Congratulations to Hayley Heaton, PhD candidate in linguistics, on the successful defense of her dissertation, “Media Influence on Implicit and Explicit Language Attitudes.”

Hayley’s doctoral committee included U-M faculty members Anne Curzan (chair), Julie Boland, Kristen Harrison, and Barbra Meek. The dissertation defense took place on April 6.



Media Influence on Implicit and Explicit Language Attitudes

Sociolinguists often assume that media affects language attitudes, but that assumption has not been tested using a methodology that can attribute cause. This dissertation examines implicit and explicit attitudes about American Southern English and the influence media has upon them. Adapting methodologies and constructs from sociolinguistics, social psychology, and communications studies, I test listener attitudes before and after exposure to stereotypically unintelligent and counter-stereotypically intelligent representations of Southern-accented speakers in scripted fictional television. The experiments also test the effects of knowledge of regional origin of actors, listener perception of how representative of reality media is, listener exposure to the South, and listener identity. I hypothesize that those who hear counter-stereotypically intelligent Southern characters will rate a Southern-accented research assistant higher in intelligence than those who hear stereotypically unintelligent Southern characters. The same pattern will hold in an auditory-based Implicit Association Test. Accents in both the implicit and explicit attitudes experiments are viewed holistically, including multiple features rather than focusing on the most salient features.

Results indicate that televised representations of Southern accents affect explicit, but not implicit attitudes. Participants who heard intelligent Southern characters rated a Southern-accented research assistant higher in competence than those who heard unintelligent Southern characters. Several demographic variables influenced results regardless of what media the listener heard in the experiment, including self-identified race and exposure to Southern television. While implicit attitudes were not affected by media, the Implicit Association Test was successfully adapted for use with a holistic accent rather than a single feature and also captures associations between an L1 regional accent and a specific stereotype of that accent. The dissertation argues that scripted television does influence language attitudes, but in more complex ways than simple cause-and-effect. Attitudes at large are affected by identity and demographic features listeners bring into the interaction with speakers.