The language a person speaks serves more purpose than just being a mere tool for communication. It is a form of an individual’s identity and an identity of the society in general. Despicable cases of segregation and discrimination have plagued humanity throughout the course of history. The segregation might be racial, gender-based, economic and religious among others. In Towards a National Public Policy on Language, Geneva Smitherman focuses on a different form of segregation and discrimination she terms as ‘language imperialism’ (Smitherman).
Over time the American society has set a standard for the language to be used. Standard pronunciation was also set disregarding the various dialects presence due to the rich multicultural composition of its populace. Instillation of this mindset of language superiority begins mostly in our learning institutions. Smitherman calls for affirmative action from the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) (Smitherman). In order to stamp out the issue of language imperialism, solutions must stem from our learning institutions because the mindset we instil in our youth forms is the basis for our societal outlook on the matter. This historical menace found its way into our schools and has eventually trickled into the workplace. More individuals are reporting linguistic discrimination in their jobs (Cavico, Muffler and Bahaudin). Discrimination, linguistic or otherwise, is a source of oppression and resistance in any society. Among the most affected nations is the U.S mainly because of its rich diverse culture.
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The issue of linguistic discrimination could be viewed as an implication of America’s history of racial discrimination. Taking such a standpoint requires one to factor in the issue of slavery and racism. Thus, discrimination against someone’s culture and race incorporates discrimination against their language as well. Language, including accents and dialects, is a definitive characteristic of a people. As the racial discrimination in America died down, a new form of discrimination was adopted by the narrow-minded individuals. Thus, linguistic discrimination was born.
In addition to the racial aspect in terms of America’s history, a more current reason for linguistic discrimination and imperialism could be the outlook towards the growing immigrant populace. Whether coming into the country for education or employment purposes, discrimination against immigrants and their languages or accents is not an uncommon practice. Students are ‘forced’, mostly by circumstance, to learn the standard language including the accent to perfection. Regarding one language, dialect or accent as superior to another brings about segregation kin to any other form of segregation. Segregation breeds inequality and results ultimately into discrimination and spite. American immigrants have suffered this predicament throughout history. For instance, Nebraska criminalized the teaching of a foreign language until 1923. Texas, on the other hand, banned students in public schools from speaking Spanish until the law was disregarded in 1971 (Shireen). Though unsuccessful, the search for federal legislation that legally binds individuals speaking in Standard English has received backing from various stakeholders such as John Tanton; founder of US English in 1983 (Crawford). Such English movements are only geared towards changing English from a de facto official language to a legally binding official language. This could be viewed as a measure put in place in order to curb the increasing usage of other dominant languages such as Spanish.
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The plight of the minorities in terms of linguistic discrimination is evident. From the time they enter the country, they are ‘forced’ (by circumstance) to learn a new language. This inferiority complex is carried over to the workplace and becomes a part of an individual’s life. The author points out that nobody is entirely safe from ridicule on the basis of language citing former President Reagan error in his 1985 Inaugural Address. His simple linguistic mistake when he said, ‘if not us then who’, attracted widespread ridicule all over the media. As a result, the Students Right to their Own Language incorporates not just minorities but all students. Although the stories published were purely satirical and all in good fun, they were indicative of a nation that judged so quickly and so ruthlessly. Being the incoming president, Reagan could take such comments with a slight chuckle. However, what about the kid in school who gets ridiculed in school for his/her accent or dialect? Such experiences eat away at an individual’s self concept. Take, for instance, the bullying of Hispanic students in Alabama following a controversial immigration law. The law gave police the authority to arrest and detain illegal immigrants with no bond. Such legislation causes segregation within the community and resultant of bullying in the community’s school. The Hispanic kids were taunted with names like ‘stupid Mexicans’ as fellow students told them to ‘go back to Mexico’ (CBS News). Evidently, there is an underlying racial-ethnic issue coupled with linguistic discrimination that aggravates the situation.
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In solving the issue of linguistic discrimination, Smitherman advocates for a ‘three-prong policy’. The proposed policy is defined as ‘a 360-degree trinity that constitutes an inseparable whole’. The first approach involves ‘The Language of Wider Communication’ (Smitherman). In order to stamp out the issue of linguistic imperialism, Smitherman deems it important to not only teach the language of wider communication but also recognize its importance in society. As portrayed in former President Reagan’s mistake, that was punished by widespread ridicule, the English language in America is focused on correctness. Correctness ought to be to perfection or otherwise an individual (or group) will be the source of ridicule and criticism. The language of Wider Communication challenges society to look past the unavoidable defects in an individual’s or a group’s accent or dialect. Instead of judging them on a pointless linguistic basis, Smitherman urges society to judge individuals by the content of their communication. An ideal situation is where individuals are not irked by pronunciation mistakes or varied accents but focus mainly on the content of the individual’s communication. In so doing, language will serve its purpose in society. This is the Language of Wider Communication that Smitherman advocates for.
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The Language of Wider Communication needs to be recognized alongside its variation such as Black English which is sometimes termed as African American Vernacular English. However, as a society, we seem to be failing at this. Smitherman’s analysis of essays from African American from the National Assessment of Educational Progress reveals a retrogressive pattern. Essays written mainly in Black English are graded poorly. It is also important to note that some of the highly graded papers lacked in content as compared to some of the poorly graded papers in Black English. The grading focused on correctness of the language but not the content of the essays.
It can, however, be argued that these variations of the English language are ‘rebellious’ and are constantly deviating from the language of the wider community (Smitherman). Smitherman counters this argument by pointing out that the rebellious and deviant nature of these variations, such as Black English, could be attributed to the fact that they have never been incorporated and accepted. As James Baldwin boldly stated in the New York Times, ‘If Black English is not a language, then tell me what is’ (Smitherman).
