Understanding Language Bias and Its Impact on Customer Service

April 22, 2022

Human beings often use shortcuts to digest and respond to our environments. Sometimes these shortcuts are genuinely useful, like giving a coworker’s message a “thumbs up” reaction in Slack to acknowledge that you have seen and approve of what they are saying. However, when we use mental shortcuts — such as language bias — to oversimplify complex social dynamics and avoid thinking critically about our choices, there can be some serious unintended consequences. 

Read on to learn more about the primary categories of language bias and their impact on customer service. 

What is language bias? 

Language bias refers to the idea that we are inclined to favor those who communicate in the same way as us: People who speak our language, have the same accent, and use similar slang.

Research indicates that some language bias is innate (we are born with it) while other varieties are acquired (we learn it from others). In a study of 450+ infants, researchers from Bar-Ilan University and the University of British Columbia discovered that babies indicate a preference for speakers of their native tongue by the age of one. Previous research found that children don’t exhibit the capacity to respond negatively to unfamiliar languages until the age of three.  

Whether we are examining our natural or learned tendencies, we must recognize that all forms of bias can lead to discrimination and prejudice toward marginalized groups. Let’s take a look at some other pervasive forms of bias in language that can be harmful when unaddressed. 

What is biased language? 

Sometimes the terms language bias and biased language are used interchangeably when they are, in fact, not one and the same. Whereas language bias refers to the idea that we favor those who communicate like us, biased language refers to the actual words and phrases we use that exclude, reduce, or offend people by failing to account for some aspect of their identity. Here are a few of the most common types of biased language seen today. 

Gender bias 

In many languages there is an imbalance that tends to promote male/masculine language as powerful and female/feminine language as subordinate. For example, in English, many people still use “mankind” instead of “humanity” and “man-made” instead of “manufactured.” In some languages, options for gender-neutral language are limited: In French, there are professions that only have a masculine noun, such as “ministre” for a minister. 

Disability bias

When we say that a person is “confined” to a wheelchair or that someone is the “victim” of a disease, we are using emotionally-charged language that suggests they are not as capable of achieving success and happiness as other people. We should consider whether mentioning someone’s disability is even necessary based on the circumstances. When it is discussed, use neutral yet humanizing language, such as “people with disabilities” in place of “the disabled.” 

Cultural bias 

Culturally biased language refers to communications that make assumptions and generalizations about people based on where they live, how they look, or what language they speak. Our CMO Sophie, a Vietnamese American born and raised in California, encounters cultural bias every time someone asks, “Where are you really from?” when she says that San Francisco is her hometown. Cultural bias is often interlinked with language bias; for example, blocking a qualified professional from a job opportunity because of their accent. 

Even in a time when great strides are being made to connect humanity on a global scale, biased language is still capable of promoting a limited, insular worldview that neglects rather than celebrates the things that make us different.

Language bias in customer service 

In the Unbabel 2021 Global Multilingual CX Report, a survey of over 2,750 consumers in Brazil, France, Germany, Japan, the UK, and the US, we found that the majority (57%) of consumers believe it is a bias when brands don’t offer customer experiences in multiple languages. A business that only serves customers in one language is essentially saying that they are unwilling to make the effort to allow people in other regions and cultures to enjoy their products or services — and they are also losing money by making that decision.

Even still, multilingual customers can be negatively affected by language bias when a company doesn’t use a translation service that prioritizes both speed and accuracy. As English continues to make up a large portion of the Internet today, many customers don’t receive prompt, high-quality customer care when they seek support in other languages. The consequence of language bias via poor translations is something that businesses across all industries can comprehend: 98% of our survey respondents said that poor-quality customer support in their native language will affect their trust and loyalty toward a brand. 

Unlock language inclusivity with Unbabel  

At Unbabel, we are committed to promoting global understanding and equality through language. We must all work together to identify and reduce our existing biases, and to be more inclusive in our use of language. For businesses, this means using multilingual communications that are carefully tailored to the cultural nuances and preferences of customers in a given region. Interested in learning more about how your company can be more inclusive when it comes to language? Book a demo of Unbabel and see for yourself. 

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