Chapter 7: English and the global perspective

7.2.4 English and linguistic discrimination (research essay)

Anonymous English 102 Writer

November 2020

After the Norman conquest of France in 1066, French rose to the seat of the world’s lingua franca, or a language used to communicate across all other countries (Marques para. 2). French was the language of power – anybody who was anyone boasted of speaking it (Marques para. 3). All the nobility spoke it, great philosophers wrote books in it, diplomacy was conducted in it – the reach of the French language and the French influence stretched across the globe (Marques para. 4). But from what we can observe today, it does not seem to be that way anymore. Instead, there is a new language that has replaced the once dominate French – and that language is English. But how did this happen? It was not an overnight thing, where suddenly everyone woke up speaking English and living under its influence. So how, exactly, did English come to reside in this position at the top of the language hierarchy? And after it did happen, how did it come to a point where any other languages were considered inferior?

As mentioned before, English did not used to hold the seat of power against all other languages. For much of history, it was French that controlled the globe. But entering 18th   century, it started to look like French would not reign supreme for much longer (Marques para. 6). The Industrial Revolution in England pushed the country, through technological and scientific advancements, to the fore front of the scene (Marques para. 7). In addition, the British Empire began to stretch its sphere of influence across the globe, bringing English culture, and the English language, along with it (Marques para. 8). By the 19th century, the British impact spanned to all reaches of the Earth, and the barely formed, economically skyrocketing United States contributed its influence as well (Marques para. 9). According to the article “How and Why Did English Supplant French As the World’s Lingua Franca?” by Nuno Marques, “French may have been spoken in the courts of Europe all the way to Russia…. but English was the language of money, and money talks louder than philosophy.” And this certainly held true when the United States stole the spotlight from bankrupt England after WWII. In its competition against Russia during the Cold War, all eyes were on the U.S as it put forth unprecedented technologies and continued on its steady rise in power. And things only escalated from there. Today, roughly 1.5 billion people speak English – that is about 20% of the entire population on Earth (Stevens para. 2). Of those 1.5 billion, 75% of them are nonnative speakers, indicating the globality and rise the in influence of English (Stevens para. 2). It is the language of almost everything of importance – business, diplomacy, medicine, and so much more. And with English being the forefront of everything, it can be assumed that native speakers of English are given the upper hand. Any individuals speaking other languages as their primary are forced to learn English in order to spread their ideas or hold any sort of power in the gobal fields.

And there is certainly much evidence to attest to this. In the academic article “Language Bias in Randomized Controlled Trials Published in English and German,” the authors, Matthias Egger and Tanja Zellweger-Zähner, relayed their study on academic articles published English medical journals versus journals of other languages. They found that it was more likely for authors to publish statistically significant findings in English medical journals that it was for them to publish their articles in journals of their first language. According to the article “The Hidden Bias of Science’s Universal Language,” “in some non-English speaking countries… English-language academic papers outnumber publications in the country’s own language several times over (para. 1)”. This reveals that researchers are ultimately forced to publish their findings in English in order to reach a wider audience and global recognition. It also suggests the possibility of significant scientific findings being overlooked because they were not published in English and thus reached a more limited audience. In another academic article, “The Inferior Science and the Dominant Use of English in Knowledge Production: A Case Study of Korean Science and Technology,” author Kumju Hwang interviewed Korean scientists and engineers living in the U.K on perceptions of English usage. She noted that many of the Korean interviewees felt that they had a significant disadvantage because they had to devote more time and effort to learning English that could have been used elsewhere in their scientific activities (p. 407). In one interview, a scientist said “In order to learn English, we lose 20 percent of the time that could normally be spent concentrating on science. We cannot fully concentrate con science. This means that our scientific results will be reduced by 20 percent (p. 407)”. The interviewee also expressed difficulty in communication at conferences and national meetings, which she felt could lead to a disadvantage for everyone (p. 407). And yet still, if researchers want their findings to be recognized, they have to learn English and publish in an English journal. As one interviewee said, “It is…much easier to be accepted into Korean journals, due to the fact that papers of poorer quality are submitted [there]. If I discovered something important, I would not submit it to a Korean journal (p. 412).” Yet another interviewee said that there are prejudices against non-native speakers of English in the sciences that affected their ability to be successful in publishing their papers and gaining recognition for their work (p. 413).

But it’s not only countries’ academic journals that have been affected by English’s rise to power, but also their languages and cultures themselves. This first came to my attention in my German class, when my teacher was talking about something in German about the internet and she used the word googlen – to google. I thought that honestly quite amusing and it led me to think about what other words from the English language have been incorporated into the vernacular of other languages. In fact, the answer to that is – a lot. The article “The Influence of English” by R.L.G, details many examples of this, such as downloaden(download) (para. 5), and also ways in which English sentence structure has rubbed off on other languages. For example, in German you would traditionally say Es hat mir Sinn (It has sense to me), but recently people have begun to say Es macht Sinn (It makes sense) (para. 3). I find this particularly interesting seeing how the tables have turned. Before the German language borrowed words from English, they were borrowing words from French. One that when I hear for the first time had me a little bewildered is the word Chance (same meaning in English too). The pronunciation of the word, shaunz, sounded so much more fluid that the normally harsher tone of the language that I was used to. But English isn’t innocent in this endeavor either. In fact, the language had a large habit of stealing words from other languages that has contributed to many of the common words we use today. These so called “loanwords” (I’d call them stolenwords) make up so much of our speech that we don’t even realize how much of our language we have absorbed from other languages. For example, the word ketchup comes from the Hokkien Chinese word ketsiap – which is a sauce made from fermented fish (Coleman para. 15) . Another one is cookie, which comes from koekjes, or “little cakes”, in Dutch (Coleman para.17). But not only language has changed because of English, culture has as well. What I have noticed with specifically the influence of the United States is the seemingly “Americanization”, so to speak, of other countries. The article “America’s Cultural Role in the World Today” goes into detail about this, attributing the first huge rise of American cultural influence on other countries to the United States’s consumer economy after the Second World War (Damm para. 2).  One of the factors that the article attributes the influence of American culture to is the media. The technological advances, such as tv broadcasting, put American media at the head of the scene, and gave them a wider audience (Damm para. 6). Other factors include the arts – film, music, literature, art – all of which put international eyes on the United States. For example, the popularity of Hollywood and American films have sold the ‘American dream’ to people around the world (Daam para. 8). Unfortunately, the power the English language has acquired hasn’t only resulted in loanwords and domination of the film industry. It has also brought about biased beliefs that English is superior and prejudice against non-native speakers of English and speakers of other languages.

The occurrence of prejudice against non-native speakers of English and speakers of other languages is nothing new. Linguistic discrimination, or when someone is treated unfairly based on the language that they speak (or do not speak) and the way in which they speak (ex. accent, span of vocabulary) (Loehrke 2), has occurred all throughout history. This goes hand in hand with linguistic imperialism, which Rober Phillipson defines in his book Linguistic Imperialism as “the notion that certain languages dominate internationally on others. It is the way nation states privileged one language, and often sought to eradicate others, forcing their speakers to shift to the dominant language (p. 780).” Phillipson also discusses the idea of a “linguistical hierarchy” where languages are ranked as superior or inferior to one another, with the dominating language being at the top of the hierarchy (p. 2). He describes a similar pattern that has occurred in instances of linguistical hierarchy throughout history, which includes stigmatization, glorification, and rationalization (p. 2). Beginning with stigmatization, any other languages, accents, or vernaculars other than the current dominate language are deemed inferior (p.2). For instance, ancient Greeks called non-speakers of Greek barbarians, or outsiders (p. 2). Through glorification, speakers of the dominate language raise their language up on a pedestal above other languages, and with rationalization, establish a justification for why their language remains at the top of the hierarchy (p. 2).  A good example of this is the belief of German as the dominate language in Nazi ideology. The Nazis glorified the German language as a language of Aryan race, a people “physically and genetically superior to others” (Smith p. 151). Stigmatization, discrimination, and biased thoughts like this are present throughout the history books, but that doesn’t mean that modern people have not been affected by it.

Linguistic discrimination is still a very real occurrence and is very harmful for everyone involved. But how and why does it occur? TEDx writer Olena Levitina, in her article “Is Language Discrimination Still a Thing?”, writes that prejudice against non-native speakers stems from a lack of understanding (para. 6). When native-speakers talk with non-native speakers and cannot understand what they are saying because of their accent, they might associate their misunderstanding with the non-native speaker not being intelligent (para 6). This thought process is extremely harmful and can lead to future beliefs that anyone with that accent is not as intelligent as someone without. For example, in the academic article title “Why Don’t We Believe Non-native Speakers?”, authors Shiri Lev-Ari and Keysar Boaz recounted experiments in which they found that people were more likely to report statements spoked by native speakers as believable than those spoken by non-native speakers (p. 1093). They noted that when listeners hear accented speech, their “processing ability”, or how well they are able to take in information and understand it, decreases, but instead of just deeming what the speaker says as harder to understand, they perceive what they are saying to be less trustworthy (p. 1095). Always being thought of as less believable than native speakers is extremely detrimental, and even in some case they can become prepared for it. This phenomenon, described by Agata Gluszek and John Dovidio in their academic article “Speaking with a Non-native Accent: Perceptions of Bias, Communication Difficulties, and Belonging in the United States”, is called “anticipated stigmatization” in which the non-native speaker already expects the native speaker to have biases against them before they even open their mouth. The authors found that accented speakers of English in the United States who previously experienced conversational problems and difficulties in communication were more likely to feel anticipated stigmatization (p. 227). They suggested that if native speakers expect non-native speakers to have a harder to communicating than they actually do, they might be more likely to avoid instances with accented speakers or similar situations where they might have communication difficulty (p. 227). Thus, Gluszek and Dovidio also reported from their experiments that non-natively accent speakers expressed more feelings of not belonging in the United States, which they attributed to anticipated stigmatization and difficulty communicating (p. 288).

Linguistic discrimination directed in any situation is harmful, but it has been especially destructive in the education system. In going back to Phillipson’s book, he says about teaching English as a second language: “the spread of English shows clearly that the ‘development’ of this language has been structurally related to and contingent upon the underdevelopment of others (p. 348).” In addition, in her article “Education Equality: Mitigating Linguistic Discrimination in Second Language Teaching”, Laura Matson says that the “ideology of English language teaching is rooted in a power structure of linguistic imperialism brought about by a history colonialism in which English speaking countries have kept non-English speaking countries in a position of subordination (p. 14)”. For example, Matson details an explanation on how anxiety affects language learners’ performance and how the ideologies of teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) have contributed to this. Generally, learners at lower proficiency levels are more reserved when learning and less willing to participate because they are afraid of making mistakes and sounding “non-native” (p. 16). This is something that I can relate to as well with my journey learning languages. Especially when I was just starting out, I was afraid to answer question or speak out loud because I didn’t want to seem “stupid”. Whenever I read something out loud, I would internally cringe because even could hear how bad my pronunciation was. Matson believes that the reason for anxiety in learning ESL is a direct result of the way in which the language is taught. By stressing that the “native speaker” accent is the correct, and essentially the ‘perfect’, way of speaking, pressure is put on the learner emulate this speech, and when they have difficulty with this, their willingness to participate at the risk of making mistakes decreases (p. 16). This ultimately enforces the idea of standard language ideology, which is defined by Rosina Lippi-Green in her book Language in the USA as “a bias towards an abstracted, idealized, non-varying spoken language (p. 289)”. This can be an extremely damaging belief, as, in referring to English, it promotes one way to speak it as the ‘right’ way, when in fact this ideology is a fallacy (p. 289). For example, Lippi-Green says that accents can be hard to change when they do not do anything to make communication difficult (p. 289) this makes it hard for there to be one language and only one way to speak it that is ‘correct’. In the article “The Silencing of ESL Speakers”, Barbara Seidlhofer, professor at the University of Vienna, says “it is easy to dismiss [various accented forms of English] as the use of incorrect English by people who have not learned it very well, but it is an entirely natural linguistic development, an example of how any language varies and changes as it is appropriated by different communities of users (para. 11).”

Another situation in which linguistic discrimination has been detrimental is in the workplace. In the academic article “Political Skill: Explaining the Effects of Nonnative Accent on Managerial Hiring and Entreprenurial Investment Decisions”, Laura Huang et. al investigate whether there is persistent bias associated with non-native speakers having weak political skills, and thus being less likely to advance in their careers (p. 1). The bias being tested in this article, called glass-ceiling bias, occurs when an individual is barred from attaining a higher position because of implicit bias against them (p. 1). Thus the ‘glass-ceiling’ refers to the idea that the individual is so close to reaching the position that they can see it through the glass, but bias has created a ceiling between them, preventing the individual from being able to climb higher up the corporate ladder (p. 1). In the experiments, Huang et. al found that native speakers of English received higher recommendations for promotions and more entrepreneurial funding than did non-natively accent individuals, therefore signaling that non-native speakers were considered to have lower political skill (p. 10). This is particularly alarming, because it shows that although non-natively accented individuals may have the same qualifications and experience (maybe even better) as native speakers, native English speakers are more frequently chosen for promotions and advancements in their careers.

