts. She is studying to become an elementary teacher, participating in the Native American Teachers Preparation Program, and a children's book author with a focus on creating more resources for Indigenous students to connect in the classroom and see themselves reflected in children's books.

Now in her second year of the LLA Lab, Sauceda has made nine presentations over the past year. Yazzie-Harvey started last fall and has been involved in three presentations. The organizations hosting the conferences where the students have presented include the New Mexico Association for the Education of Young Children, Dual Language Education of New Mexico, New Mexico Association for Bilingual Education, UNM Center for Teaching Excellence, and the Diné Language Teachers Institute.

The students do background research on linguistic bias and how it impacts children in the classroom and then they prepare linguistics bias training workshops and presentations for teachers.

Their topics included linguistic variation and bias in the classroom, the impact of linguistic bias on educators and students, language variation and linguistic bias awareness, and the implications of language variation and linguistic bias for various communities in New Mexico, including Spanish-English bilingual children and children learning Navajo.

In April, the students will present at the annual conference of the New Mexico Association for the Education of Young Children.

"Working in the lab has helped me see a diverse array of perspectives on language diversity and has given me knowledgeable insights into linguistic bias and its impact on our communities,” Yazzie-Harvey said. “As a future teacher I see the importance of research and gathering knowledge for meaningful and productive ways, and that's where investing in our future comes into action."

“Linguistic bias is a phenomenon I had never given a thought to,” Sauceda said. “I have now had the privilege of making others aware of what it is, the unfortunate implications it has, and how to recognize and combat it in and out of the classroom. Through this awareness, we hope to ensure that linguistic bias won't compromise student success. I have learned to celebrate linguistic diversity and will continue cultivating the idea both in my work and in my life, inspiring others to do the same.”

“By working with the Lobo Language Acquisition Lab's teacher outreach team, Dawnadine and Audriana gain experience in research and how to present findings from research in ways that are accessible to a wide audience, in this case, teachers,” Shin explained. “They practice their presentations over and over again and receive extensive feedback from lab members, including faculty and other students.”

About LLA Lab
The Lab's goal is not only to disseminate research findings, Shin continued. “We also aim to learn from our community partners and all the teachers who participate in our outreach efforts. As such, the students conduct focus group sessions, which then inform future iterations of their presentations and workshops. Finally, after learning about linguistic bias, the students also reflect on their own experiences and they incorporate their personal histories into their presentations, which in turn makes their outreach efforts that much more compelling and interactive.”

“Working at the Lobo Language Acquisition lab has been an ongoing learning experience. I have gained valuable skills and knowledge that have supported not only my academic and professional journey, but also my personal strengths,” Sauceda noted.

The LLA Lab is housed in the UNM Linguistics Department. The Lab studies child language development through the lens of usage-based and cognitive-functional linguistics. Current projects include research on children's acquisition of minority language grammars in New Mexico, including Navajo, Spanish and ASL; signed language development; children's acquisition of morphosyntactic variation; language activation in bi-modal bilinguals; and assessment of bilingual children's language skills.

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