YGDP members speak about linguistic prejudice

February 7, 2018

Professor Raffaella Zanuttini, assistant professor Jim Wood, and postdoc Jason Zentz spoke to audiences at Yale’s Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) on the topic of linguistic prejudice as part of the CTL’s ongoing Diversity and Education Series. They developed this workshop collaboratively over the past several months with professor emeritus Larry Horn, lecturer Matt Barros, postbac student Randi Martinez, and high school summer intern Elizabeth Frieden.

Linguistic prejudice is a form of prejudice in which people hold implicit biases about others based on the way they speak. While the majority of Americans speak English, in reality the English language exhibits substantial variation across different communities, generations, and ethnic groups. These differences between dialects of English manifest themselves in many different ways, including regional accents, slang words, and non-standard grammatical constructions such as double negation or extended benefactives.

At their CTL workshop, Raffaella, Jim, and Jason worked to expose the phenomenon of linguistic prejudice, describe its social consequences, and propose ways in which teachers and learners can work to neutralize its effects. To begin, they explained why there is no objectively correct way to speak English. For example, some varieties of English are considered to be r-less because they do not pronounce certain instances of the consonant r, such as the r in park. While r-less dialects are considered to be less prestigious in the present-day United States, they are considered more prestigious in the United Kingdom, as well as in the United States during the early 20th century. Thus, different societies at different periods of time have different ideas about what it means to speak “correctly.”

The existence of differing opinions about what standard English looks like shows that biases against certain varieties of English are not assessments of people’s cognitive ability to communicate using language. Instead, linguistic prejudice towards a certain dialect reveals an individual’s attitudes about speakers of that dialect. Research conducted by the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project (YGDP) has shown that these prejudices are quite strong. When presented with sentences from non-standard dialects of English, survey respondents often opined that those who utter such sentences are lazy or uneducated, or belong to communities perceived as being socioeconomically stigmatized.

These attitudes toward non-standard dialects are not merely a matter of taste or preference. Raffaella, Jim, and Jason gave three examples of how linguistic prejudice has had a material impact on the lives of its targets. Firstly, numerous sociolinguistic studies have shown that non-standard speakers face discrimination in the housing market purely on the basis of their dialects, which are used as a proxy for race, class, or national origin. Secondly, witness testimony is often disregarded by judges or jury members if it is given in a non-standard dialect. For example, during the murder trial of George Zimmerman, the testimony of prosecution witness Rachel Jeantel was dismissed by the jury in part because it was given in African American English. Finally, in education, the use of non-standard dialects may cause both teachers and students to be perceived as being less competent. Students from households speaking non-standard dialects are often taken to be less intelligent, and receive discouragement from teachers throughout their time in school. On the other hand, teachers belonging to minority ethnic groups may be perceived as difficult to understand even if they speak a standard dialect of English.

Given that linguistic prejudice is a serious problem, what can be done to address it? While the educational system usually attempts to teach students to use standard English, it is generally not possible for a person beyond the age of 14 to learn to speak another dialect of English. In fact, learning to speak a different dialect of a person’s native language is often more difficult than learning to speak another language altogether. Even professional actors who have been trained to portray characters speaking another dialect have difficulty using the other dialect over the course of a long performance. Instead, in order to achieve linguistic justice, all speakers must be able to understand the existence of linguistic prejudice, identify any biases that they and others might hold, and learn to appreciate the diversity of the English language.

The Diversity and Education Series is a series of CTL workshops focusing on best practices to ensure inclusiveness in higher education. Raffaella, Jim, and Jason’s presentation was given earlier today, but their slides and a videorecording of the workshop are available at the CTL site.

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