Notes on language-based discrimination & silence

The principal challenge in researching language-based discrimination is negotiating such a sprawling topic and imagining how to identify, and then to prioritize, the most relevant issues (see “Language-Based Discrimination“).

What sociolinguistic concepts, for example, are most vital? Should one prioritize the phonetic, morphological, syntactical, and semantic features that explain variation and thus a good deal of the reflexive prejudice when it comes to language, or is it more appropriate to consider language as a social force and, therefore, to foreground study of the biases that arise in relation to language performance in education, citizenship, human migration, and social networks? Or should linguistic diversity and linguistic human rights serve as the primary analytical frame? I discovered sources that use all these approaches.

Professor Betty Birner provided great assistance by offering her syllabus from 2007, “Language and Prejudice.” From there I decided to begin with language attitudes, including brief discussion of the mixed-guise experiments regarding language variance, but then, without clear intent, settled on a conceptually fuzzy treatment under the heading “Features of Language-Based Discrimination.”

The recently published Language Racism by Jean-Jacques Weber (2015) proved more manifesto in form and deconstructionist in method, while nevertheless delineating possible subtopics: the standard-language myth, perceived threats from multilingualism, mother-tongue education, language dominance, and linguistic human rights.

That linguistic shame and self-silencing have not been treated more extensively, especially among migrant populations, is unfortunate. (There are studies of self-silencing in psychology, especially among women or trauma survivors, but few, if any, either theoretical or experiential studies in TESOL or second-language acquisition. I could be wrong about this.)

The costs of shame are severe to the person, family, and society. What are the myriad sources of language-based shame? How might power imbalances in language learning be challenged or subverted? These questions seem central to me in addressing the impacts of an often imperial and monetized monolingualism.

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