English Language Teaching (ELT) has changed throughout the years. For a long time, several methods have been employed to ensure learners’ development of their communicative skills. Teachers and schools have relied on second language acquisition theories and in-class observations of each teaching method in order to find the best way to teach students and assess their progress on learning English. Books and other materials were used back in the time and, thanks to the internet and educational technologies, new resources were incorporated into the classrooms. This has also led teachers across the globe to connect with each other, nurturing debates and helping those who work in second/foreign/additional language education to exchange ideas on how to improve the learning process. This has aided the teaching community in seeing that many issues regarding education and English language learning were not local; they could be found globally too. All these advancements on ELT are often found registered under the Applied Linguistics science. Such educational mapping makes it easy to address most difficulties teachers and students in ELT face on a daily basis, indeed, but, as we all agree, language is not restricted to concepts as Teacher Talking Time, nor is it to IETS, TOEFL, CELTA or the many other acronyms within ELT. After all, language is culture, history and the means through which humans connect to their own minds, souls and to the world and people that surround them.
In this sense, Applied Linguistics cannot be (and is not) the only science we refer to when looking for answers and paths to deliver better lessons to our students. In globalized times, I would like to refer to Theoretical Linguistics as a not-always-remembered science that can help in uncovering issues regarding learning and inclusion – a topic that has been thoroughly portrayed in recent ELT literature. As we can observe in many ELT conferences’ programs, Applied Linguistics is the main background for ideas presented in talks and workshops. One of the last events I attended, ‘BrELT on The Road 2019’ (an amazing event on ELT that took place at Casa Thomas Jefferson, in Brasília), can be used as an example: out of 40 talks, only four addressed issues related to inclusion and native-speakerism – which were not necessarily related to Applied Linguistics. Back there, I had the opportunity to talk to a few teachers about linguistic variation and English classes. Such a topic deals with lots of theory and may seem a bit distant from the reality of other issues dealing directly with Applied Linguistics. Linguistic variation is an important topic of mother tongue teaching and has been thoroughly portrayed by professor Marcos Bagno1 – among other professionals – in books and papers related to Linguistic Prejudice. However, such a subject is not broadly discussed within ELT, even though several theoretical linguistic studies in English speaking countries aim at describing language use in relation to its social context.
Linguistic prejudice is a form of prejudice in which one may hold implicit biases based on the way somebody speaks2 – this being used to draw conclusions on a speaker’s gender, profession, educational level, social class and other personal characteristics. Such an evaluation on what is linguistically produced may be related to a speaker’s choice of words (“pop” vs “soft drink”), pronunciation (“where are my car keys?” vs “where are my kakis?”), syntactic structures (“I didn’t see anybody here” vs “I didn’t see nobody there”) or even pragmatics (“hey, guys” vs “hey, everybody”). Language is made out of several layers of history. For instance, a particular word or sound is only found within a certain region or among a specific group of speakers due to previous contacts among these people. In many cases, (im)migration and social (in)justice are the background for new linguistic interactions that lead to linguistic variation and linguistic change. In this sense, linguistic judgements go beyond “simple and harmless” accent comparisons, but evoke sociohistorical conceptions that may lead to unfair comments such as “people who didn’t finish school speak like that” or “that is not American/British English” – simply disregarding one’s history.
As we know, there is no right or wrong when it comes to language spoken by native speakers; after all, is it possible for a person to be born and raised in a country and not to speak its tongue? Pondering on this, another question may spring to one’s mind: is any of this considered whenever a second language is being taught? I will make a simple proposal: open a new tab on your browser and type “how to pronounce ‘th’ in English”. Your Google page is most likely going to display three or four
Linguistic prejudice is an unconscious and covert way of strengthening these practices and, no matter how small the flap of the tongue on a “thank you, brother” may seem, there is a lot of history there that does not deserve to be wiped out.
videos as suggestions for this short and fast research – shown right before a long list of links on this subject – and I am going to play the fortune teller here and say that all the teachers on these videos’ thumbnails are pointing at their tongues, which are between their front teeth. Such a gesture should be expected: if you go to ‘Dictionary.com’ – or any other online dictionary – the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) symbols for this sound shall be [θ, ð] – also known as the interdental fricatives.
