“Proper” and “Broken” English: The Problem of Linguistic Racism
A couple of weeks ago, I was in a café with a group of women catching up after our summer break. Mia* shared her experiences of travelling through a South Asian country and expressed her surprise at how children and young people she encountered there spoke fluent English. “I couldn’t believe how flawless their English was and got curious. I ended up talking to several young people and their families, and found out that education, movies, and social media have a huge impact on how young people use language, particularly English,” she said. She reported that even when different languages were spoken within the family, children seemed to have a preference for English, and used it all the time among their peers.
Tracy, the only monolingual English speaker there, was not impressed. She commented: “That may be so, but their English is bound to be substandard.”
We all turned to look at her. “I have seen that in many places I’ve travelled to,” Tracy explained. “People speak a lot of English, but it is not real English. It is just broken English, even though often they don’t even realise this.”
“Why do you say that, Tracy?” someone asked. “What makes you say their English is substandard?”
“Well for starters, their pronunciation will be wrong. Their strange accents and stress patterns will make it impossible for a native English speaker to understand them. Their syntax is going to be faulty, and their vocabulary will just not be up to par. It just won’t match a native speaker’s level of English.”
I was taken aback by Tracy’s comments because I was not expecting anyone in that group to hold such pejorative views about multilingual speakers of English. The description of someone’s English as being “broken” or “substandard” is, of course, not something new. In fact, that perception may even be the norm in some contexts.
But this does not make it acceptable.
To deem one person’s language as being substandard or broken, and another’s to be proper or real simply based on their ethnicity and geography is not only offensive and demeaning, but factually wrong. Rob Drummond reminds us that so-called Standard English is not objectively superior to other varieties of English:
There’s nothing objectively linguistically better, more superior, or more sophisticated in so-called standard English. It’s just, we have this sense that it is more correct because it has all the prestige and power behind it."
Tracy’s comments signal deeply rooted biases about linguistic hierarchies and an unwillingness to accept linguistic diversity. While many aspects of diversity have become socially acceptable over time, language seems to be one aspect of our lives where prejudice remains normalized.
Prejudice and Discrimination
According to Ethnologue, 1.3 billion people speak English across the world, but of these, only 370 million are considered to be “native speakers.” In other words, the vast majority of people who use English are multilingual speakers. Several studies have been conducted in different contexts about people’s perceptions of “native” English speakers and those who speak Global Englishes. Let me highlight two that focused on U.S. undergraduate students’ perceptions. One of these was published in 2005, and the other in 2023. Comparing the findings from these, it appears that compared to the Millennial population of the earlier study, Generation Z participants are more accepting of different English varieties and speakers of those varieties. However, prejudices remain and nonstandard varieties were often negatively evaluated and deemed broken or incorrect.
When people hold strong perceptions about language, those perceptions can feed into linguistic racism, or racism based on accent, dialect, and speech patterns. Linguistic racism is defined as the mistreatment or devaluation of people and acts of discrimination toward people based on their language use or perceptions about their ethnicities. Linguistic racism can also lead to making assumptions about a person’s character and intelligence level. Speakers of Global Englishes are often considered to be less truthful, less intelligent, and less competent, and this perception can cause much psychological damage to multilingual speakers of English. Even monolingual speakers of English who speak a regional or social dialect may experience such negative prejudices against them.
Schools and other educational spaces can make things harder if such biased perceptions are put into practice through overt and covert educational policy. When standardized English is considered the only legitimate variety of English, institutions reproduce linguistic ideologies that stigmatise speakers of other language varieties and privilege specific groups, creating power imbalances.
What Can Educational Institutions Do?
Linguistic racism needs to be tackled head on, and there are actions that can be put in place at the institutional and individual level. I suggest three points of action:
- Put less focus on accent modification and educating ourselves on accent awareness so that we develop our intercultural capabilities.
- Encourage linguistic diversity within educational spaces so that we normalize the use of different varieties of English, build familiarity with nonstandard forms of English, and provide the opportunity for students to express themselves freely in ways they are comfortable. Ensuring that teachers are able to use their own regional varieties in teaching can help to initiate this.
- Ensure that your recruiting practices are clear and transparent: Recruit teachers based on qualifications and pedagogical expertise rather than their ethnicity, where they were born, or the language they speak at home. Teachers who are multilingual speakers of English can serve as important role models for students who are still developing their expertise in the language.
As Jamila Lyiscott articulately expresses, there are many ways in which we can speak English, and we need to do our part to spread that awareness.
*All names used here are pseudonyms