Language privilege: What it is and why it matters

Privilege. It’s a controversial word, one many of us don’t like to talk about. Some people associate it with guilt or with being accused of being racist, sexist, or homophobic. Many people have become tired of hearing all of the ways in which we are privileged through our race (if you are White), our sexual orientation (if you are heterosexual), our religion (if you are Christian), our social class (depending on the degree to which you were born into affluence), our gender (if you are male or also if you are cisgender) and so on until it becomes almost unimaginable that we would want to continue engaging with the issue. The word also perhaps angers us because it seems to focus on the ways in which our lives have been comparably easy while failing to note the struggles most of us have undoubtedly faced as well.

However, examining ways in which we or others might have unfair advantages (by no effort or fault of ours or theirs) is an important aspect of living in a just world. Although you’ve probably heard quite a bit about privileges based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and social class, you’ve probably had fewer conversations about the nature of privilege based on language. In many ways, language privilege is related to these other things, but as we continue to enter a world of rapid globalization characterized by international migration, we need to consider the role of language and how it advantages some and disadvantages others.

A quick overview of privilege

First of all, I need to give you a quick overview of what privilege is. Privilege refers to the ways in which individuals enjoy particular advantages in life due to nothing they have themselves done but rather aspects of who they are or how they have been raised. You can’t really choose privilege (otherwise everyone would choose it, and it would cease to exist).

We can view a system of privilege (and its associated marginalization) as essentially the opposite of meritocracy. In a meritocratic explanation of the way the world is, we highlight people’s actions and choices to explain their advantages and disadvantages in the world. Hence, when we view the world through a meritocratic lens, people who work hard and do good things are rewarded with the advantages they enjoy in life (and correspondingly those who don’t work hard, make poor choices, and do bad things are punished with their disadvantages). In contrast, looking at the world through the lens of privilege forces us to see the distribution of power, resources, and comfort as largely arbitrary, reflecting a pre-existing societal preference for categories of people, like men, White people, heterosexuals, and so on. This is not to say of course that there can’t be both meritocracy and privilege simultaneously. For many grown adults, our positions in society could be viewed as a combination of both our privilege (or our marginalization) as well as the choices we’ve made and the work we’ve done.

Why is privilege such a big deal? Well, it’s the primary impediment to a just society. In A Theory of JusticeJohn Rawls discusses the concept of the veil of ignorance. He contends that in order to imagine and develop a hypothetical just society, we should consider social circumstances (distribution of rights, resources, and other important aspects of society) without the knowledge of our own position within this society (that is from behind the veil of ignorance). With the very real possibility that through nothing but chance we could occupy any of these positions in our hypothetical society (that is you could be Black or White, heterosexual or homosexual, male or female, and so on), we would have a vested interest in maximizing the life qualities of all possible positions in society.

Hence, even in our existent, non-hypothetical society, being just is about being willing to consider what privileges we might have (and the ways in which these privileges correspondingly result in marginalization for others) and work toward a situation that is not characterized by extremely disparate life circumstances for people that are not entirely the result of their own actions or choices.

What then is language privilege?

Although we sometimes talk about language as being something we choose, we are largely incapable of choosing which language(s) we speak. It is for the most part a coincidence having to do with where we were born or raised, what our racial or ethnic background might be, and to some extent the education we receive.

This is especially true when we consider people’s first (or native) language(s). It is widely acknowledged in applied linguistics that as the age at which you begin learning a second (or third, fourth, fifth, etc.) language increases so too does the likelihood that you will never speak it in the same way that someone who is a native or first language speaker of that language does (please don’t take that to mean you shouldn’t try to learn a second language). Research shows that by the time you are of an age when you can make decisions about where you will live and what school you will attend, you are quite unlikely to ever speak an additional language (one learned past childhood) in a manner that is indistinguishable from someone who acquired the language in childhood. Of course, despite this limitation, you can learn to speak a second language in adulthood and be a completely competent and even eloquent communicator. However, this does mean that adults have very little control over their dominant language(s) (in other words, over the language or languages they are viewed as being native speakers of or that they feel most comfortable using).

Since we acquire the language or languages that will likely come to be the language of our thoughts and our identities from the world around us as children, we have very little control over which language or languages these might be. In a world where all languages were treated equally, this would not be a big deal.

