To English or Not to English

By Cynthia Sanchez 

City College Undergraduate Student
December 10th, 2019 

If you had logged onto Twitter on November 20th, 2019 after 8:20 am when the most recognized music awards in the world, the Grammys, were announcing the nominations for next year’s awards you would have seen many reactions. Specifically from the ARMY, the dedicated, diverse, and immensely large fan base of the groundbreaking Korean boy band BTS. The boy band, comprised of 7 members, have been breaking barriers for several years in the Western music industry. In the year of 2019 alone some of  their accomplishments include being the first group since the Beatles to achieve 3 number 1 albums in less than a year on the Billboard 200 chart, the first non-English act to sell out multiple concerts at iconic stadium venues such as the Rose Bowl in California and Wembley Stadium in the U.K., and thus far having the best-selling album of 2019 beating out pop stars such as Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift for the feat. Now if they were any other western, English speaking act these achievements without a doubt would have been enough to grant them multiple nominations for next year’s Grammys, but to many people’s disappointment, including mine, this was not the case for BTS. Many fans were disappointed and angry with the decisions of the Recording Academy, but not surprised given the fact that we are a fandom that has seen discrimination against them time and again for being such a successful act that doesn’t sing in English, that does not compromise their roots, culture and identity for the sake of international success, and essentially for not fitting the mold that the industry wants them to fit. 

This example from the music industry serves as a perfect microcosm for what goes on in American society. An ideology exists that English, specifically that which is spoken by the white, upper middle class is that which should be spoken by all. Even though the United States has no official language, this ideal has become standardized and been implemented into the education system. This standard language ideology is obviously not feasible and has a lot of repercussions in its implementation. In addressing this standard language ideology that exists in the U.S. I hope to point out how it is institutionalized as well as the consequences it has for people of color, immigrants, and others who don’t fit this mold including the suppression of these groups from many educational, job, and other social opportunities. Not fitting the mold of standard language, many are often forced to assimilate or suffer the consequences of not doing so. Like BTS always say they will never do with their music, I’m here to say that to assimilate for the convenience of the powerful should not be the way to success and a better life here in America. This Standard Language Ideology should be questioned and dismantled, and language diversity needs to be encouraged in the classroom and in American society. 

The Heart of Language Ideology in the U.S: 

Sociolinguist Walt Wolfram, in his article “Sound Effects: Challenging Language Prejudice in the Classroom” says thatwe live in a world that encourages certain attitudes about language. We often hear the words right, wrong, or correct, incorrect labeling language and ways of speaking. Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising that we develop prejudices about language, specifically those of which are different from our own (27). Specifically, in the U.S. negative attitudes towards varieties of English, ways of speaking English, and even other languages in their entirety have been perpetuated by the existence of an idealized, homogenous, “correct”, standardized version of English. So, what is standard language ideology? Standard language ideology as explained by sociolinguist Rosina Lippi-Green in chapter 5 of her book English with an Accent standard language ideology is “a bias toward an abstracted, idealized, homogenous spoken language which is imposed and maintained by dominant bloc institutions and which names as its model the written language, but which is drawn primarily from the spoken language of the upper middle class” (67). It is essentially the mechanism by which the hierarchy of language and dialects has risen in the U.S. It is perpetuated by the belief in a singular American identity that is homogenous and that accommodates the white, upper middle class putting them at the top. It is these very people who prescribe their version of English as the correct one and as the language that must be spoken by all. It is also perpetuated by dominant institutions like the educational system, which are run by the elite. 