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The second approach in Smitherman’s three-prong approach complements the use of language for wider communication. There is need to ‘reinforce and reaffirm the legitimacy of non-mainstream languages and dialects’ (Smitherman). Smitherman points out that promotion of indigenous languages would in turn accelerate the learning of standard and mainstream languages. Thus, embracing indigenous languages will boost an individual’s ability to learn the language of wider communication. To back up this argument, Smitherman cites Pearson’s research. Pearson’s work suggests that African American students fluent in ‘black speech’ were more ready and able to learn the language of wider communication (standard/mainstream English). A feeling of inferiority especially with regards to language results in disregard for the mainstream language of wider communication. Such groups resort to isolation as a means of identifying themselves from the larger group, hence the reluctance to learn new languages. Smitherman also cites Simpkin’s and Holt’s research with Bridge learning materials. Bridge learning involved using an individual’s native language as a tool for teaching them a new language. The results of the research echoed Pearson’s findings. Simpkin and Holt established that the bridge approach accelerated an individual’s learning process tremendously. A semester’s exposure to the bridge approach achieved what two years of the normal approach to learning a new language did.
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In addition, Smitherman argues that accepting and promoting languages would not only accelerate the learning of the language of wider communication, but also help ease the class tensions witnessed in the modern day America. Linguistic tolerance is indeed a crucial factor in reducing the widening inter-class gap in the United States. It would help boost the search for equal employment opportunities. Equal employment opportunities would in turn help reduce the wealth gap that is based on discrimination. This shows that the drawbacks of linguistic imperialism and discrimination are not limited solely to the socio-cultural aspect of society. They have economic and political implications as well. Take, for instance, the proposal in California that seeks to discontinue printing of election ballot in any language other than English. This proposal is advocated for by English Only movements such as US English. This would clearly cut off the predominant Hispanics in the state (Smitherman). Inability to vote due to linguistic barriers could have serious political implications.
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The third section of Smitherman’s proposed solution focuses on promoting the learning of foreign languages by Americans. As it is normally said,‘A person who speaks three languages is trilingual, a person who speaks two languages is bilingual and a person who speaks one language is an American’ (Smitherman). There is a tendency amongst Americans to only learn the language of wider communication because of its mainstream use. In addition, circumstance hardly forces Americans to learn second or third languages. In order to promote multiculturalism, it is necessary that students be exposed to some of these cultures. Studying their languages is one way of achieving multiculturalism. Smitherman also suggests that we should go to the past times where learning a second and third language was hailed as a mark of academic excellence. Instead of ridiculing their accents and dialects, it is important that the natives understand why their foreign counterparts have such accents by learning the language. It also helps in giving individuals a sense of belonging, more for the foreign students. Taking pride in one’s language is essential in establishing a solid self concept. In turn, such individuals will not have a negative outlook towards the standard language and will be keener to learn it. Smitherman acknowledges the importance of future American citizens to be able to interact and dialogue with non-Western peoples.
In general, Smitherman’s argument focuses on the injustice brought about by linguistic imperialism and discrimination. After highlighting these injustices, the researcher goes ahead to provide a detailed three-prong solution strategy that seeks to solve the linguistic discrimination problem facing America. The argument is valid and concrete. However, the push for a multilingual society from the likes of Smitherman faces opposition from various ‘English- Only’ groups. These groups such as US English are pushing for the establishment of English as an official language. This would change the current de facto official state to a legally binding one. However, proponents of this campaign argue that ‘English-Only’ is an incorrect term for the policies that they espouse. They dispute that their only goal is to make English the official language and not to ban multilingualism in America (U.S. English). Establishing English as an official language has sparked heated debates. The proposers argue that it will bring about standards, especially in official government matters. It will also help foreigners to learn the language (Bloom). Proposers also disagree that having a single official language would serve as a unifying factor. However, opponents of the laws take Smitherman’s standpoint arguing that establishing a single official language would do more harm than good. It would divide rather than unite since the minorities would feel left out and inferior. In addition, opposers of the English-Only campaigns argue that establishing such a law would boost linguistic imperialism and also encourage discrimination (Bloom). Just as the tough Alabama immigration laws led to racial/ethnic and linguistic discrimination of Hispanic kids. Since English is already a de facto mainstream language, opposers see no need to put it on a pedestal through legislation. The English-Only debate is a sensitive matter and it needs to be handled as such. Rushed decisions and solutions should not be adopted as they might aggravate the current situation. However, English-Only or Official English legislation is not anything new. Thirty cities already have legislation in place that recognises English as the sole official language (Bloom).
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Language in America has been a hotly debated topic with linguists differing on how to tackle key issues such as linguistic imperialism and discrimination. It is especially fiercely discussed in the United States for two main reasons. The first is the multicultural nature of the United States population. Being a preferred destination for many immigrant populations, multiculturalism cannot be ignored as having influenced the social, economic and political aspect of the United State. Additionally, since language carries culture, multiculturalism resulted into multilingualism all across the nation. Open discrimination towards immigrant population has decreased but cases of discrimination of a linguistic nature are still prevalent through, for instance, employment processes. Such vile practices forced the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission in a bid to curb these and other forms of discrimination (Cavico, Muffler and Bahaudin). The second aspect is race and the history of racial discrimination. This touches especially on the African American population. Racial discrimination to some extent can be viewed as a contributing factor to linguistic discrimination in terms of accents and dialects such as black speech. It is therefore necessary to consider all these factors when tackling the issue of linguistic discrimination and recognise the social, economic and political implications of adopted solution strategies.
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