However, languages are not treated equally in society. Being born into a situation where you acquire a powerful language (such as English and especially varieties or dialects of English that are viewed as high in status) as a first language gives you an advantage in society and the world at large. In other words, it gives you privilege. In particular, language privilege includes a number of things, such as:

  • easier access to social, political, and educational institutions
  • access to an additional form of capital
  • the ability to avoid having one’s speech perceived negatively

As I’ve already mentioned, the language(s) you acquire as a child are largely determined by aspects of circumstances such as the region where you grow up and your ethnicity or race. Hence, language privilege frequently intersects with privileges associated with race, region, nation, and social class. In addition, language privilege is an excellent example of how existing privilege can be used in the creation of additional privilege.

I’m going to discuss how language privilege operates drawing on the United States as my primary example, although much of what I say here can be applied to other powerful nations that are often thought of as societally monolingual (meaning that they have one language that is dominant).

Language privilege and access to social, political, and educational institutions

If you’re an English speaker in the United States, then you probably expect that all government documents, all street signs, all educational materials, and many more aspects of daily life and official business will be and should be available to you in your dominant language, English. This is because many of us think of the United States as having a default language: English (even if it’s not technically the official language of the federal government). There are, however, large numbers of the United States’ population, both immigrants and citizens (naturalized and native-born), that either speak no or very little English or have learned English as an additional language but are most comfortable with another language. This includes large populations of Spanish (and Spanish creole) speakers as well as speakers of many other languages, notably Chinese, Vietnamese, and Tagalog.

All or most of these people are at a major disadvantage (relative to English speakers) when reading street signs or participating in occupational or educational activities. Imagine for a moment what life might be like if you had to, for example, learn how to drive and pass an exam in a language you were just learning simply to be able to get to your place of employment. My point is not to say that this is impossible, but that the task likely requires a lot more effort and causes a lot more difficulty (either in the moment or in preparation) than if you were doing the same task in your first or native language.

You may think to yourself well they chose to come to the United States. In many cases, this is true (and often these people are already quite proficient speakers of English). Often, however, we are talking about people who are compelled by economic or political reasons to flee their countries. In addition, their children have no choice in the matter but nonetheless find themselves needing to be able to use English to function at school and elsewhere in the community. In addition, there are also groups who have lived in the United States for generations but have used another language as the dominant language in their communities, especially Spanish or an indigenous Native American language (for example, Navajo).

The power associated with English means that most of these groups for their own advancement and even survival will learn English (either in addition to or, sadly, in place of the language of their heritage). However, it is telling that even in cases where speakers of languages other than English have attempted to gain easier access to social, political, and educational institutions, through the use of their dominant languages, this has been perceived by privileged English speakers as unfair or unjust. For example, Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act holds that in cases where enough speakers of a particular language are eligible to vote in a community, the community must make provisions to provide electoral materials in that language in addition to English. Although this provision is ultimately about equal access, it has been attacked by English speakers, as I documented in a recent article. The logic of these attacks at times reveals the degree of privilege associated with English as in the following example from a witness’s testimony in a Congressional hearing (taken from that article):

In Orange County, California, we are required under the Voting Rights Act to print ballots in five languages, but yet in the school district where my kids went to school, which is only one city out of 35 cities in Orange County, there are 83 different languages spoken at home. So what about those other 78 language speakers? Aren’t we discriminating against them by not putting out ballots in their languages, too? Now, I happen to think it would be less discriminatory if they were only in English, because then everyone would have the same opportunity to understand the ballot as everyone else.

The speaker points out a potential issue with the Section 203 provision, namely that it ultimately does not provide improved access for all minority language speakers. His solution, however, is to eliminate election materials in minority languages and have them only in English, a situation he argues would give everyone “the same opportunity to understand the ballot as everyone else”. However, this is precisely the problem to begin with that not everyone speaks English and that English speakers are, therefore, privileged with a higher degree of access to the polls. The witness in this case never mentions that English speakers would obviously have a greater opportunity to understand because to him this is a natural aspect of his language privilege that exists in most or all aspects of his life. Like most privilege, language privilege is simply taken for granted.

