Reflections on Linguicism

Language discrimination is far from new. Ancient biblical stories describe a “shibboleth,” when pronunciation of this word alone was used to identify fleeing Ephraimites, a tribe defeated by the Gileadites. Those who pronounced the word without the /sh/ sound, a phoneme not used by Ephraimites, were identified and killed instantly.

Thankfully, humankind has moved beyond the need to identify and persecute other humans based on linguistic differences…or have we? Linguistic discrimination, or linguicism, involves “ideologies and structures that are used to legitimate, effectuate and reproduce an unequal division of power and resources between groups which are defined on the basis of language” (Phillipson, 1988, p. 339).

So, if humankind hasn’t moved beyond this, what does it look like in today’s world? In modern day society, this might be rooted in individual attitudes, sometimes open and visible, and more often hidden and unconscious. For example, Lippi-Green (2012) has done eye-opening work on the ways movies perpetuate stereotypes based on varieties of language spoken by different characters. For example, in one chapter titled, “Teaching Children How to Discriminate: What We Learn from the Big Bad Wolf,” Lippi-Green shares extensive work she and her graduate students have done on the voices used in movies, particularly Disney movies—yes, those sweet, seemingly innocent movies children often watch over and over and over again. What messages are these children (and adults) being subconsciously sent when the “good” characters speak varieties of English often considered to be more mainstream varieties, while the “evil” or negative characters often speak with a distinct dialect or accent often associated with a particular geographical area of marginalized population?

These stereotypes are especially dangerous because they are so commonplace in these movies, which are often watched by young children who are in the process of forming ideas about the world around them. To see and hear these stereotyped, discriminatory representations repeatedly reinforced leads to the development of hidden biases slowly formed within the subconscious mind.

What effect can Disney movies have on people and their attitudes?  Disney movies are certainly not the only forms of media using stereotyped linguistic choices to (intentionally or not) portray certain characteristics. These choices can be seen in various forms throughout the media. Why are some people interviewed on newscasts broadcast with written subtitles as they speak while others are not?  Why are certain events given more coverage than others?

What about in schools? It was just 5 years ago, in 2011, when the Arizona Department of Education (under the threat of a civil-rights lawsuit) was required to stop removing teachers who spoke with what they deemed “heavily accented” English from classes for English language learners. Though this overt discrimination is no longer legally allowed, does it still happen? Even today, people in educational settings don’t need to look too far to see differences in the ways people in textbooks speak, the ways assessments often privilege those who speak a certain variety of English over other Englishes, perhaps even the way classroom structures and practices may inadvertently allow more talk time to students speaking certain varieties of Englishes.

Although from reading above, it is clear I still have more questions than answers, I feel the idea of linguistic discrimination is a necessary topic to be addressed in the classroom. In today’s blog I wanted to introduce this topic, and in my next blog I will share a brief description of one classroom activity I have tried to raise awareness of linguicism in my own classes—stay tuned!


Lippi-Greene, R. (2012). English with an accent: Language, ideology, and discrimination in the United States. New York, NY: Routledge.

Phillipson, R. (1988). Linguicism: Structures and ideologies in the linguistic imperialism. In J. Cummins & T. Skutnabb-Kangas (Eds.), Minority education: From shame to struggle. Clevedon, United Kingdom: Multilingual Matters.

About Shannon Tanghe

Shannon Tanghe
Shannon Tanghe is the program director of the Master's in ESL program at Saint Mary's University of Minnesota. She has taught in South Korea for more than 16 years, and has also taught in Egypt, Guyana, and the United States. Shannon was selected as the 2016 TESOL Teacher of the Year. Shannon holds a PhD in TESOL & Composition from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Shannon’s research interests are teacher collaboration, World Englishes, and teacher development.
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5 Responses to Reflections on Linguicism

  1. Joel Walsh says:

    My master’s capstone project was on how ELLs in the US often learn varieties of English other than Standard American, especially AAVE, because of their exposure to English native speakers who speak this variety.

    A number of researchers have looked at this issue and recommended a sensitive approach that explicitly tells learners about the different dialects of English, and how one of them is the one most commonly used, particularly in academic and professional settings.

    Needless to say, all that is easier said than done. How can you tell children that their classmates and neighbors are speaking non-standard, less prestigious dialects without insulting their classmates and neighbors? After all, in their L1, there are dialects with greater and lesser prestige and often a great deal of stigma attached to them.

    This is a difficult needle to thread. After all, we want to children to learn the standard dialect precisely because we don’t want them to fall victim to discrimination.

