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Getting Smarter through Language

Language Bias and Discrimination | Intermediate/Advanced Level

Marc Franco

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basic (A-2 level)

A 5-minute read

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Language Bias and Discrimination

 When we think of discrimination and biases, we typically think of racism, sexism, religious bigotry, and so on. We usually do not really think about being discriminated for the way we talk.

 For example, President Joe Biden struggles with a speech disorder—stuttering or stammering. Even as the president of the United States, whenever he has difficulties speaking, people perceive him as being inarticulate, even unintelligent.

Consequences of Linguistic Biases

 Being subjected to linguistic biases has consequences. Young stutterers can suffer from ridiculing and bullying and become socially withdrawn. People of all ages can experience decreased self-esteem, feelings of frustration or isolation, and increased stress and anxiety. In turn, these can affect their mental and physical health.

 People can learn to cope with language bias; however, it can be a difficult process that takes years.

Language Variation and Biases

 English has many language varieties (e.g., American English, British English, Indian English, Australian English, and so on). Even in the same country, there are regional differences, so people use distinct accents, vocabulary, and grammar structures. These language varieties and regional dialects can be discriminated against.

 In the United States, for example, people perceive someone speaking with a Southern accent as friendly but unintelligent. People perceive someone with an Italian-sounding, New York or New Jersey accent as an uneducated “gangster.” A Spanish-accented speaker is perceived as sociable but unintelligent and uneducated. Even someone who is smart and educated may be discriminated against because of the way they speak.

 As an example of mostly positive bias, Americans perceive speakers of British English as being sophisticated (though they can sometimes be perceived as arrogant, too). It is interesting, though, that in the UK, many of the same “British accents" may elicit negative biases. This shows how the linguistic biases we have, whether they are positive or negative, have little or nothing to do with the speakers.

 The language variety you speak has to do with your life circumstances such as where you were born and where you were raised. It does not have anything to do with your intelligence or personality. Yet, people’s perceptions influence how they see other people even when they know their perceptions are not accurate.

Famous Examples

 Despite being highly talented, the now-famous actress Meryl Streep faced discrimination early in her career because of her New Jersey accent. Although some in the entertainment industry advised her to change her accent, she refused because her accent is part of her roots.

 Similarly, country music icon Dolly Parton embraces her Southern heritage even though she was criticized for her Southern accent. She went on to become one of the most famous country singers in the United States.

 The many success stories about people overcoming discrimination are encouraging. Nonetheless, many other people may not have the same opportunities to overcome language bias and discrimination. We just do not hear about them because they are not famous.

Practice Activities

Practice 1. Listening practice.

Practice 2. Vocabulary activity.

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