Key Concepts

Perceptions, judgments or beliefs people have about certain social styles of language, features of a language, varieties of a language. This process is related to language ideologies, but is often considered to exist on smaller scale, or even at an individual level. For example, an individual might have language attitudes toward non-standardized features of language, such as the use of double modals: I might could do that. As with language ideologies, language attitudes correlate with the assumed speakers of the languages or varieties in question.

According to Legal Aid at Work (2022), language discrimination occurs when a person is treated differently because of their native language or characteristics of their language skills. Examples include being discriminated against for speaking English with a “foreign” accent or being mistreated, ridiculed or marginalized for using a variety of English that is associated with marginalized ethnic or social groups.

Area of studies concerned with the interaction of language choices and the social construction of ¨sex¨ and ¨gender.¨ Within current approaches, gender is understood as a principle for identifying ideologies of personhood and cultural differences in understanding the body. These topics are often related to intersectional approaches to the construction of identities (e.g., masculinity, queer, femininity). In addition, language and gender studies are also concerned with social inequities derived from institutions (workplaces, schools, courts, etc.) explicitly or implicitly enforcing and legitimizing certain linguistic strategies associated with a particular gender group to the exclusion of other groups.

Identity can play a significant role in language users and language learners’ decisions to use or study a language and can limit or facilitate language users’ access to the target language community. According to researcher Bonny Norton (2013), identity is “the way a person understands his or her [or their] relationship to the world, how that relationship changes over time and space, and how the person understands possibilities for the future” (p. 4). Identity can include categories such as gender, race/ethnicity, class, sexual orientation or religious affiliation, but according to poststructualist theory, identity theorized as multiple, a site of struggle, and changes over time and space.

A process through which the relative social worth of a language or language variety (e.g., a dialect) is established and reiterated. The social worth can be either positive or negative, and it can differ according to social group as well as over time. As a result of this process, the language of certain social groups comes to correlate with that group’s overall social standing. As with any ideologies, language ideologies may be real or imagined; as part of an overall belief system, they are often based on stereotypes and deeply-seated belief systems. Language ideologies can exist at the societal level, for example through admiration and perpetuation for standardized varieties of a language, or they can exist at the local or even smaller-scale level. