Point of View

Language as a lightning rod: A call for respecting dialect diversity

March 4, 2014 

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MARINA ZLOCHIN — Getty Images/iStockphoto

Coca-Cola’s recent “America the Beautiful” commercial sparked heated discussions during the Olympics. The spot, featuring singers in numerous languages, showcased the diversity of American voices, but it caused many other Americans to cry foul.

Social media lit up with cries of “Speak English!” and comments related to language and immigration, patriotism, education and more. In these comments, the multilingual American singers were said to not be representative of authentic America because they weren’t using the “right” language.

This issue surfaces on university campuses when students from linguistically diverse backgrounds come together. Although we would like to think that we welcome all students with open arms and minds, language and dialect can function as a lightning rod for discrimination by marking a student as an outsider for speaking a language or dialect associated with a certain region, a particular race, religious group or social class.

At N.C. State University we’ve started a language diversity program called “Educating the Educated” with our colleague, Walt Wolfram, William C. Friday Distinguished professor and director of the North Carolina Language and Life Project, to make sure students are treated with fairness and respect, no matter which languages or dialects they speak. The program includes class discussions, campus workshops and presentations at faculty and student orientations.

To start the discussion, we play a video showing students, faculty and staff who speak a wide range of dialects and languages. It never fails to generate interest and discussion. We tell participants that everyone speaks a dialect (there’s no “standard” English) and that pronouncing a word as simple as “coffee” can highlight dialect differences.

It’s important to think about language and dialect because our own research has found that for college students from rural, Southern Appalachia, speaking a stigmatized dialect can play a role in college experiences. It influences how comfortable students feel in academic settings, the quality of interactions with others on campus, their sense of belonging and their perceptions of the campus environment. Several participants from rural Southern Appalachia said that they believed that because of their dialect, sometimes peers and some faculty and administrators viewed them as being less intelligent, and made assumptions about their backgrounds and worldviews. For certain students, this could sometimes make them feel inferior about their culture and background.

Many rural students, first-generation students, lower-income students, and racial and ethnic minorities may speak dialects that are considered less “proper” due to the socially stratified nature of language. As a result, they may face challenges in feeling that they belong and are valued and accepted, despite scientific linguistic research that suggests there is no language or dialect that is superior to any other.

While we are excited about the reception we have received, we find it troubling that, to our knowledge, N.C. State’s program is the only one of its kind in higher education in the U.S. The public reactions to the Coca-Cola commercial show an inherent bias against those who “sound different.” We think that now more than ever, it is time to reconsider diversity and to include language and dialect as an integral component. Doing so will bring us closer to truly being inclusive, celebrating linguistic diversity and truly making America beautiful.

Stephany Bret Dunstan, Ph.D., is assistant director of assessment and Audrey J. Jaeger, Ph.D. is associate professor of higher education at N.C. State.

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