Getting Caught in Other People’s Biases
To complicate matters, language instructors and native speakers, often have their own biases about how the language should be used. Remember: They are the “authorities on the language” that language learners rely on and trust.
Yet, some of the messages they send to language learners can be rather damaging. Let’s examine a couple of examples.
“You Don’t Want to Sound Uneducated or Stupid”
Well meaning instructors sometimes want to impress upon students that some varieties of the language should be avoided... at all cost. Rather than explaining that some constructions are considered grammatically nonstandard, they teach students that “if you say this, you will sound uneducated” (worse yet, “...you will sound stupid”).
I recently saw an ESL teacher on YouTube say the following about using double negatives and the word “ain’t” in English:
As soon as someone says to me “I ain’t got nothing,” I’m not talking to that person probably again. . . . If you use the word “ain’t,” it just makes you seem uneducated. People who say these words, they sound stupid.
On the other hand, I have also seen teachers bring up sociolinguistic issues associated nonstandard constructions, explain language bias, point out the standard form, and let students decide how they want to “sound.” This seems more acceptable than promoting linguistic bias and perpetuating stereotyping.
Which English is Better?
A common question among English-language learners is “Should I learn British or American English?” You would think that language teachers would tell students to take an utilitarian approach (e.g., “Learn whatever variety will be the most useful to you”); or perhaps they would tell them that “English is English, so learning either one is fine.”
Indeed, many language teachers do come up with sensible answers to the question; however, many do not. In fact, teachers are often the ones making it a question to start with.
The English-learning industry often has a horse in this race. If you speak British or American English, you do not want to lose your students’ business; you will likely tell them that your variety of English is better, which means you have to come up with “evidence” to support your claim. Sadly, many of the reasons given to students are based on biases and stereotypes.
You should learn British English because
- Everyone wants to learn British English worldwide.
- American English sounds awful.
- British English sounds educated.
- British English is the original English, so it’s the correct one.
- It’s harder to understand American English because they don’t articulate very well.
- The best music comes from the UK.
- The United States has no culture.
You should learn American English because
- American English is more useful worldwide.
- British English sounds awful.
- British English sounds pretentious.
- It’s harder to understand British English because they don’t articulate very well.
- The best music comes from the US.
- British culture is outdated
Many English-language learners end up buying into these statements. They even have a sense of pride in saying they speak their chosen variety of English.
Many language learners will make educational and professional decisions based on these misguided beliefs about which English is better. These decisions can have real-life consequences.
Moreover, by teaching learners to discriminate against one or another variety of a language, teachers may be keeping students from a wealth of resources and opportunities. They may inadvertently be robbing their students from experiencing entire cultures.
The lesson continues on the next page...