The Silent Dangers of Everyday Dialect Discrimination

When the founder of Lululemon, a popular athletic apparel brand, revealed he chose the company name to mock the way Japanese immigrants could not pronounce the English “L”, many people were shocked by the discriminatory intent of the brand’s origin. However, the name of Lululemon is only one example of often subtle, yet severely harmful and omnipresent, dialect discrimination.

Dialects are a natural outcome of diverse societies where separate speech patterns develop because people speak similarly to those in social and regional proximity around them. As social groups inherently differ from one another, the way members of these groups speak varies as well. For example, in the United Kingdom and the United States, numerous regional English dialects and accents exist due to histories of immigration. Studies have found that people associate these accents with social characteristics like class, race, and geography because a person’s accent or dialect often reflects their community.

Assuming social characteristics from accents, however, can become mental shortcuts that lead to discrimination. Often unnoticed, these mental shortcuts are especially problematic because they exacerbate existing prejudices towards minority communities. Speakers of less valued dialects often belong to historically marginalized groups, resulting in additional discrimination towards them due to assumed social characteristics while speakers who are part of a powerful social group can have “accent prestige”, benefiting from the social privileges that come from their dialect.

Silencing the Minority Speaker

In major English-speaking European and North American countries, wealthy, white, and educated populations often have accent prestige because they are the most dominant and powerful social group. Years of historical prejudice towards marginalized groups have generated stigma against their dialects, and the value of “prestigious dialects” is still taught and learned early on in schools. Many European and North American educational systems enforce Standard Academic English (SAE) when teaching English grammar. SAE neglects the variation of English spoken by minority speakers and reinforces the idea that there is only one “correct” English for work and education. 

The implicit preference for the “prestigious accent” then carries on into the workplace when kids grow up. For example, in the hiring process, interviewers commonly make assumptions about an interviewee’s social class characteristics and education based on the way they speak, possibly overlooking aspects of the actual content of their conversation. For speakers of stigmatized dialects, interviewers can commonly assume negative stereotypical characteristics, such as falsely assuming that Black people who speak African American Vernacular English (AAVE) are more uneducated and less culturally fit for the workplace compared to their white counterparts. The unnoticed, automatic bias against speakers of certain accents can interfere with a fair evaluation for a job. In severe cases, it can even result in lack of job offers or salary differences for those that speak a dialect typically associated with those of a marginalized group.

Crop Faceless Multiethnic Interviewer and Job Seeker Going Through Interview” by Alex Green, licensed under Pexels

“Switching” away from the Stigma

When surrounded by the speakers of the prestigious dialect, stigmatized speakers can face even more prejudice. In the workplace, they may be harassed by co-workers due to the way they speak or overlooked for job opportunities due to a perceived lack of professionalism. To cope with the prejudice, speakers may turn to code switching, which means changing their  speech and other behaviors to meet those in the dominant environment and then reverting back to their more natural speech and behaviors in other situations, like when surrounded by those who share their dialect. When environments are hostile to the dialects of marginalized speakers, code switching becomes a means to try to fit in and avoid harassment and missed opportunities. 

However, code switching is taxing emotionally and mentally, and it can result in stress that strains performance at work or school. Code switching also affects broader culture and society. If people of marginalized groups cannot fully be themselves, the normalization of linguistic homogeneity pushed by prestigious dialect speakers only continues growing. The exclusive culture then becomes a cycle with manners of speaking as a mechanism to create and reproduce these systems of power.

Enforcing Control not Correction

The prestige of SAE to the cost of other dialects is also reinforced globally. Many other non-English speaking countries teach SAE. For example, China’s investments in teaching English is projected to grow 12-15 per cent yearly. Similar increased spending on English education is found in other east Asian countries because of the expanded work and educational opportunities across the world provided to English-speakers. The global norm of English as a lingua franca today reflects how language standards have developed through legacies of British and American colonialism and imperialism. 

For example, Britain’s imposition of English as the dominant language in India was an integral component of their strategy to maintain power and control over the colony. Established as the official language in higher education in the early 1800s, English was the pathway to increased job prospects, so non-English speakers became disadvantaged and local languages weakened due to a pressure to learn English. The history that made English so prevalent persists today also influences how accent biases preserve this legacy of power and control.

Middle School Class Learns English” by Rex Pe, licensed under CC BY 2.0 Deed

Those who do have a foreign accent often face a more scrutinized analysis of their grammar and pronunciation, which of course has mistakes. Native speakers of English, even of the “prestigious accent”, also make many other kinds of mistakes as well, but their accent is not as scrutinized because their accent is considered “normal” rather than “foreign.” As a sociolinguistic scholar, Vershawn Ashanti Young argues “examples of white discourse that go unanalyzed because it comes from somebody that’s in power or from a different race.” It is not that the dominant English dialect spoken by the groups that occupy the most privileged position in society is more “correct” than those in historically marginalized positions. Instead, those with the most powerful status get to decide what is “standard”— even if their speech is riddled with errors itself. 

Resisting the Power of “Prestige”

Despite the overwhelming pressure, and even physical and financial threats, to keeping one’s own stigmatized dialect, many are refusing to give power to the problematic idea of a singular, “standard” version of English. Rather than code switching between the prominent form of English and a lesser known dialect, some people are embracing code meshing: when people blend together their personal dialect of a language with the dominant one. Both varieties interact with one another to shape speech patterns across all situations and neither is given superiority over the other. Code meshing itself then becomes a form of resistance, an implicit way of allowing for all dialects within a language to have equal value and not reducing the lesser-used, stigmatized ones to fit into a suffocating mold.

Using code meshing to level the imbalance between the dominant dialect and other varieties starts from the ground-up. For example, Black educators in the UK have been creating a space for students to share their cultures and histories— and their dialects. Teaching kids how to appreciate other varieties of English, and the cultures and histories behind them, allows kids to be more accepting of those who speak differently than they do. They may even become more resistant to the mental shortcut of judging someone based on the way they pronounce certain words. Allowing for code-meshing in the classroom is especially impactful for those kids who speak stigmatized dialects. The students get to see a person in authority teach the value of all dialects, and they also learn how to use their own less common dialect freely alongside their fellow students that speak the mainstream variation in a setting which has often been linguistically homogeneous.

While dialect stigma remains pervasive, people’s slow shift towards code meshing, rather than code switching, and both minority and majority dialect speakers’ active support of accepting and using previously stigmatized dialects can slowly break down the flawed idea of only one “standard” form of English. English-speaking countries have so many cultures and identities within them, and the many varieties of English reflect this diversity. Embracing other people’s, or one’s own, dialect varieties alongside their cultures and identities reduces dialect discrimination and facilitates more acceptance and equality for the people who speak less common dialects.

Edited by Juliet Morrison

Featured Image: High School English Teacher with Three Students” by Alliance for Excellent Education, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed

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