WWU Linguistics Department Statement on Language and Social Justice

May 2022

Linguistics, the scientific study of language, reveals that the world’s languages, no matter how different they may seem and no matter how they are expressed (through sign, touch, writing, and/or speech) are complex and systematic modes of communication. From the perspective of linguistic science, no one language, dialect, or variety is “better,” “prettier,” or “more complex” than another, and language users around the world are equally expert at producing and understanding the language(s) of their community/ies.

However, in practice, the speech and writing of some language users in the United States - namely, white upper and middle class speakers of a language  -  is often viewed as more prestigious, more “correct,” and more “professional” than other varieties. But as linguists, we know that these judgments about language are actually based on our social perceptions of the language users and communities rather than on linguistic facts. (See Cameron 1995 and Lippi-Green 2012, for example).

Such attitudes have real and detrimental effects. People are denied jobs based on their names; people are denied housing because of the way they talk; the testimonies of speakers of socially stigmatized varieties are often discounted in court (Jones et al 2019); they are denied access to social institutions, such as voting and healthcare; and they are discriminated against in the workplace (Hughes and Mamiseishvili 2018) and in school (Baugh 2015). Linguistic profiling and linguistic discrimination have a long history in the United States. Some of these included boarding schools for indigenous children which banned languages and punished children, sometimes severely, for using their languages; voting restrictions which required literacy tests and therefore discriminated against the poor, primarily African Americans in the South; Official English laws aimed at suppressing languages, going back to Irish, Italian, German, and Yiddish-speaking immigrants, and continuing today with speakers of Spanish or Arabic, for example. In short, marginalizing people based on language, though not always obvious, has real and material effects on people's lives, their sense of self-worth, and their livelihoods. Understanding that there is no intrinsic value to certain varieties allows us to begin pushing back against discriminatory, socially constructed norms of language usage and can help us co-create a better and more equitable present and future. 

It is our responsibility, as members of the WWU Linguistics Department, to challenge rather than perpetuate these systems of injustice with respect to language, just as we all at WWU believe we need to resist other systems of discrimination and injustice. We all acknowledge that there are systemic injustices that differently impact individuals and groups. Linguistic discrimination is one of them. Consider the impacts of students whose names are mispronounced (Bucholtz 2016), whose pronouns are ignored or misused (Hall et al 2020), whose accents are stigmatized or speech is “corrected” (Craft et al 2020, Clements and Petray 2021); or who face penalties in coursework when faculty grade students’ writing in comparison to some mythical, socially prestigious language variety (Curzan 2015). These members of our community face linguistic discrimination that can lead to feelings of being othered and not belonging on campus and in the classroom.

We stand firmly against any implicit or explicit societal beliefs that value one person more than another, and we affirm the equity of all people. As linguists, we oppose practices of linguistic discrimination that reflect these oppressive belief systems. As linguists, we are committed to bringing to light these oppressive forces and to helping undo them. We do not believe that we should require individuals to change how they speak and write in order to conform to discriminatory societal expectations and benefits.

We ourselves continue to resist the privileging of certain language varieties, and we are working more broadly to decolonize our field and to spread awareness within our WWU community of linguistic diversity and linguistic discrimination. There are many others working within educational frameworks to address and dismantle these systems (Baker-Bell 2020, Delpit 2012 , Devereaux and Palmer 2018, 2022, Dunstan et al 2015, Godley and Reaser 2018, Haddix 2016, Paris and Alim 2017, Reaser et al 2017, Young and Martinez 2011, among others). We invite you to join us and join them, and to take action to help dismantle the systems which perpetuate the different treatment of individuals on the basis of language.

Taking action 

Below we provide examples of how you can take action toward language justice and equity at the level of classroom instruction, in larger institutional contexts, and in interpersonal interactions. For individuals with relative social and institutional privilege, it is important to leverage one’s role and influence in order to effect change. 

In the classroom and with course design: 

  • Reflect on learning goals and attend to whether assessing writing and speaking style is a necessary part of the objective. Does policing language benefit the learning of your students?  
  • Provide opportunities for diverse ways of using language in the classroom, in writing, presenting, speaking, and other ways of communication and participation.  
  • See the recommendations from Scholarly Teaching in Linguistics, section on “Structuring linguistics education to promote social justice”. These suggestions are relevant not just in linguistics classes. 
    • Recognize the linguistic background of students, including heritage languages that they may not themselves know.   
    • Be careful not to further other already-othered, minoritized communities, and be aware of the way you construct your discourse. Even if the goal is anti-racist, this easily occurs, for example, when stigmatized dialects are described only in relation to a socially dominant variety, or when instructors refer to the stigmatized group as “them” and to the members of the class as “we” (especially when the class includes members of the “them” group). 
    • Employ culturally responsible practices that shift toward positioning speakers of under-represented languages or language varieties at the center of linguistic analysis. Avoid disembodying languages from speakers and strive to avoid analysis solely of the linguistic features of some “standardized” variety.

  At the institutional level: 

  • Ensure linguistic variation is included in an institution’s view of diversity, equity, and inclusion. 
  • Ensure that diversity trainings for faculty, staff, and students include and accurately address discrimination through language perception, ideology, and socially constructed attitudes.
  • Ensure the availing of language-related resources in the language and linguistic varieties of these historically othered communities.
  • Examine how standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT, and high school courses, such as AP, privilege certain language varieties. 
  • Examine how TOEFL/TOEIC/IELTS scores are used in admissions processes and in hiring. Are promising scholars being excluded as a consequence of their language background? Is the language ability of prospective students from some parts of the world judged systematically differently from others? 

At the individual level: 

  • Let go of the expectation that everyone should assimilate to ways of speaking or using language which are institutionally powerful. 
  • Reflect on biases regarding language use; how might linguistic discrimination be reinforcing other types of discrimination? 
  • Think of ways to push back when you encounter comments and behaviors which reinforce linguistic discrimination.   
  • Read the National Council of Teachers of English Demand for Black Linguistic Justice

Citations and List of Additional Resources