Although there is no official language of the United States, most people are educated to believe that standardized English is the language of academia, success, wealth, and value. In school, the dominant message is that there is a “proper” way to speak and write the English language and if you do not conform to that type of English, you will be seen as uneducated and/or unsophisticated, and you will need to change if you want to be seen differently. “Standard English,” like race, is a fabricated concept created to enforce social hierarchies.1 Those who speak Standard English are awarded the authority and power that is associated with this most widely accepted dialect. Synonymously, this is the dialect used by most White people with formal education who hold positions of authority and power, especially within the education setting.
Makoni & Pennycook say, “the practice of defining languages has had more to do with defining people and creating boundaries and hierarchies than the definition of linguistic facts.”2 The glorification of Standard English is a fabrication because all languages and dialects are equally capable of communication, intellect and complexity. Linguistically, they all perform the same function. Language and dialects are also frequently changing. Words and phrases fall in and out of usage. To try to enforce a code of communication is not for the sake of homogeneity, but instead a way to influence the attitude of society toward languages and dialects, specifically those which have been categorized as inferior in the hierarchy. This can obviously have an effect on the lived experiences and material realities of different language communities.3 In this way, language can be thought of as a type of cultural capital within our society. Those who possess this linguistic capital are allowed to exert symbolic power over those who do not speak this “correct” form of English.4 The intersection between race and linguicism has many social effects. According to Olding, linguicism serves as a less overt way than blatant racism to put people in social hierarchies.5 For this reason, the association of language and race has been used to uphold White supremacy in this country.
The overvaluation of Standard English stems from racism and the belief within American society that the English language is almost inextricably tied to Whiteness. This glorification of Standard English and native speakers (NS) of English is directly related to the widespread colonialism of the British Empire throughout the world. Because of this, many NS have no real need to learn any other language and, through systems like education, enforce Standard English as the norm. It is important to point out that there are “societal and systemic forces at work in the context of White privilege and power in relation to the English language.”6 Multilingual individuals who are White are typically given more agency in society than other races, even if English is their native language. This extends to the ability to make mistakes in language and grammar without facing the same judgment of visible-minority peers. For example, an emergent multilingual person who is White may make an error in Standard English and people will perceive them as “still learning” and allow the error to be made. In contrast, a Black person who speaks African American English (AAE), might be seen as uneducated despite the fact they are correctly speaking that language because it is being compared to Standard English as the “norm”. Seeing languages as variations of Standard English, which has been used as cultural capital for White people, creates judgments based on language that have been used to construct racial hierarchies.
In order to disrupt this social hierarchy with regards to language and dialect it is important that students are aware of the hierarchy in the first place. All languages and dialects should be considered in equal value and importance within society, specifically within a diverse school population. By naming and honoring all languages and dialects and then having thoughtful conversations about how White privilege is upheld using Standard English, students can become more aware of how the hierarchy benefits some and disadvantages others. From a Critical Race Theory perspective, the way to disrupt the conventional, and racist, view of languages in the education system is to examine the differences that exist and how they operate to benefit certain members of society over others.7 LangCrit, an analytical framework created by Alison Crump, explains that it is necessary to look at how power has come to be clustered around certain linguistic resources in certain spaces and exploring how this shapes what individuals can and cannot do in their everyday lives, what values are attached to how they use language, and what identities are possible as a result.8
I believe this is especially important for students who are emergent multilingual to understand. I have had multilingual students ask me why their Black peers speak differently than the ways I teach them to speak English. By being honest and upfront with students, especially White-passing multilingual students, about how language has been used to create societal hierarchy, they will be learning important truths of American culture and they can have an anti-racist lens with regards to how people in the United States communicate with each other. Although Standard English has been used to uphold social hierarchies, learning Standard English does have value and it is important for students to have knowledge of the structure of the language. The goal of this unit is that students would understand that they do not have to lose their home language to gain fluency of Standard English, and that any, and all, languages serve important purposes within society.