Contesting Standardized English

What harms are caused when we insist on a common dialect?
By Missy Watson

Consider all that we miss when we require just one variety of a language, just one set of discourse conventions, when we stop listening or stop reading because listening or reading takes too much work. And consider which communities such exclusion benefits and which communities it hurts.

For nearly half a century, fields like applied linguistics, sociolinguistics, teaching English as a second language, second language writing, new literacy studies, composition and rhetoric, and education have revealed a wealth of research on the nature of language and literacy, discoveries that help expose just how nonsensical, fundamentally impossible, and downright unjust it is to exclude all other language varieties from public and academic discourse in order to safeguard and perpetuate standardized English. (I have intentionally used standardized English rather than Standard English throughout this article in order to indicate that there isn’t actually a language we might call “Standard English” so much as there is a version of English that we actively standardize.)

All dialects are linguistically equal and capable of meeting communicative needs. Languages and dialects spoken by individuals are multiple, intermingling, and (thus) always changing. Despite our instinct to preserve, homogenize, and standardize just one variety, no single variety is actually superior, we don’t actually need a single homogeneous variety of language in order to communicate effectively, and, even if we wanted to (and we shouldn’t), we can’t actually stop languages, including standardized English, from changing.

We teachers and scholars have observed that our students are already linguistically diverse. Indeed, our students bring with them an abundance of useful and sophisticated linguistic and rhetorical resources that we should be tapping into, supporting, and strengthening. However, some of us have yet to recognize that the linguistic and rhetorical repertoires of some students are indeed useful and sophisticated; these students’ lack of fluency in standardized English is the measurement by which we deem them deficient instead.

Meanwhile, we know that our students’ linguistic and educational backgrounds continue to expand and that acquiring English as an additional language and standardized English as an additional dialect can take years or a lifetime, not semesters. It is nearly impossible for some individuals to gain native-like proficiency in another language (especially when they have learned the language after what linguists call the “critical period” in childhood). We are also acutely aware that language and identity are inextricably linked and that societal attitudes about language (especially about which languages are to be considered inferior) affect the lived experiences and material realities of language communities. We understand that errors in speech and writing are inevitable in many native and nonnative English speakers, no matter how many years of instruction and practice they’ve had. Many people across our nation and globe will not or cannot attain proficiency in standardized English; their choice to pursue—or not to pursue—mastery of standardized English, however, is not indicative of the inherent superiority of standardized English or the intellectual capabilities (or lack thereof) of speakers.

Research tells us that standardized English was historically (and continues to be) modeled after the speech of privileged white communities and that it remains one of many tools used to maintain social and racial hierarchies. We’ve learned that our preferences for standardized English, and for any language variety for that matter, are socially constructed. And we understand that standardized English undeniably harms individuals in emotional, psychological, social, and material ways.

Scholars have traced how standardized English works to exclude groups from public discourse, education, and employment opportunities. We’ve come to recognize that assimilation and eradication efforts have not succeeded in leveling the playing field. We’re now well aware of the potentially devastating effects of demanding that so-called nontraditional students assimilate to standardized English and “standard” academic discourse, especially at the expense of their home languages, discourses, and identities. Yet, even when we respect their language differences and encourage them to preserve their full linguistic repertoires in contexts beyond our classroom walls, we, as teachers, harm students’ senses of identity and community by telling them their other languages are not welcome in academic spaces.

We can no longer justify resorting to enforcing this oppressive variety (in composition courses and beyond) with claims that it’s in our students’ best interest for us to teach and assess only standardized English. The myth that standardized English will save students becomes especially apparent when we examine research in sociology and critical race studies that demonstrates how race, not the learning of standardized English, is the biggest factor in determining one’s socioeconomic status and employment opportunities. Race—not employability, not intellect, not educability—determines stratification in rates of literacy and educational achievement.

Composition and Standardized English

I certainly play my part in perpetuating standardized English and the harms that come with it. I’m doing it right now with my use of standardized English in the writing of this essay. I regularly preach to my graduate students the need to adopt more informed and more inclusive views of language and literacy, and while I have much to say about how I do infuse different approaches and dispositions into my composition classrooms, I find myself, semester after semester, struggling to combat, reimagine, and revise my implicit and explicit enforcements and endorsements of standardized English.

And of course I’m struggling. There are lots of pragmatic reasons why. Historically, that’s what composition classes like the ones I teach are typically centered around: teaching and assessing standardized English. And, after all, fostering mastery of standardized English has long been one of the expected outcomes of higher education at large, which systematizes standardized English’s superiority in our institutional structures, presenting relentless roadblocks to those who push back. It’s difficult enough to raise awareness and persuade others that a problem actually exists (which, of course, many have tried to do for nearly fifty years).

Making the situation more complicated, most students are already accustomed to the expectation that they learn standardized English, and many are comfortable with that expectation and want such instruction. Employers and everyday citizens across the globe will continue to judge and discriminate against those who do not successfully use standardized English; students know this, and we’re expert at reminding them of it. And, truth be told, we enforce standardized English partly because we ourselves are steeped in and benefit from the tradition of doing so: standardized English is what we learned in school and is what we’ve been trained to use and teach.