But it is also important to note that not only non-native speakers of a language are discriminated against, but even native speakers as well. The most prominent example of this is discrimination against people who speak African American English, or AAE. African American English, which also has been referred to as Ebonics, African American Vernacular English, or Black English, is a dialect spoken by many African Americans in the United States (Mufwene para. 1). The linguistic features of AAE have often been criticized and denounced as grammatically incorrect compared to ‘standard’ English. For example, the usage of “double negatives” such as in “You ain’t getting no thanks from it.”(Poplack para. 3) would garner much denunciation according to standard English grammatical rules. But the fact of the matter is, that AAE is a part of the cultural identity of many African Americans just as any other accent is a part of anyone else’s. Unfortunately, due to lack of understanding and racist based biases, speakers of AAE have been, and continue to be, discriminated against. In the book Why Are So Many Minority Students in Special Education? Understanding Race and Disability in Schools, authors Beth Harry and Janet Klinger offer a powerful example. As we discussed before, discrimination against non-native speakers of English in the education system is extremely detrimental, and the same is true for speakers of AAE in schools. Harry and Klinger found that speakers of AAE were found more often to be diagnosed with a language disorder and thus be placed in special education. The reasoned that it was often the assessors’ lack of knowledge regarding AAE and its linguistical traits that led to this diagnosis (p. 30). Assessors unfamiliar with the way that AAE functions might hear a student say something such as “he walk to school” instead of the standard English “he walks to school” and conclude that they have a language disorder, when in fact they were just speaking their native dialect. This disproportionately affects African American students, and students with other accents and dialects, giving them a disadvantage in their education. Discrimination also occurs with regional accents, most notably the Southern accent. Long held stereotypes of Southern ‘hillbillies’ and ‘rednecks’ have twisted many people’s minds, leading them to have biased views of Southerners being less educated or competent that other Americans. In the article titled “Perceptions of Competency as a Function of Accent”, Cheryl Boucher et. al found in their experiments that participants were more likely to view individuals with Southern accents as less competent that those with ‘neutral accents’ (p. 27). Participants rated the neutral speakers as being more grammatically correct and professional than speakers with Southern accents. This is similar to the common bias that African American English is grammatically incorrect compared to standard English. And it is harmful because it put speakers of AAE, those with Southern accents, and any other speakers of other stigmatized accents or dialects at an unfair disadvantage and puts untrue labels on them.

So how, then, can we stop linguistic discrimination, whether in the education system, workplace, or anywhere else? Going back to the academic article by Laura Matson, the author suggests promoting anti-racist education (p. 18). Matson argues that anti-racist education encourages a deeper look into the imbalances created between linguistically dominant and linguistically marginalized groups (p. 19). She writes that “‘merely celebrating differences (Kubota 36)’ … creates an illusion of equality that still maintains ‘existing power relations that the people on the margins are expected to assimilate to (Kubota 37)’ (p. 18)”. Matson proposes teaching English in a way that leads learners to look critically at the standard language, which allows them to question its role as a dominate language (p. 20). In the workplace and in the hiring process, writer Bridget Miller suggests in her article “Avoiding Discrimination in the Workplace” for employers to avoid “English-only” policies and train anyone related to the hiring process in unbiased interviewing (para. 3). She also wrote that it was important to note that 100% English fluency does not necessarily correlate to high job performance (para. 3). Dr. Pragya Agarwal, in her article “Accent Bias: How Can We Minimize Discrimination in the Workplace?”, says that making a conscious effort to look past bias and prejudice can create a more inclusive and amicable environment (para. 6). Through these ways, we can become more aware of our own, possibly unconscious, biases towards other non-natively accent speakers and work on ending them.

Works Cited

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Gluszek, Agata, and John F. Dovidio. “Speaking With a Nonnative Accent: Perceptions of Bias, Communication Difficulties, and Belonging in the United States.” Journal of Language and Social Psychology, vol. 29, no. 2, 2010, pp. 224–234., doi:10.1177/0261927×09359590.

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