But what if we consider linguistic variation on this sound production? This was studied by William Labov, a sociolinguist, back in 1972 in New York. Labov3 registered native speakers pronouncing different linguistic variants (different possibilities of pronunciation for the very same sound) as their socioeconomical status changed: those who belonged to higher social classes would pronounce ‘th’ as the standard [θ, ð], whereas working class and low class speakers would pronounce it as [t, d] (in the same way as words like “tank” and “dart”) or even as [tʃ, dʒ] (similar to the first sound on “cheese” and “John”). In other words, native speakers have different sounds to pronounce ‘th’, but whenever we check a video on ‘how to pronounce the ‘th’ sound’ only one is considered “correct”. Just like Alan Moore, I do not believe in coincidences, and it is not by chance that the chosen pronunciation in these videos is the one seen in high class speakers in linguistic studies.
Any time teachers or students point out that the only correct form of pronouncing the ‘th’ sound is when you put your tongue between your teeth (are you all with that previous research on Google open yet?), are they saying that a certain percentage of the population of the United States (or at least part of New York’s population, according to Labov’s study) do not speak proper English? Are they saying that they are native speakers, born and raised in an English speaking country, but yet they are speaking “wrong English”? These assumptions carry in themselves the bias of “the correct language” or “the language of the educated”: they carry Linguistic Prejudice.
This is just a short example of one sound (out of many others), but let us make no mistake: this is a reality in the judiciary system4 – from the interrogation room5 to the courtroom6. Whenever this type of preaching is used in the classroom, a covert linguicism is being reproduced. When linguistic variation is denied, social diversity is erased. A statement like “this is wrong” (when it is actually a linguistic variant) does not target the pronounced sound or its speaker; it targets a whole group of people and its history and misplaces them in society by saying “this sound is not expected, therefore you are not expected”. This vanishing is already happening every day in non-linguistic ways, whether congress votes a bill to build a wall separating peoples or the police arrest people because of the place their ancestors came from. Linguistic prejudice is an unconscious and covert way of strengthening these practices and, no matter how small the flap of the tongue on a “thank you, brother” may seem, there is a lot of history there that does not deserve to be wiped out.
Theoretical Linguistics is a strong weapon in order to fight the myths that surround language – and, in this short article, Sociolinguistics helped us showing this. We are living through dark times. Times in which research and education are seen as a cost and not as an investment; times in which minorities are suffocated; times in which not following a (fabricated) standard means to be banned. If we can fight the small prejudiced ‘flap of tongues’ in our classes, maybe something bigger will be easier to be fought next.
Victor Carreão has worked in ELT since 2007, teaching in varied educational contexts. He is a Phd candidate in Linguistics and has a Master’s in this field, as well as a PG in Teaching Methodologies, and degrees in English/Portuguese and Management. He is also a speaking examiner for international exams and holds the CPE, CAE and TKT Modules 1, 2 and 3.
1. BAGNO, Marcos. Preconceito lingüístico – o que é, como se faz. 15 ed. Loyola: São Paulo, 2002.
2. HAO, Yiding. YGDP members speak about linguistic prejudice. News, 2018. Available on: <https://ling.yale.edu/news/ygdp-members-speak-about-linguistic-prejudice>. Access on 06 Sep. 2019.
3. LABOV, W. Padrões sociolingüísticos. Trad. de M. Bagno; M. M. P. Scherre; C. R. Cardoso. São Paulo: Parábola Editorial, 2008 .
4. AJ+. Are Black Speakers Discriminated Against in Court. Available on: <https://www.facebook.com/ajplusenglish/videos/663803340722675/>. Access on 05 Sep. 2019.
5. COULTHARD, M. Some forensic applications of descriptive linguistics. VEREDAS – Rev. Est. Ling., Juiz de Fora, v.9, n.1 e n.2, p.9-28, jan./dez. 2005.
6. ELIGON, John. Speaking Black Dialect in Courtrooms Can Have Striking Consequences. Available on: <https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/25/us/black-dialect-courtrooms.html>. Access on 05 Oct. 2019.