With over 7000 languages worldwide, languages are a hallmark of cultural diversity. Even in English-speaking countries, people speak with linguistic variances and fluency. Yet, many people don’t appreciate this diversity and discriminate against those who don’t sound “normal” to them. Linguistic racism is a term used to describe racism perpetuated against others based on their language use. Learn how this bias impacts how we see other people and what we can do to become more sensitive to linguistic discrimination. (Estimated reading time: 13 minutes)
“A different language is a different vision of life.”— Federico Fellini
In 2005, when I was in college, there weren’t many women in Western media I could relate to because of my background. So, when I saw Aishwarya Rai interviewed by Oprah, I finally felt there was a place for women like me on the world stage.
An actress and former Miss World, the green-eyed beauty was making her entry into Hollywood.
“What are some of the common myths people have about Indian women?” Oprah asked her.
“There are many. Like, for the first time, I traveled overseas and interacted with people, the immediate response was to the way I spoke English,” she replied.
Rai went on to say that people didn’t think she studied in India and must have had an education abroad because of her English fluency, which surprised her. “Why would people think that we don’t study English?”
“Amen,” I thought when I heard her say that.
Though I didn’t grow up in India, I was born and raised in Dubai, where English is not the official language but is commonly spoken because of the large expat population.
In the past, I was hesitant to share my origins with native-English speakers, who weren’t aware of Dubai’s multinational atmosphere, because they would almost always ask me why my English was so good if I did.
By “good,” they mean no heavy accent, grammar is on point, and I sound coherent.
“Well, I went to an international school and studied in the U.S. for a few years,” I would explain.
“But English is not your native language?” some people would press on.
“It is. I grew up speaking it.”
If you’re someone who has never had to justify your proficiency in a language because of others’ perception of your nationality and race, you may not quite understand the frustration that comes from addressing others’ seemingly well-intended compliments and curiosity.
Sadly, it’s much worse for those with stronger, pronounced accents for whom English is not their first language. I’ve seen international students from Asian countries fade into the background in U.S. colleges because they were self-conscious about speaking up in class.
In grad school, I witnessed a Taiwanese girl bullied by a silver-tongued Asian-American girl who mocked her for her poor vocabulary. It was heartbreaking to see her distressed, unable to defend herself because she didn’t have a good comeback (at least not in English) for the bully.
When I learned about “linguistic discrimination,” I realized how prevalent it is in the world. But becoming aware of our tendency to judge and discriminate on the grounds of language is essential if we work and live together in harmony and make significant strides.
Language diversity is a reality in the world today. There are very few countries where people speak only one language. Even in English-speaking countries, you’ll interact with people with varied linguistic backgrounds and fluency. Becoming sensitive to linguistic differences is part of our evolution as global citizens.
What are the origins of language?
Languages have been around for a long time. They are defined as a communication system of words, sounds, and grammar that we use to understand each other. The written language appeared 6000 years ago, and verbal language is believed to have begun 150,000 years ago.
Yet, the origins of language remain a mystery. Its evolution has been an ongoing debate among scholars like linguists and anthropologists for centuries, asking questions like: what was the first language? How and where did it begin?
The biggest hurdle in getting insight into early language is that little evidence can be found. However, the absence of it doesn’t stop people from speculating. Over the years, many theories have been put forward, but none have been confirmed with evidence.
Regardless of the genesis of language, we can all agree that language is vital to the fabric of our society. Even in its rudimentary form, it played an essential function in human life.
What is the purpose of language?
All species have their unique way of communicating. Wolves howl, fireflies light up, frogs croak, dogs wag their tails, and honeybees dance. Humans are the only ones to develop a cognitive language of communication to share thoughts, feelings, and ideas with others.
In our everyday lives, we use it with ease to make phone calls, order food at a restaurant, write an email, flirt with someone, argue, and defend ourselves. The language we use can evoke all kinds of emotions in others: hurt, rage, happiness, sadness, and mirth.
Language has power, whether we use it in intimate conversations with loved ones or giving a speech in front of a large audience. It can build, but it can also destroy. Hitler and Martin Luther King Jr. used vivid and impactful language in their speeches, but each wielded it for very different objectives.
At its core, the purpose of language is two-fold: communication and self-expression. It allows us to express our identities, thoughts, vocabulary, accents, and discuss important topics. There are subjective elements to our communication, like sensory descriptions, feelings, opinions, and imagery.
We don’t necessarily communicate objective truths to others. Instead, we show how things look from our perspective. Conversely, language lets us see reality through another person’s eyes and glimpse their culture and social influences.
On a broader, global scale, language allows human ingenuity to flourish. We use it to transform life as we know –it through art, science, religion, and politics. In “Sapiens,” author Yuval Noah Harari writes, “Written language may have been conceived as a modest way of describing reality, but it gradually became a powerful way to reshape reality.”
Harari asserts that language is unique, not because of its ability to transmit information but because it can transmit information about “things that do not exist at all.” Ideas and concepts generated from the crucible of our imaginations are best communicated when we use written words to describe them.
Language diversity: why is it important to preserve it?
With over 7000 languages worldwide, languages are a hallmark of cultural diversity. It’s intricately connected to our communities and binds us together. Language shapes us and determines what groups we most identify with.
Despite the diversity of language, it’s estimated that 96% of the world’s 7000 languages are spoken by a mere 4% of the world’s population. Only 6% of languages have more than 1 million speakers.
These numbers point to a dismal trend: the linguistic diversity on our planet is facing a crisis. According to UNESCO, around half of the spoken languages are considered endangered – as they fade away into oblivion, so do their unique meanings, symbols, and history.
This is significant because language offers countless ways for self-expression. In Spanish, “Sobremesa” describes the period during a meal when everybody finishes eating but remains seated talking at the table. “La Dolce Vita” is an Italian phrase that means “the good life perceived as one of physical pleasure and self-indulgence.” “Schadenfreude” is a German word used to describe the experience of the pleasure, joy, or self-satisfaction that comes from learning of or witnessing another’s misfortune.
None of these words has an English equivalent. Every language offers various forms or expressions that others do not, and losing a language can cost not just native speakers but the human race.
Many trends lead to endangered languages: displacement, genocide, colonization, and migration to countries where their language is not recognized or appreciated. Even if people learn languages as children, they may feel pressure to adopt new languages to adapt and be accepted in the new environments they find themselves in.
The good news is that steps are being taken to safeguard culture and linguistic diversity. In 2007, the United Nations asked all member states to “promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world,” They declared 2008 as the International Year of Languages, resulting in significant efforts towards promoting and preserving multilingualism.
An example is the efforts being made in Wales in the United Kingdom. Despite attempts in the 18th Century to eradicate the Welsh language, it speaks to the Welsh spirit that they have pulled their language from the brink of official classification on UNESCO’s list of endangered languages. In fact, according to the ‘Duolingo’ 2021 language report, 1.62 million people are now learning Welsh on the app, making it the fastest growing language in the UK.
Leveraging our enriched diversity will create harmony, peace, and cooperation while respecting the identity and sense of belonging in others.
Linguistic discrimination: what is it, and what does it look like?
Linguistic racism is a term used to describe racism perpetuated against people based on their language use. It has been part of the social discourse for a while but has mostly existed on a covert, implicit level.
The number of non-native speakers of English in the world outnumbers native speakers three to one. However, the term ‘native English speaker’ is complicated. Usually, it refers to someone who has spoken English since early childhood. But many kids grow up learning several languages.
Yet despite the non-native speakers of English being the majority globally, more people are using English now than ever before. It is the dominant language in business, government, and science. The non-native speakers who enter these arenas must adopt English.
When they do so, many must come to terms with a hierarchy based on English-speaking ability. Despite embracing diversity, many of us still rank certain types of English better than others. Anyone, both native and non-native speakers, who don’t use the “better” sounding English can find themselves judged, marginalized, and even penalized.
There is status connected to English spoken in monolingual, wealthy, and predominantly white countries. Studies show that the most preferred and respected types of English are American, British, and Australian.
Based on this myopic view, even English spoken in multilingual countries like Singapore and Ghana are considered less desirable forms of English, even though English is the official language in both nations. Even within countries where English is the official language, certain forms of English are discriminated against, like those spoken in Latin American, African-American, and immigrant communities in the United States.
Sometimes linguistic discrimination happens because of a person’s nationality and race, versus their actual communication abilities.
According to sociolinguist Sender Dovchin, when English is spoken by Europeans, like French or Italian, they sound sophisticated and cute. But when spoken by Africans, Asians, and Middle Easterners, it can be seen as unpleasant.
So, what does linguistic discrimination look like? Like any other form of racism, it can be overt or covert in how it manifests.
On an overt level, speakers might be belittled and mocked, like when someone imitates their accent to make them aware of how “strange” they sound. In an office setting, a manager might treat someone less favorably than other employees fluent in English and exclude them from important client meetings.
Covert forms are harder to spot and can show up in many forms. For instance, someone may interrupt a speaker to correct vocabulary and grammar, or a listener may look visibly irritated as they try to comprehend what’s being said. Another example might be if someone tells their colleague, who is on a phone call speaking their native tongue, that only English should be spoken in the office.
At worst, linguistic discrimination can lead to loss of opportunity in employment, education, health, and housing. Not speaking an acceptable form and fluency of English can cause people to be denied access to leadership roles and higher positions in business and the government, which leads to a lack of representation. Job seekers are disadvantaged even if they have the right qualifications and experience.
