Answered By: Pippa [Research & Writing Studio]
Last Updated: Sep 08, 2020     Views: 35

Language oppression is still the norm in higher education, and a deeply entrenched one that people find very difficult to challenge or consider.

As an instructor, how can I help tackle language oppression?

  • Use clear rubrics for assignments involving writing to help lessen the impact of language bias

    • This combats the common problem where students whose language use is similar to their instructor's get graded on their ideas while students whose language use is different from their instructor's get graded mostly on the differences instead of ideas.

    • Also find more rubric tips and examples from CIIA

  • Reduce the "correcting" reflex. Make a habit of returning attention to the substance of a student's ideas and quality of their argument when you notice an "error" or stylistic choice that bothers you.
  • Strongly consider switching to labor-based or contract-based grading for large writing assignments
  • Practice reading and understanding Englishes that are different from your own
    • Many times the feeling that writing is unclear is caused by a deficiency and unconscious bias on the part of the reader, not the writer
  • Practice academic writing and speaking in languages other than your own

What is language oppression?

Language oppression is a normalized form of discrimination justified using widely-held beliefs about linguistic superiority. It works in tandem with other forms of structural oppression. Because it is so normalized, it often goes unnoticed and unquestioned. Like with other forms of normalized oppression, challenging language superiority usually results in outrage and denial.

What myths are used to justify language oppression?

  • The myth that there exists a form of English called "Standard English"

  • The myth that learning to speak and write with "Standard English" (code-switching) will set students up for success

  • The myth that rules of grammar, punctuation, etc that are assumed to be "Standard English" ensure ideas are communicated more effectively

Wait, why are these myths? Aren't these things all true?

  • Linguistic correctness is socially constructed. What people imagine to be "Standard English" has no clear definition or set of consistent rules -- it is is a set of fluctuating opinions based mostly in racism. Insisting on supposed correctness reinforces structural inequity.

    • ‚ÄčWhen highly privileged people make errors that go against what are assumed to be rules of Standard English, those errors are rarely noticed and rarely seen as problems. The rules are not consistently applied by anyone and do little to improve understanding or other aspects of communication.

  • Even if a person learns to use "Standard English" as well as anybody, they will continue to face discrimination because of their less privileged identities. 
    • Example 1:
      • An Ethiopian-American who speaks and writes English indistinguishably from a white academic journal editor, for example, is still disadvantaged when applying to jobs if they don't use a supposedly "american sounding" name.
      • They would also still be discriminated against in person because no way of speaking overrides race-based discrimination.
    • The problem is with the discrimination, not the person's language use. 
    • Telling people to acquire the (arbitrary) rules of Standard English to succeed in an unjust world is a form of gaslighting.


Further Reading

Greenfield, L. (2011). The “Standard English” fairy tale: A rhetorical analysis of racist pedagogies and commonplace assumptions about language diversity. In L. Greenfield & K. Rowan (Eds.), Writing Centers and the New Racism: A Call for Sustainable Dialogue and Change (pp. 33–60). Utah State University Press.

Inoue, A. B. (2019). Labor-based grading contracts: Building equity and inclusion in the compassionate writing classroom. The WAC Clearinghouse.
Piller, I. (2016). Linguistic diversity and social justice: An introduction to applied sociolinguistics (First edition.). Oxford University Press.
Young, V. (2011). Should writers use they own English? In Writing Centers and the New Racism: A Call for Sustainable Dialogue and Change (pp. 61–74). Utah State University Press.

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