As recent as 2018, a French politician introduced a bill to stop the discrimination of individuals based on their accents. This specific form of discrimination was labeled ‘Glottophobia.’ It questioned if it was appropriate for individuals to experience discrimination based on the use of non-standard French. The idea of not speaking a ‘standard’ version of a language raises questions regarding various attitudes and beliefs about non-standard variations or dialects. It suggests that what you have to say is secondary to how you sound to others.
This exclusionary bias is not restricted to a specific geographic region. Speakers of many dialects experience similar biases across the world.
These harmful perceptions subject individuals to being undervalued and may determine if people are heard or valued when they speak. Discrimination at work, housing, in interviews, and during public speaking engagements due to dialectal variations is not an uncommon phenomenon. International human rights law includes some specific forms of discrimination, but linguistic discrimination is not recognized to the degree that other forms of discrimination were mentioned.
It is past time that we shatter these misconceptions related to the issue of dialects.
What is a dialect?
There is a tendency for people to use words like “correct” and “proper” to refer to the way people speak, which often disregards differences in dialects.
When a group of people speak a rule-governed system of language (different from the standard version) in a specific region, it is called a dialect. Based on over 10 regional dialects in the US, one can imagine the variations of spoken English. African American English, Spanish influenced English, and Asian English are just some of the dialects commonly spoken. An outdated system of classifying dialects was called ‘the deficit approach’, that meant each dialect had a different status (Owens, 2020). Any system titled the deficit approach certainly gives the impression that anything other than standard is lacking in merit or quality. In this system, a dialect that sounds closer to the ‘standard’ variety of English is considered superior (Owens, 2020). This mentality can be observed covertly and overtly in everyday interactions. Instances of bullying in schools have also been reported to be associated with linguistic differences.
The concept of ‘Standard English’ is actually not so standard. Rarely is it used in causal spoken English—rather used more often in written language. In regular conversations, there are many variations. In fact, many experts consider the term “standard” to be antiquated opting instead for the term “mainstream.” What may be “standard” in one area may not be “standard in another. For example, if you were in a community where the “standard” dialect was African American English (AAE), you would likely hear features that were different from the mainstream dialect. A very common feature of AAE is the zero possessive, in which a user omits the possessive “s” as long as the possessor is identified.
You might hear an exchange such as:
Speaker one: “man, who car is that?”
Speaker two: “man that’s Jim car.”
Not only would an exchange like this be “standard” for that community, but it is in fact rule based and no one would be “corrected,” which is difficult for many ‘mainstream dialect’ speakers to accept. This tendency disregard dialect is mostly due to a lack of understanding about the word ‘dialect’, and how it differs from slang. Even some dialectical speakers lack that understanding. As an AAE native speaker, and speech-language pathologist, one author of this blog says when he explains to other AAE speakers that they speak a dialect, it often causes people to feel offended. One possible reason is because they confuse dialect with slang. They believe they are being told they speak ‘slang’ and may not be smart enough to speak “proper” English. An African American grandparent brought her child to a clinic and wanted the AAE speaking SLP to teach him “proper” English. After briefly evaluating the child’s language it was clear that he did not have a language disorder, but he was speaking AAE, which his grandmother confused with slang. Even after listening to the difference between a dialect and slang, she said, “well that’s all well and good, but he won’t be able to get a job talking like that.” Her comment highlighted the concerns dialectical speakers have about linguistic discrimination.
Raising Awareness About Linguistic Discrimination
As educators and clinicians, it is crucial to discuss the implications of the use of words like “wrong, improper, incorrect, disordered speech” for dialectical differences thoroughly with our society. Clarity about these concepts can lead to the desired change in perspectives regarding various dialects. In our society, some jobs do require fluency and competence in spoken and written English. Should that requirement give anyone a license to discriminate based on linguistic features?
To raise our consciousness about linguistic discrimination, we recommend looking inward and challenging our own implicit biases regarding people who sound different. Consider that the differences you hear (and may have previously labeled as “incorrect” and “improper”) may be part of some other language. Above all else, to really combat dialect bias, we should all try to focus on content of communication instead of focusing on how different we sound from each other.
Vikas Grover Ph.D., CCC-SLP, is assistant professor speech language pathology at New York Medical College’s School of Health Sciences and Practice. The essay represents his opinion and not that of the college.
Byron Ross, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, is an Instructional Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, University of Houston, Texas.