Does “standard” English perpetuate inequality?

Notebook entry #4 2011-10-09

It’s been almost 100 years since George Bernard Shaw published his play, Pygmalion. In it, Shaw sends up British society by changing a woman’s class simply by changing the way she speaks and dresses. Cockney Liza Doolittle is destined to live forever in an unheated tenement making a meager living selling flowers until Professor Henry Higgins decides to use her in an experiment. He bet that he could change her destiny through “phonetics,” teaching her the “correct” way to speak English.

How is that different from what some in literacy are doing today? As Lisa Delpit does when she says, “All we can do is provide students with the exposure to an alternate form, and allow them the opportunity to practice that form in contexts that are nonthreatening, have a real purpose, and are intrinsically enjoyable. If they have access to alternative forms, it will be their decision later in life to choose which to use. We can only provide them with the knowledge base and hope they will make appropriate [emphasis mine] choices.” (Language Diversity and Learning in Beyond heroes and holidays: A practical guide to K-12 anti-racist, multicultural education and staff development, Lee, E., Menkart, D, and Okazawa-Rey, M.N. eds p. 157)

Isn’t this the Henry Higgins school of thought? OK, maybe it’s progressed a bit. In a preface to Pygmalion, Shaw makes no secret of the fact that he believes that there is one way to speak English and all other ways are wrong: “The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it. They spell it so abominably that no man can teach himself what it sounds like.” ( Delpit, on the other hand, respects the language her students come to school with and uses it to teach them, or make available to them, alternate forms of speech including that of the dominant culture.  But the end appears to be the same; only a certain form of English is acceptable to those who hold the keys to power and success. Learn to use this language and you will get ahead. Shaw may simply have seen that as learning to speak English correctly, while Delpit sees it as using an accepted form.

But if everyone learns to speak and write like those in the dominant culture while maintaining their “home” languages, what is gained and what is lost? Aren’t we still accepting the “systemic form of inequality” inherent in the language we speak? (Andersen and Hill Collins p. 61)

Because language (or at least accent and dialect), in my view, is as much a systemic form of inequality  as race, class, and gender  as stated by by Margaret L. Andersen and Patricia Hill Collins in Systems of Power and Inequality published in Race, class, and gender: an anthology (p. 61)

If you don’t think so, try this: would Americans have elected to the presidency a man or woman who said: “Donch y’all be axin’ what yo’ country can do fo’ you. Ax what y’all can do fo’ yo’ country.”? Would such a saying have become famous and quoted 50 years after it was said? Would anyone who speaks like that even be elected to minor public office? Would they be promoted to higher levels of management?

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states:

15. (1) Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

It goes on to say that such discrimination is allowed where it is intended to improve the “conditions of disadvantaged individuals or groups including those that are disadvantaged because of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

Note that while “national and ethnic origin” is present in the legislation, language is not. And, I wager, it never will be. Why? Because, as Shaw so aptly demonstrated almost 100 years ago, language can be learned. But there are two problems with this. One is pointed out by Shaw himself when he has Liza tell Higgins:  “You told me, you know, that when a child is brought to a foreign country, it picks up the language in a few weeks, and forgets its own. Well, I am a child in your country. I have forgotten my own language, and can speak nothing but yours.”

How long will it be before students who have mastered “standard” English forget their home languages? What is their perception of those who have not mastered the switch? Do they in turn become part of the dominant culture by virtue of their language? Is this a good thing?

The other problem is that the dominant culture gets to change what counts as “standard” English without warning. One who is new to the group, risks betraying their origins if they fail to keep up with the new lingo. So, not only is language a systemic form of inequality, it is one that is constantly being tailored to keep people out of the dominant group.

Disagree? Try this fun quiz. The following is a list of financial terms from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. Jot down your best-guess definition. Then go to the Glossary of Financial Crisis Terms  on the bank’s website to see how well you did.

  • Asset-backed commercial paper
  • CDO squared
  • derivative
  • hedge fund
  • haircut
  • liar loan
  • moral hazard
  • repo
  • special purpose vehicles
  • tranche

As an added bonus, once you checked the definition, how easy was it to understand?