The most considerable damage happens on the psychological level. Linguistic racism can stir shame, guilt, and negative emotions. Ridiculed and marginalized speakers feel ashamed of speaking their native language, which could stop them from passing it onto the next generation.
What to do if you’re a target of linguistic discrimination
If you feel like you’re being mistreated because of the way that you speak or the language you choose to converse in, here are three things that you can do in response to the perpetrator:
1. Don’t let it impact your confidence
Like any other form of discrimination, linguistic bias can take a significant psychological toll. It can lead to increased levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. It can also lead to a loss of confidence as people internalize the messages and lose motivation to improve their speaking skills.
Since it’s not always possible to avoid linguistic discrimination, we must find ways to cope with unpleasant interactions and take care of our mental health. Here are some strategies to cope:
- Avoid dwelling on the negative experience. Center yourself by practicing mindfulness and meditation.
- Practice positive self-talk. Remind yourself of your strengths, values, and key accomplishments.
- Seek community. Find other people who are facing similar experiences as you are. There are language groups online and offline where you can find support.
- Work with a mental health professional. Find a mental health professional familiar with non-native speakers’ challenges.
2. Speak up for yourself
The knee-jerk response to discriminatory language is to say something rude and hurtful. But there is a more constructive way to respond that will get the message across:
- Ask questions. After the offender says something, respond with questions like, “Can you explain that to me?” or “What do you mean by that?” This challenges the other person to explain themselves and perhaps some time to realize the impact of their words.
- Express how their words make you feel. Mention the exact words or phrases the offender uses and tell them how they impact you. Let them know that it’s offensive, hurtful, and makes you uncomfortable.
- Educate them and help them understand: There’s a chance the speaker may not even realize that what they’re saying is offensive. Try to help them see things from another perspective and educate them on word usage.
3. Report the behavior
You can report the offense to the authorities if you’re in a school, university, or office. This would be the best option if the offender is not changing their behavior and you’re concerned about your health and safety. Harassment of any kind can also be reported to official authorities.
4. Preserve your language
If you come from a culture with other languages besides English, embrace it and pass it down to the younger generations. Instill pride in children and young people about their heritage and let them see their language’s beauty, value, and meaning.
When we raise multilingual and linguistic-tolerant kids, we make meaningful intercultural dialogue a possibility and will be able to build bridges despite differences.
How to be more sensitive about linguistic discrimination
Each of us can do our part to chip away at linguistic discrimination, especially if it’s something we witness regularly. Here are five ways you can be part of the change:
1. Recognize that multilingualism and multidialectism are part of many people’s social realities. Verbal shuttling between different languages, accents, and language varieties is practiced by many speakers so they can fit in and build rapport with others. This should be seen as a cultural asset and not a deficit.
2. If you witness anyone being a target of linguistic racism, they should be made aware of the hurt and damage they’re causing. Offer support to people experiencing discrimination and allow them to speak rather than speak for them if they can.
3. Make your English more accessible to non-native speakers by slowing down and avoiding slang, idioms, and jokes that would make them feel excluded. Give them a chance to speak and be patient and kind as they try to express their thoughts. Look at their body language and micro-expressions to understand the person better.
4. If you’re in an office or educational setting, create a more inclusive environment by having ongoing conversations about diversity and educating others about language-related biases and how to speak with colleagues or classmates who may sound different from them.
5. If non-native English speakers are shy or self-conscious, encourage them and show appreciation for them trying to speak in their non-native language. Just because they don’t use West European or American English does not make them less intelligent or likable.
Linguistic diversity is what makes our world a beautiful place. Because of language, we can speak with each other, share our opinions and make friends. Language is more than a tool; it’s a magic key that we can use to open the doors of people’s hearts. When we open ourselves to other languages and dialects of different types, our lives become enriched and vivid.
All my best on your journey,
Question for you: Have you ever been a target or witnessed linguistic discrimination? How did it make you feel, and how would you handle the situation today?
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David Leonhardt says
I grew up in Montreal. All the bus drivers were Francophones. So I would speak to them in French. Sometimes I got the accent right, sometimes not, depending on what I was saying and how tired I was that day. I often noticed just that tiny shift in composure when my Anglophone accent would show through. None of them were purposefully rude about it – they had better not, as I was making the effort to speak their language – but just that little shift was like saying “Oh, one of them.” It can be very subtle and feel rude, even when unintended.
Hi David – yes, it’s always tricky as you don’t know how the other person will respond. But more often than not, people are appreciative when you make the effort. Thanks for sharing!
I think part of it also is their perceived view of how much effort you put into it as well? Do they think you are just mocking them with the attempt or are you genuinely trying? You can control how they view and interpret your effort but in my experience, that is unfortunately also a big part in how people have responded to me when I have tried to speak to them in their native language that is far from my own native tongue.