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].

Photo by Trilocks/iStock


There is a lot here that I can respect in principle, but there appears to be a false dichotomy being set up. We are not forced to choose between saying, on the one hand, "all dialects are equally valid, and so you should be free to use your native dialect in all situations" and, on the other, "standardized English is inherently superior, so learn it or shut up." There is middle ground here.

The purpose of language is communication. In most practical daily communication, ambiguity is a bad thing. When people try to communicate using different dialects, the opportunities for ambiguity and misunderstanding are multiplied. (For example, while double negatives are acceptable as intensifiers in African-American Vernacular English, their use outside of a conversation between two AAVE speakers could leave a non-AAVE speaker legitimately confused about what the speaker or writer intended.) Therefore, we have a standardized dialect. It's fine to use a different vernacular with other people who share it or are familiar enough to understand it, but for practical reasons, it may cause problems outside of that context.

Does this privilege certain people, because their class/race/ancestry standardized the language, and by the same token disadvantage others? Yes. (Am I one of those so privileged? Yes.) Is dialect the last remaining socially acceptable form of racial/ethnic discrimination? Yes. But if you're unconscious on the operating table, you want your Jamaican nurse, your Pakistani anaethesiologist, and your Latina surgeon to communicate with zero ambiguity. The same is true of airline pilots and air traffic controllers, who use standard(ized) English around the world.

We should ALL (privileged white guys like me especially) get better at code-switching in how we listen, but we can't all code-switch to a great number of vernaculars. Having a standard dialect, in principle, cuts down the number of additional dialects anyone needs to just one. We need a standard dialect and, for better and for worse, we already have this one.

Thanks for your comment, Bill! I appreciate your worry about setting up a false dichotomy. And I agree there’s middle ground. Tons of middle ground. But I disagree that ambiguity is always such a bad thing. Yes, when communicating in the medical or transportation fields, as you mention, we absolutely need a shared set of communicative norms. Ambiguity in these high stakes situations can cause major problems. But the high majority of our communications are far more casual, yet too many of us remain intolerant of difference even in low stakes situations.
Consider even your example of an AAVE speaker using double negatives. I myself struggle to see how double negatives would or have ever caused serious problems. I’m not a speaker of AAVE, but I’ve certainly never struggled to understand intended meaning when I hear double negatives. This belief we have (that double negatives are confusing) seems instead to be a myth we keep perpetuating as educators. And it’s a myth that targets, whether we’re conscious of it or not, already subjugated groups, charging them to do all the heavy lifting in communication and charging them with the responsibility of shifting to the speech of privileged groups. Multilingual nations across the world seem better at dealing with the ambiguities of language differences in contact. Why are we in the US so unwilling to share the communicative burden and to do our due diligence as listeners—to stop obsessing over “errors,” start listening with more intention and respect, ask more questions, gain some understanding of the features of different dialects and accents so that we can better understand speakers who use them, etc.

I can stand behind the need for a lingua franca, though I have mixed feelings about excluding opportunities for various languages (rather than just the one) to be used for all cross-linguistic communications. But do we really need a single standard dialect here in the US? I don’t think so. If we opened up linguistic possibilities—inviting, welcoming, and honoring in pubic spheres the language differences that already exist but are confined to private spaces—we’d all benefit from the differences to which we’d be exposed. We’d have more chances to learn about other languages and dialects, helping us achieve the goals you mention: to get better at listening and code-switching across language differences.

I wonder, too, about the nature of academic discourse. Literary and critical theoretical discourses, for example, are incredibly obscure, opaque, and difficult. We work to train students in understanding these discourses with the goal of their learning how to participate and contribute. We privilege such discourse as superior and intellectually advanced, but worry about clarity in AAVE. That's structural racism, plain and simple. We embrace and even celebrate academic discourses as intellectual tradition. And yet we worry about clarity in vernacular dialects and creole? Perhaps communication and composition instructors should spend more time teaching students about linguistic diversity alongside academic discourses. I would not argue that we should not teach some version of SEAE in composition courses, and especially technical or professional writing courses, but we should do so while celebrating, rather than deriding, the numerous varieties of English that make up the rich tapestry of American culture. In my own research, a study of a pilot first-year writing course for all incoming first-year students, my colleague and I found that a primary obstacle for low-income, first generation, students of color at an HBCU is affective experience of the English classroom. In a pre-semester reflective letter responding to a prompt regarding prior experiences in writing classrooms, students overwhelming responded negatively. Words like 'hatred', 'frustration', 'discouraged' occurred frequently, and we coded this data through verbal data analysis and tallied the frequency of inhibiting emotions. It was overwhelming how much our students hate writing coming into the first-year comp classroom, due in large part to their prior experiences. Many wrote that they had been told that their English is not good, not proper, that they are, in short, inferior.

Through a pedagogical approach and curriculum that celebrates varieties of English while simultaneously investigating the nature of academic English, we found students were more likely to complete high-stakes assignments and be successful. Our pedagogy was built off of H. Samy Alim's concept of culturally sustaining pedagogies. For one high-stakes assignment, we asked students to interview someone in their community about language, about language discrimination, and so on. Students loved this project. During that semester, we drastically reduced the number of students who fail due to not turning in high-stakes assignments - it was 'statistically significant', in the language of the social sciences. In administrative talk, there are implications here for retention. Even with the data we produced through empirical study, many of our colleagues across campus resisted such pedagogy, arguing that SEAE is the path to success for our students. It is a long road, and we need more empirical studies and data to present to admin, colleagues, students, and all of the university stakeholders. There is a lot on the line here. Thank you so much for this thought provoking and important article!

Thanks so much for your comment, Brian, and for sharing insights from what sounds like an important study. Can't wait to check it out. Is it "HBCUs and Writing Programs: Critical Hip Hop Language Pedagogy and First-Year Student Success" in Composition Studies? I also appreciate your stance on the structural racism fueling linguistic hierarchies and informing assumptions that dialects are any bit more confusing/inaccessible than academic discourse. I agree.

Language is important but this is very long and hard to hold attention

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