I started grad school in the fall of 2000, after a few years away from academia. (I spent those years mostly working in bookstores, in case you wondered.) One of the two classes I took that first semester was Syntax I, a rollicking good time of drawing syntactic trees and judging the grammaticality of sentences like:
- Fred put peanut butter on the sandwich. (Sure. Sounds grammatical.)
- Bob ate the sandwich. (Totally grammatical. Where’s my sandwich?)
- I asked what Fred put peanut butter on. (Yeah, it’s grammatical.)
- *Bob ate the sandwich that I asked what Fred put peanut butter on. (Huh?)
The class was a rite of passage, as all new grad students to the program (more or less) had to take it. There were also a lot of undergrad linguistics majors in the class. The course was a fair amount of work, with fairly long drawn-out homework assignments. I didn’t find it too hard, just time-consuming to do the readings and homeworks. But most of the students found it quite challenging, it seemed, and many had a lot of trouble with the homeworks.
One day, when our homework was passed back to us, I happened to see that the woman sitting next to me got a score of 100. The same as me. And I found myself feeling surprised. And I was actually quite startled by my surprise. Because I recognized that it was not just about the challenge to my ego resulting from someone else getting high scores. I realized that I was surprised that she, this particular woman, was also getting high scores.
Why was I surprised, I wondered. She was a grad student in my program, like I was. Clearly she had a college degree, was educated. And from the brief interactions we’d had up to that point, I had a generally good impression of her. She was friendly, outgoing, enthusiastic. But I realized, as I reflected on the incident after class as I headed home, that I had been surprised to realize that she was also smart. And I came to the realization that the reason I hadn’t expected her to be smart was that she had a distinct regional accent.
It was disturbing to me to realize that I’d had this prejudice. Me. A student of language and linguistics. I know that the mainstream American dialect, the accent of TV newscasters and movie stars, is just one of many varieties of the English language. No better, no worse. All language varieties are systematic, grammatical. And the variety of a language that a person speaks is no reflection of that person’s intelligence or abilities, but merely a reflection of that person’s history.
But our society (and I’m sure it’s not just ours) places value on certain language varieties above others. People feel, whether it’s conscious or not, that certain accents sound more intelligent than others. To the average American, for example, a person speaking with a “refined” British accent will sound intelligent, even if that person is dumb as a stump. Likewise, many Americans will consider regional U.S. dialects to make a person sound uneducated. Many speakers of regional dialects consciously “lose their accent,” or shift to the mainstream accent, in order to avoid perceived stigma.
I’ve thought about this brief incident from my own past a bit lately, following various topics in my sociolinguistics class. Specifically, I’ve thought a lot about how perceptions about language affect speakers of non-Mainstream dialects, particularly AAVE (African American Vernacular English). Like the mainstream dialect, AAVE is complex and rule-governed system, albeit with some different grammatical rules than the mainstream dialect. Many people, however, including educators, actually know very little about these non-mainstream dialects. Instead, they often assume that speakers are speaking ungrammatical English, or that the speakers are even somehow deficient cognitively. The impact of this can be particularly harsh on young children starting school.
It’s hard for me to admit that I’ve also been susceptible to subtle linguistic prejudice. But this awareness has opened my eyes to the real risks of discrimination to children and other speakers of non-mainstream varieties of English. And I’m heartened by the fact that many Universities now require teachers-to-be to take a course in linguistics, which hopefully will give them some background knowledge of AAVE and other linguistic variation.