Similar controversies have arisen over bilingual education, where education in both a student’s first language (often Spanish) and English is viewed as somehow unfair or unjust by English speakers. Access to education in one’s native language is particularly important as research suggests that it may take children as long as seven years to catch up to their native English speaking peers in terms of their ability to use English for learning, a disadvantage that clearly helps to explain English as a second language learners’ achievement gap. The many students who have grown up speaking a language other than English are at a great disadvantage (relative to their English speaking peers) in the mostly monolingual, English-medium US public school system.

Often, even the most seemingly insignificant accommodation for other languages are met with intense criticism from first language English speakers. For example, public transportation here in Atlanta recently started using both English and Spanish in recorded announcements and signage, a decision that garnered negative reactions and attempts to protect language privilege as in this article titled “Atlanta Regional Commission is working to reverse the melting pot“. The author claims that the use of Spanish in public transportation is just “the latest example of how English is undermined”. Hence, language privilege allows us to view the public acknowledgment of languages in addition to English as a way of somehow harming English.

You might be thinking to yourself, oh well that’s awful but it’s not really language privilege since it’s the same type of thing that other countries do. They have a language, and they use it because it’s the language of the majority. I often hear English speakers say that if they went to another country they would expect to have to learn the language and never get any accommodations in English. Fair’s fair right?

Except, no. That’s not the way the world works. We often now speak of English as a world or international language. This is rather convenient for native or first language English speakers. If you want access to international politics as an English speaker, fortunately for you, English is one of only six languages (of thousands in the world) to be selected as a United Nations official language. The official languages of the International Olympic Committee are French and English (plus the local language), so if you’re an English speaker, you can be sure you’ll be taken care of at the Olympics. Do you want to read the latest in international scientific research or publish your research findings? Most likely you’ll have to do it in English.

Even within local settings in other countries where English is not commonly spoken as a first language, accommodations for English-speaking tourists, visitors, and residents (similar to the accommodations made on the Atlanta public transportation system) are extremely prevalent as in these signs:

In Beijing, China:

In Prague,Czech Republic:

In Dubai, United Arab Emirates:

640px-Directional_road_sign_of_the_Dubai_Gold_Souk

And it’s not simply signs. There are now a multitude of English-medium institutions of higher education (or institutions offering courses and degree programs in English) in countries where English has not traditionally been a dominant language. Although often attended or staffed  by second language speakers of English, native English speakers have the privilege of receiving employment or education in their first language (which they, in contrast to their second language speaking counterparts, have had to make no special investment in learning) in places like China, Latin America, East Africa, the Middle East, and continental Europe, all places where the local populations predominantly have first languages other than English. Even in France, a country long criticized for its protective and territorial attitudes toward its language (often by native English speakers), English has begun to infiltrate the higher education system. Compare this to the outrage in the United States over the introduction of bilingual education (designed to teach usually Spanish-speaking children English in addition to Spanish literacy skills) and the level of language privilege is quite striking.

Native English speakers travel, live, work, and study all over the world, and other people and governments bend over backwards to accommodate them. These people and governments do this because there is a great deal of money to be made trading with and accommodating travelers from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and other English-speaking countries (not to mention the lasting effects of colonialism). Indeed, English has so much power behind it that other countries have started learning it and using it as a second language to increase their own standing in the world, and this has led to even more privilege for English speakers.

Multiplying privilege: English as capital

Since English has taken on so much power in the world, one of the ways in which English speakers are even further privileged by their language is in the ability to use it as a source of capital.

Travelling all over the world, English speakers are often able to gain employment as English teachers with the only qualification being that they are native or first language speakers of English and often also that they have a college degree (in anything, a major in language education is not required). This is common practice in many places such as Turkey, Japan, and South Korea, where entire programs have been established to ensure that English speakers do not need to acquire much or any of the local language and are still able to be gainfully employed and live comfortably in their new country secure in the advantages they’ve gained from their language privilege.

Another way in which English speakers have turned their language privilege into opportunities for the creation of more capital is native English speaking proofreading for scientific research produced by researchers who use English as a second language but are expected (often by universities not in English-speaking countries) to publish in English journals that in turn require them to have their work proofread by native English speakers.

