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.