Some of my fellow composition teachers have other concerns. I’ve heard objections such as, “I barely have time to cover the curriculum at my college, much less infuse new approaches to language diversity,” or “I myself don’t have time to learn about how to treat writing and language differently, and my institution doesn’t support professional development,” or “Taking such radical approaches in my classroom could cost me my job.” These are reasonable stances, highlighting the varied costs for teachers who work against the tide. Yet they are all the more reason for all of academe to begin taking a closer look at the prospect of—and, indeed, to begin taking more responsibility for—contesting the precedence of standardized English. No single teacher or discipline should alone bear the weight of this complicated dilemma. This should be a professional concern, across disciplines and campuses.

Standard Language Ideology

Perhaps the reality that standardized English works to oppress as well as to empower is still news to some professionals in higher education. Collectively, we’ve certainly been far better at focusing only on the benefits of learning and using standardized English. And perhaps that is one reason why we have not yet faced this issue in solidarity.

But what of those teacher-scholars like me, who have long known the reality of standardized English and still enforce it? Why do we do it? Why do we hesitate to fight standardized English even though we have long known of the damages such enforcement can cause? Of the fact that it only exists because it is tied to, authorized by, and serves people in power? Of the ways it more often serves as a gate rather than a key to success?

We do it because standard language ideology is massive and feels impenetrable. Drawing on scholarship by linguists James Milroy and Rosina Lippi-Green, I have come to a working definition of standard language ideology as the unquestioned belief system that assigns the written language variety of a privileged group as standard (and superior) and all others nonstandard (and inferior), a worldview uncritically assumed neutral and commonsensical but used as an instrument for social stratification and maintaining the interests of privileged groups.

Standard language ideology is deeply entrenched in the perspectives of the masses in the United States. For the most part, those individuals and groups who are the most subjugated through its dominance subscribe to it just as much as the privileged white groups who most benefit from it. Until standard language ideology is combatted on a large scale across public settings and our students’ future employers come to accept other varieties of language, we reason, we had better just help our students learn the language of power.

We wouldn’t say such things if we were talking about racism, classism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, or xenophobia—that these ideologies are just too big to overcome, that they’re too ingrained in the worldviews of our citizens and in the structures of society, that we ought to just settle for working with them rather than against them.

We wouldn’t say, at least not in modern times, that it’s in the best interest of every woman, person of color, LGBTQ person, immigrant, and working-class individual to just assimilate to the ways of upper-middle-class, hetero, able-bodied white men in power.

Of course, we know that many marginalized groups have long had to work within the constraints of such norms and dominant discourses. But, no, we don’t make such demands in the face of such exclusion and oppression. Instead, we fight it, in ways big and small.

Yet, most of us across the disciplines are inclined to say, without pause or hesitation, that it’s in our students’ best interest to master standardized English. We say that diverse groups of people should either eradicate their language differences or get darn good at switching them off in order to function in public settings without having to face discrimination.

The Politics of English

Why do we see language as a more acceptable basis for discrimination than characteristics such as race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability? Is it because language is considered a mere habit or practice that can be learned and reshaped rather than a part of our physiology, psychology, and identity? Are our pragmatic concerns more powerful than the harms caused by standard language ideology?

Are we too steeped in standard language ideology ourselves? As authorities on standardized English who, frankly, make our living perpetuating standard language ideologies, are we in too deep to reimagine our professional identities, to redefine the substance of what we do? And why are we so uncomfortable with even pondering these questions? Is it simply too unbelievable, too painful to consider that our best intentions for improving the lives and opportunities available to our students by enforcing standardized English may be, in a larger scheme, part of a problem we now must face?

To be fair, in today’s globalized world, where occasions for cross-cultural communication increase daily, awareness of standard language ideology has widened, and larger communities of scholars and teachers across the globe work more explicitly to address and combat it. Many have already begun chipping away at standard language ideology, and we can and will continue to do just that.

I also believe, though, that we must continue working toward more unity on this as a problem facing higher education. The full politics of English, including standard language ideology, is an issue with which all professionals in academe must contend. We must join forces in revising the purposes of higher education, redefining the role standardized English plays within it, redesigning course outcomes and curricula, reimagining pedagogy, and retraining our community of professionals across the disciplines about how to better address the linguistic diversity at all of our campuses.

We must also disseminate our knowledge about standard language ideology and the harms it causes as widely as we can. We must share with the public, all educators, and all students what we have come to know about the politics of standardized English. And we must further examine how standard language ideology manifests itself in individuals, classrooms, colleges and universities, and other public spaces across and beyond our communities and nation so that we’ll be better equipped to combat it.

To start, we must confront our own privileging of standardized English and the judgments we ourselves make about the language differences of our students, our colleagues, our neighbors.

We have for too long remained complacent, turning a blind eye to the harms caused by the very language variety we’re compelled to uphold. Let’s get busy undoing that. 

Missy Watson is assistant professor of composition and rhetoric at City University of New York City College. Her research lies at the intersection of composition and second language writing and revolves around seeking social and racial justice. Her email address is [email protected].

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