Although efforts are being made, for example by the international organization, TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages), to allow second language speakers of English to take on some of these opportunities as well, first language or native English speakers continue to enjoy extreme advantages in hiring for language-related jobs like teaching and editing. Much of this has been justified through appeals to the idea that native English speakers (particularly native English speakers who speak ‘standard’ English) represent ideal users of the language, which I will discuss in the next section.

‘Standard’ English and the avoidance of language prejudice

Throughout this post, I have focused primarily on the marginalization of individuals who speak a language other than English as their native or first language and the associated privilege of native English speakers. However, much of what I have already said is quite relevant to speakers of so-called ‘nonstandard’ varieties of English and their marginalization relative to speakers of ‘standard’ varieties of English.

You’ve probably heard the term dialect used to refer to different ways of using the same language (I used the word varieties above). Sometimes people use the word dialect to mean varieties that are not the ‘standard’ language. By this they mean that a dialect is somehow incorrect in comparison to the ‘standard’. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts on this topic (for example, here, here, herehere, and here), ‘standard’ English is a dialect of English that has historically been not coincidentally associated with the speech of White, middle (or upper) class speakers in the United States not from the Southeastern US (prototypically Midwestern states like Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and Pennsylvania claim to be the home of ‘standard’ US English). It is the language upheld as ‘correct’ in schools.

‘Nonstandard’ Englishes, in contrast, are those varieties of English thought to be ‘incorrect’ or ‘just dialects’. Often ‘standard’ English speakers claim that ‘nonstandard’ speakers have ‘an accent’ (from the point of view of linguistics all speakers have accents). Such speakers include, in the United States. speakers of African American English (commonly called “Ebonics”),  Southern American English, Appalachian English, New York dialect, Chicano English, Hawaii Creole English, and other Englishes especially those spoken by recent immigrants who have learned English as a second language and have noticeable Spanish, Chinese, or other accents. These dialects are widely regarded as ‘incorrect’ or ‘improper’. They are seen as aspects of language that people must ‘unlearn’ in school. Unfortunately, as with people learning a second language, this is unlikely to happen past a certain age. It also places an undue burden on speakers of ‘nonstandard’ English, because ‘standard’ English speakers speak the ‘standard’ by virtue of their being born into a community that uses ‘standard’ English not by any special effort they undertook to learn it.

However, since as I’ve discussed before language choices are arbitrary and cannot be reasonably shown to be correct or incorrect (although conventional and not conventional is a useful distinction in many cases), this is simply a way in which those who speak ‘standard’ English as their native language and dialect have even greater language privilege than other English speakers.

In particular, there is a strong cultural association between ‘standard’ dialects of English (and the accent of ‘standard’ English speakers) and the perception that the speaker is ambitious, intelligent, or educated. ‘Nonstandard’ dialects and accents, on the other hand, are perceived widely as unintelligent, uneducated, and unambitious. Researchers have used controlled experiments in which one speaker reads (or several speakers read) identical content in different accents that is then judged for traits like intelligence or trustworthiness by listeners who believe they are hearing multiple speakers (it’s called the matched-guise technique). These studies have found that native speakers of ‘standard’ English enjoy the advantage of having their speech perceived more positively than second language English speakers with Korean accents, Spanish accents, German accents, Japanese accents, Chinese accents, and others. They have also found that ‘standard’ English speakers enjoy the same advantages relative to ‘nonstandard’ speakers such as African American English speakers, Southern American English speakersHawaii Creole English speakers, and others.

By avoiding negative evaluations of their language, native speakers of ‘standard’ English have been shown to have an advantage in a variety of important areas:

  • They are unlikely to be fired from their job for their language and are not passed up for promotions because of their language as speakers of nonstandard English are.
  • They are less likely to make a negative impression due to their language in interviewing and hiring decisions than speakers of nonstandard English are.
  • They are more likely to be given an appointment to view available housing (especially when this is in affluent areas) than speakers of nonstandard English are. Speakers of nonstandard English are more likely to be told the housing is unavailable or to be guided toward low-income housing areas.
  • They are less likely to have their credibility questioned as a result of their language when they are witnesses or defendants than speakers of nonstandard English are.
  • They are less likely to receive low customer service evaluations as a result of their language than speakers of nonstandard English are.

