Prof: ‘privileging of standard English' is 'linguistic racism'

A professor of medieval literature at the City University of New York (CUNY) lamented academia’s support for “Standard American English” in a recent op-ed.

In an op-ed for Inside Higher Ed, Dr. A.W. Strouse argues that colleges should support “greater linguistic diversity” and “affirm and embrace” language differences among students, such as the use of slang and African American Vernacular English (AAVE).

Affirming students’ use of non-standard English is important, he says, because students who speak nonstandard English may feel discouraged if called out for it. Citing educators Vicki Spandel and Richard J. Stiggins, Strouse notes that “negative comments…tend to make students feel bewildered, hurt, or angry.”

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“Already, scholars of rhetoric believe, as the consensus view, that instructors should not try to change their students’ speech patterns,” Strouse writes. “In the classroom, students shut down in the face of pedantry because they hate when bossy teachers tell them how to talk, especially in cases in which bourgeois white teachers dictate ex cathedra about what speech is ‘correct.’”

After asserting that “linguists know that notions of ‘proper’ speech have nothing to do with ‘mastery’ and everything to do with how certain in-groups dictate propriety,” he goes on to point out that “much queer, feminist, and anti-racist scholarship has given voice to marginalized communities—precisely because, without those voices, mainstream academia does not possess a vocabulary for understanding diverse social realities.”

Further, he declares that the academic norms that privilege standard English should be suspect, because they can justify the judgment of “people’s intelligence based on dubious standards,” noting that “Nobody speaks academic English as a mother tongue.”

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Strouse told Campus Reform that his motivations for penning the essay were “personal, political, and poetical,” noting that he has friends and family who “are made to feel like dummies for not speaking in standard English.”

“Poetically, I want to care for all words, especially the unloved, red-headed-step-child words,” he said, noting that “Dante, after all, did not write in schoolmarm Latin but in the eloquence of his vulgar mother tongue!”

The high level of respect that elites place on standard English can cause political problems, as well, Strouse contended, pointing out that “clueless elites” have consistently failed to grasp “the appeal of [Donald] Trump’s rhetoric” to his working-class supporters.

“The privileging of standard English contributes to political dysfunction,” he claimed. “Thankfully, most working-class people are too smart to drink the standard-English Kool-Aid. But the movers-and-shakers are trapped in their well-educated bubble and cannot communicate with the folks who, as workers, are actually in the best position to understand how the world works.”

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When asked why he believes it’s important to embrace and support alternative types of English, especially those that are typically frowned upon in the workplace, Strouse said employers shouldn’t dictate how their employees speak.

“The workplace has way too much power and should not be allowed to determine something as fundamental as how we speak,” he declared. “People need to tell their bosses, ‘Fuck you.’”

Despite his limited influence over the realities of the job market, Strouse held fast to his belief that professors shouldn’t correct their students’ language, saying that doing so would only contribute to “linguistic racism” in society.

“[Students] do not need educators to perpetuate that injustice by promoting dubious standards,” he said. “They need to equip themselves with a knowledge of historical linguistics so that they can battle against linguistic racism.

“It is racist to discriminate against someone on the basis that they speak AAVE,” he elaborated, saying, “I am trying to propose that the celebration of linguistic diversity might be one small way to dismantle that linguistic racism."

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Toni_Airaksinen