Trapped by language

Rachel Jeantel620x408In the past month there have been several big media stories in the U.S. dealing with language. One was the use of racist language (and behavior) by Paula Deen, the celebrity Southern cook, which has resulted in her losing most if not all of her business contracts. The other was the use of English by a witness in the Travon Martin case, 19-year old Rachel Jeantel, a friend of Martin’s who had been on the phone with him just before he was shot by George Zimmerman. As detailed in a post on Language Log, her use of vernacular Black English was widely reported with a number of negative and offensive comments. There was a view expressed that Jeantel was just being lazy or contrary in not speaking standard American English and that she was using English incorrectly with random grammatical mistakes. As linguists pointed out (including John McWhorter on the Time web site in a segment on the NPR series “Here and Now“), she was not willfully distorting standard American English, she was speaking a version of English well known in linguistics and usually called African American Vernacular English (AAVE) or Ebonics. As John Rickford points out in his post, AAVE has rules and patterns that are fixed, giving the following examples from her testimony:

  • Stressed BIN, as in I was BIN paying attention, sir, meaning, “I’ve been paying attention for a long time, and am still paying attention.”
  • Preterit HAD, ax, and inverted did in embedded sentences, as in He had ax me did I go to the hospital “He asked me whether I had gone to the hospital.” [The use of the pluperfect form where other varieties use a simple past or preterit was first discussed by Stanford undergrad Christine Theberge.]
  • Absence of auxiliary IS: He ø trying to get home, sir.
  • Absence of possessive and third present s, as in “He a momma ø boy” and “He love ø his family.”

The defense attorney expressed at times difficulty in understanding Jeantel’s testimony, although it is unclear whether that was indeed the case, or whether this was being used as a strategy to discredit the witness. If the latter was the case, it seems to have worked, as one juror afterwards commented:

Juror B37 said Jeantel was not a good witness because the phrases used during her testimony were terms she had never heard before. The juror thought the witness, “felt inadequate toward everyone because of her education and her communication skills. I just felt sadness for her.” [from the cnn blog post]

Ironically, it turns out that Jeantel’s mother is a native speaker of Haitian Creole and that Jeantel speaks Creole and Spanish and thus in terms of speaking skills, has more language skills than most Americans.

I’m allowed to wear a hoodie

istock_000008235676largeIn an interview yesterday, a member of the George Zimmerman trial jury stated that race did not enter into their deliberations and that she did not think the situation would have been different had it been a white young man walking down the street of Zimmerman’s neighborhood. Given that perspective, it’s not surprising that Zimmerman was found not guilty of the murder of Trevon Martin. We all tend to categorize unknown individuals based on appearance, including dress, skin color, gender, age, demeanor, walking style. This is normal human behavior in dealing with the unknown – we put things and people into groups based on previous encounters, learned values, and media messaging. This kind of processing does not normally have deadly consequences, but it becomes problematic and potentially dangerous if we assume our initial categorizing corresponds to reality in every case and in every context, without trying to ascertain the nature of an individual beyond outward appearances. This is profiling – associating the stereotyped individual with assumed negative behavior.

It’s clear that Zimmerman’s actions were based on profiling, following Treyvon Martin because he was black, male, young, and wearing a hoodie. On NPR this morning as part of the “race card project” (creating 6-word statements about race) there was discussion about what message is sent by someone wearing a hoodie:

A woman named Bethany Banner of Kalamazoo had this ah-ha moment when she was out shopping one day. It starts raining. She pulls her hoodie, and her six words were: ‘I’m allowed to wear a hoodie’. Because she realized in that moment that no one would ever look at her, as a petite white woman, and assume that she was someone dangerous because she had this hood up over her head.

Treyvon Martin made the mistake of thinking he too would not be looked at askance when wearing a hoodie.

Another jolting quote came yesterday from George Zimmerman’s brother, who was complaining that his brother was afraid of retribution : “There are people that would want to take the law into their own hands as they perceive it, or be vigilantes in some sense”. I think he missed the irony of George Zimmerman fearing someone acting outside official channels and taking matters into his own hands.

Do Koreans make bad pilots?

asiana2In the wake of the Asiana Airlines crash at the San Francisco International Airport, there has been puzzlement over how the accident happened, particularly as there were four pilots on board, one or more of whom surely would have pointed out that the plane was coming in way too slowly for a safe landing.  The main pilot was not experienced with the Boeing 777 but the other pilots were.  This has raised questions about how the pilots interacted with one another and led to speculation that there must have been some communication failure that contributed to the crash.  Because the pilots were all Korean, several commentators (including a piece in the National Geographic Daily News) have brought up the analysis by Malcolm Gladwell of Korean pilots in his 2008 book, Outliers.  Gladwell also talked about Korean pilots in a CNN interview (video embedded below).  Gladwell points to the poor safety record of Korean airlines in the 1990’s, which he relates to the Korean respect for authority and hierarchy.  In a culture like Korea, with a large power distance, it is less likely that a subordinate (such as a co-pilot) will point out possible errors or problems, as that would be disrespectful.

There is no doubt that respect for superiors and elders is a traditional aspect of Korean life, still in evidence today.  I recently spent time at a Seoul National University and was struck by the deferential attitude of the Korean students, which was markedly different from my experiences with Chinese students in Shanghai and Beijing.  However, does this mean that all Koreans in all contexts will behave in a way consistent with this trait of their national culture?  Are there no other forces at work that can affect individual behavior? In fact, we all have identities that are complex combinations of influences that come from a variety of sources, including individual experiences, family life, social media, group membership.  In the case of pilots, it would seem to me that the work environment and the extensive training involved would necessarily influence cockpit behavior in significant ways.

In the CNN interview, Gladwell mentions that respect for authority is built into the Korean language, with its rich use of politeness forms, and that having the pilots speak English (which Gladwell characterizes as a “non-hierarchical” language) has led to a behavioral change.  That’s an interesting socio-linguistic theory but I’m not sold on its validity.