The education system and teachers have a significant influence in a child’s life. They’re tasked to turn “the children in their care into a productive body of citizens capable of critical thought” and “an informed electorate, one which will accept and perpetuate the values of the nation-state (Lippi-Green, 78).” In terms of language that would mean assimilating to Standard American English or SAE and mastering it to a level that is satisfactory enough to the point where society and the people who will hire you for a job will consider you competent and able enough for success. Teachers attempt to achieve this by imposing strict rules and expectations in the classroom and doing their best to eradicate varieties of English that aren’t SAE from being used in the classroom. They argue that their uses are inappropriate for the classroom and should be left at home. Almost all of the time, these targeted varieties of English are spoken by black children and other children of color. This, in turn, creates a negative and hostile environment for children who speak a stigmatized variety of English or who are bilingual to learn in. Children are being told their home and ethnic languages aren’t good enough languages to be valued and learned, that their identity doesn’t matter, and that their language, and therefore they themselves are less than. Since these identities and languages are not the standard, a separation is created; that of English vs. Other, good vs. bad, what is American vs. what is not American and therefore what should be accepted and what should be dismissed. This reminds me of an English teacher I had in high school who would often correct students of color for expressing themselves using slang. She would argue that the language we were using was unsophisticated and shouldn’t be used to express ourselves in a classroom or professional environment. So not only are we being taught we aren’t enough and that we should assimilate to be so, but that this assimilation is what is right and necessary and what will benefit us in the long run as this quote by Lippi- Green reiterates;  “the process of linguistic assimilation to an abstracted standard is cast as a natural one, necessary, and positive for the greater social good (68).”  

The mastery of SAE is not only used as a criterion of potential in the classroom but also as a criterion in other areas of society as well. Often times with job, housing, and other opportunities, language and our use of it is used to profile and make assumptions about who we are as people and what we are capable of achieving. Lippi -Green explains this reasoning as teachers give it for supporting SAE: 


Student A must give up her home language in certain situations for her own good. This doesn’t mean she has to give it up completely; there’s no reason to deny that language; instead, redirect the student’s use of that language to those environments and circumstances in which it is appropriate. At the same time, give the student another language (*SAE) – for those situations in which it will be the only socially acceptable language. This is necessary if she is to pursue a career or education in the wider world where potential employers would otherwise reject her because of the variety of English she speaks. (82)

This is no doubt due to this very ideology that encourages us who believe it and who are taught it to make assumptions about speakers of various dialects of English (ex: African American Vernacular English or AAVE) as well as immigrants who speak with accents that are tied to a specific country of origin or ethnic group that devalue them and mark them as people and languages that are subordinate, backward and Other. It is encouraged that we sacrifice our languages, our roots, and our identities for the sake of “opportunity.” But in reality this is just sugarcoated to mean that those who are different from those in the dominant class, who are the ones prescribing these ideals to the rest of society to remain in power, won’t be treated the same. 

Native Americans were even forced to assimilate, and they were here first. Recounting a policy implemented in the 1800s to force the assimilation of Native Americans, Lippi-Green points out that the matter of language was crucial. To speed up this process of assimilation, tribal groups and families were torn apart. The U.S. government saw that “without tribal languages which functioned as the primary marker of social identity and provided a cohesive force in the face of so much turmoil, the indigenous peoples could be more easily drawn into the fold (86).” This makes it clear that that this is an elite white American problem where they have targeted what is different from them as being anti American to consolidate their power and make us minorities think we should reject and be embarrassed of our roots and fear those that are different from ourselves. 

With this, I wish to advise to not be embarrassed or afraid of difference. It is what has made this country what it is today, despite what the privileged white class want you to believe. It invites us to see, think, and feel things in a way that is unfamiliar and that is not a bad thing at all. Teachers should acknowledge this issue and begin to encourage language diversity in the classroom because although it may seem small or difficult, it can be a start to greater socio-political change. Teachers are taught to discriminate because employers do, but maybe if teachers encouraged diversity rather than suppress it employers would too. As author of Speaking of Difference: Language, Inequality and Interculturality Crispin Thurlow points out, there can be “no intercultural encounter or engagement to be had–  if someone has not made the effort– or been forced to learn someone else’s language (231)” and the people making that effort have much too often been the Other, non-white, non-privileged, people of color and immigrants. It’s about dang time that just like BTS and their fans are making the Academy and others in the music industry do, second language speakers should let the privileged do the work.

Works Cited

Lippi-Green, Rosina. English with an Accent: Language, Ideology and Discrimination in the United States. Taylor and Francis, 2012.

Thurlow, Crispin. “Speaking of Difference.” Handbooks in Communication and Media, Wiley‐Blackwell, Oxford, UK, 2011, pp. 227–247.

Wolfram, Walt. “Challenging Language Prejudice in the Classroom.(Sound Effects).” Education Digest, vol. 79, no. 1, 2013, p. 27.