There are undoubtedly other areas that have yet to be explored by researchers. What is clear however is that speaking a ‘nonstandard’ form of English or speaking it as a second language makes one highly susceptible to language prejudice not faced by ‘standard’ English speakers.

Where to from here?

The many advantages that native English speakers (like me) enjoy is neither a result of our hard work or intrinsic superiority nor a choice we have personally made (although it does reflect historical and contemporary systems of oppression created and perpetuated by English speakers). We cannot of course single-handedly change this situation, but there are certainly things we can and should do. I offer a couple of suggestions here and also invite readers to submit additional ideas in the comments sections.

The first has to do with the now highly international status of English. Having an international language is a potentially useful and positive development for the world. However, we should not simply ignore the obvious and non-coincidental benefits that residents of already wealthy and privileged nations (especially the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Ireland, and Australia) gain from having their language ‘chosen’ as the international language of choice. We should insist that if English is to be viewed as a truly international language, then the ways in which it is used should be open to the same diversity that characterizes any international phenomenon and cannot be legitimately policed by native English speakers from countries like the US and the UK. This means letting go of the notion that these speakers in some way ‘own’ English as it used internationally. For example, it’s not really any of our business if second language speakers in an English-medium university seminar in Sweden use the phrase “to discuss about” or the word “informations”.

In addition, some of the more egregious ways in which native speakers of ‘standard’ English benefit economically from their language privilege should be removed. Educational institutions should insist on pedagogic training for all people hired into English language teaching (including native English speakers) and should not pass up well-qualified nonnative English speakers.

Furthermore, far from suggesting that we English speakers no longer need to learn foreign or second languages, English’s international status should suggest an additional benefit for teaching foreign and second languages (Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, Russian, Tagalog, etc.), namely the need for English speakers to experience the difficulty of learning and communicating in a second language so as to better empathize with their future interlocutors, many of whom will be second language speakers of English.

Finally, the serious effects of language prejudice felt by ‘nonstandard’ English speakers in the workplace and elsewhere need to be addressed through multicultural training as well as possibly through the enactment (and more active enforcement) of legal protections against the disadvantaging of ‘nonstandard’ English speakers.

I’d really like to hear from you. What other examples of language privilege can you think of? What other ideas do you have for confronting language privilege?

About these ads

4 thoughts on “Language privilege: What it is and why it matters

  1. I recently returned from teaching English as a second language to high school girls in the Middle East. I, myself am a certified high school English teacher in the states. Prior to going abroad, I never would have believed in this language privilege you write about. However, I have both witnessed and experienced first hand the privilege of being a native ‘standard’ English speaker.
    Throughout my tenure, it more than surprised me that although my fellow Arabic teachers were required to learn English to retain their positions, I did not have to have even the most rudimentary understanding of Arabic. The public school system with which I was employed was determined to teach every subject, save Arabic and Islamic Studies, in English. It was no wonder that some of the English teachers began to demand that every correspondence, every staff meeting, every professional development class be conducted in English. I found this quite disconcerting considering we were in an Arabic speaking country. Be that as it may, more often than not, the administration would acquiesce; and I was one of only two native English speakers on staff.
    I was often embarrassed at my English cohort’s hoity-toity attitude that often accompanies privilege. My solution was to encourage other faculty members and students to learn English but love Arabic, after all, it was their mother tongue. In addition, I began to learn Arabic so that they might see that, as an English speaker, I valued and respected their language as well.
    English may be the language of privilege. However, English speakers need not act so privileged.

  2. Sorry for the long lag on replying to your comment vakunzmann. I really appreciated reading about your experiences in the Middle East. They sound really typical of other colleagues who have taught English abroad. I think it’s a good suggestion for English speakers especially language teachers to learn the local language while abroad. It has lots of great advantages such as those you’ve mentioned but also even very practical issues of being able to better anticipate areas of difficulty. Thanks again for the reply!

  3. I agree that native English speakers have very unfair advantages. The solution is to promote an international language that has no native speakers (or nearly no native speakers) like Esperanto. Furthermore it is easier to learn than national languages as it doesn’t have irregular verbs, the spelling is phonetic, etc.

  4. Pingback: Academic Bloggers as Public Intellectuals |

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s