The rhythms of the Spanish language have contributed a lot to the sound of South Florida, where more than two million people speak the language. Immigrants from Colombia to Cuba to Venezuela have made vale and dale part of the region’s everyday talk.
The vast array of dialects prompted a study at Florida International University, in collaboration with the University of Texas at Austin. It found that not all accents are perceived the same way.
Participants, mostly FIU undergraduate students, rated three different Spanish accents – from Barcelona, Bogotá and Havana. They listened to three recordings from three male native Spanish speakers ages 30-34 and rated them on a scale of one (disagreement) to five (agreement) for certain factors, including employment, family background, labor and money.
The Barcelona accent was the most highly rated – meaning it was associated with more education and a higher income. The Colombian accent fell in the middle while the Cuban accent got last place.
“That’s surprising,” says Phillip Carter, a sociolinguist at FIU and a co-author of the study. “Cubans and Cuban Americans have achieved so much in Miami.”
WLRN’s Alexander Gonzalez spoke with Carter about the preference for certain Spanish accents and its potential impact. The next phase of the project will consider perceptions of 13 personality traits, such as physical attraction and reliability.
WLRN: What prompted you to study how Spanish speakers view the way they talk?
CARTER: We have more varieties of Spanish spoken in South Florida and Miami-Dade County probably than anywhere else in the world. We have people not only, of course, from Cuba and the Caribbean but also from Colombia and Venezuela and Chile and Argentina and Spain and all over the Spanish-speaking world.
What happens in a place where you have lots of dialects of the same language cohabitating? We know that not every language variety accrues the same amount of sociolinguistic cache. For that reason, we felt that we had a really interesting empirical question: How do people in Miami perceive each other given the immense dialect diversity within the Spanish language spoken there?
Summarize what was the experiment and what were some of the challenges?
We played speech samples of three men, ages 30 to 34, speaking their national origin variety of Spanish. The national origin varieties that we chose were Cuban from Havana, Colombian from Bogotá and Spanish from Barcelona. We were testing two things in the study: people's actual perceptual reactions in a snap judgment type of format to hearing something and what happens when you present labor, employment, money and family background.
Ultimately, what did you discover?
Our participants rated the peninsular voice from Barcelona the highest across the board. So when we asked them how likely is it that this person works as an attorney or as a medical doctor, they rated the peninsular voice very highly and tended to rate the Cuban voice very lowly.
I guess that's surprising. Cubans and Cuban Americans have achieved so much in Miami, and of course in the domain of employment, there are so many Cuban doctors and so many well-trained Cuban physicians on the island and elsewhere in Latin America. On the other hand, I guess it's not surprising given the pervasive nature of Eurocentrism – not only in South Florida, in the United States, but indeed, all over Latin America, including in the Caribbean.
Perhaps Spain's colonial history really still has some hold in Latin America.
We have to kind of infer that, don't we? When this study was run, Spain was a middle-class, Western European country, but it was also still very much coming out of la crisis – the economic downfall. So it's not exactly as if the empirical reality matches the perceptions. So finally you kind of have to say, gee, it must be the legacy of imperialism, of colonialism, of the overwhelming preference for European values and aesthetics that still reigns in America as well.
Not only that, your study looks specifically at Spanish speakers in Miami.
Why is it like that? This is a place where Cuban Americans kind of run the show in terms of local politics in positions of power. Why do we have those perceptions in South Florida? Spanish could be a unifying force.
The Colombian accent specifically, how did that fare in comparison to the Spanish peninsular accent and the Cuban accent?
It kind of fell in between the peninsular variety and the Cuban variety but paired more closely with the Cuban variety. That was a bit surprising for us because of all of the discourses that we hear about the superiority and the correctness and the beauty of Colombian Spanish.
It's thought of as one of the clearest spoken varieties of Spanish. It's even the one that they use in telenovelas.
Just to go straight to the heart of the matter, it is no wonder that the varieties of Spanish that are constructed as the cleanest or the nicest or the clearest are the ones that should be used in broadcast television, in telenovelas, on the radio, in the news, are the varieties that come from the countries where the population understands themselves to be middle class and of white or European descent.
What kind of impact does this bias for the Spanish accent have on people's everyday lives? What does this mean for a Spanish speaker in the day-to-day?
The impact is potentially tremendous. We have studies similar to this one conducted in English. We know that people have been denied employment for the way they speak English. We know people have been denied housing. And we know from the study that people harbor implicit biases. So, you have to ask the question: What happens in an employment situation, in a housing situation or in a medical situation?