Language discrimination

linglab January 23, 2019 833 1 53 1

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Although language is a route for bias against social groups and the vehicle through which the projected characteristics are extensively exercised, people are much less aware of unconscious language bias than other forms of bias. Currently, it is unacceptable not to hire someone based on their gender. However, many people are denied jobs based on their language use such as their accents.

What is language discrimination?

Language discrimination is essentially discrimination against people based on their linguistic identity or language
use. Examples are:

◦ Accent bias

◦ Interactional bias

◦ Inclusive language

Research suggests that all recruiters have specific associations with accents and voices. Unfortunately, this can influence judgements of competence, interactional cues during interviews, and workplace interactions. Language bias can impede career progression in three ways: pre-interview, interview, and post-interview.


Studies undertaken in the United States; (Bertrand & Mullainatha, 2004) and the United Kingdom; (Wood et al. NatCen 2009) shows two main ways in which this is manifested:

◦Even before a chance to speak

◦CVs with ethnic minority names received significantly fewer replies from potential
employers than identical CVs with typically white names

During interview

In an interview situation, language discrimination can be in the form of accent bias and bias via conversation structure and response. 

Accent bias

◦ 76% of employers admitted accent factor in the evaluation of candidates

◦only 3% include accent as a category in diversity policies (2006)

Bias via conversation structure and response type

◦Bias against ‘different communication styles

◦Candidate more stressed due to negative interviewer responses e.g., lack of nodding, change of topic, interruption, lack of encouragement

This bias is also displayed in non-verbal cues and inconsistent feedback during interviews such as: 

◦Eye gaze

◦Smiling, back channeling

◦Facilitative overlap vs. awkward interruption

◦Casual remarks and cultural references 

Unintended consequences

◦Can subtly, even unconsciously, convey (dis)preference

◦Undermines confidence in candidate’s subsequent turns

◦Heightened anxiety for certain candidates


According to the Social Mobility Commission Report and Ashley et al. (2015), even in cases where these effects are overcome (or absent) in an interview, they may persist in the workplace — accent bias, interactional bias and can result in:

◦Isolation from colleagues

◦Subtly impede career progression 

◦Via other- or even self-exclusion 


As complex as it sounds, organisations can mitigate language bias & discrimination and promote inclusive cultures by raising awareness and providing training. If this resonates with you and you would like to discuss language bias with me, I would be delighted to talk with you.


Dr. Maame Afua Nikabs is a race and equity consultant with expertise in language-related bias and discrimination.
founder of LingLab Consulthosts the language matters podcasts. Follow Maame on Linkedin and Twitter and company her page for more. 

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