  2. Emma says:

    Ms. Tanghe,
    Thank you for your blog post and educating me about linguicism. While it is a term I have not before heard, I have contemplated this form of discrimination. In these times I am particularly interested in why some events get more media coverage than others, why mainstream media continues to perpetuate discrimination of marginalized populations. I await the day that mainstream media brings to light the plight of the common man without agenda of profit and histories are written without bias. I look forward to learning activities to raise awareness in my own classroom and with myself and more as you work further to answer the questions you have listed here.

  3. Laura Efford says:

    This is a thought-provoking introduction to linguicism and what that might mean for teachers. The references to Disney were spot-on. The bad guys in Aladdin (1992) speak with thick Arabic accents, while the good guys speak standard English. The crows in Dumbo (1941) speak AAVE and in effect present a minstrel show, furthering the stereotype of the African American as comedic relief. Fears of the Other infiltrate our entertainment, and this in turn furthers the stereotypes associated with that Other and the linguistic forms they use. In The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show (1959-64), Boris and Natasha–the bad guys–speak English heavily accented with Russian. Of course, this was during the Red Scare. Fears during World War II also helped develop the enduring trope of the evil German. To this day, American TV shows and movies continue to give the bad guys accents–many times German, Russian, or Arabic.
    As teachers, what do we do with this information? I think there are two steps to consider. First, as Ms. Ross suggests, teachers should identify their own biases and consider how they affect instruction and classroom environment. For example, I recently found myself surprised that a contestant on Jeopardy was doing very well. I had a prejudice that her heavy Southern accent signified a lower intelligence than a standard American English speaker. Some of my surprise at the contestant’s exemplary performance was also due to the fact that she was a woman. It’s noteworthy that I am a woman from Virginia; members of a marginalized group can still participate in the power structures that deprive them of power. Identifying my own biases and reflecting on them helps me combat some ingrained habits of thought while working with students.
    Secondly, teachers should explicitly teach about the power structures of dominant and marginalized dialects of English. You provide one powerful method of doing so in the next blog post. Teachers trained in Culturally Responsive Teaching know to speak to their students about language power structures and the importance of code-switching. This particularly benefits speakers of AAVE, but of course serves speakers of other marginalized English dialects as well. ELLs face countless barriers in our educational system, and teachers can help by mindfully considering their own biases and explicitly teaching about power structures, including linguistic ones.

  4. Shannon Tanghe says:

    Hi Ms. Ross,
    Thanks for you reply! You bring up a lot of excellent points in there. I agree that is it extremely important for all educators to reflect on our own practices and perhaps hidden assumptions or biases we each hold. I find that raising awareness and initiating these conversations is an important first step, and that it does need to extend beyond this.The second part of this linguicism blog posting, which posted just yesterday, describes one example of a classroom activity I have tried using in order to encourage open discussions and critical reflections. Check it out and let me know what you think. Thank you for your comments–I appreciate your points!

  5. Ms. Ross says:

    According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2013-2014, 9.3% of students in the United States are English language learners. A number which steadily increases each year. In an increasingly globalized society, the issue of language discrimination cannot be discounted. In the United States. When exploring the issue of language discrimination, one cannot overlook what Macedo et. al. called the hegemony of English or the belief that English is a superior language or a language in which other languages aspire to. In the American classroom, it is clear to see how the hegemony of English perpetuates stereotypical views and marginalizes the importance of incorporating other cultures into the classroom.

    As a fellow educator pursuing a higher level degree in TESOL, I can only assume that your ultimate goal is to bring light to the plight of English learners and help create an equitable learning environment. I appreciate you mentioning the blatant examples of language discrimination that are seen in media, however, one may only need to look at their own personal educational philosophy to find clear-cut examples of discrimination. One of the most critical issues facing English learners and underserved students, in general, is not that discrimination exists, rather, we pretend as if doesn’t. If the goal is to be accomplished, educator’s must develop a personal stance. According to Patricia Hinchey, educators need to start thinking much more consciously about classroom routines they’ve accepted as desirable or necessary without scrutinizing them, simply because they constitute “what teacher do.” Reformation starts with you, and when I say “you” I mean educators.

    As a critical pedagogist, I believe that the purpose of education is to encourage students to question and challenge societal norms. The best way to bring about change is to expose errors. Disney and other corporations will not change. We must change our students. How can we do that? Expose students to the discrimination and provided them an opportunity to question ideologies and practices considered oppressive (including those at school), and encourage “liberatory” collective and individual responses to the actual conditions of their own lives.

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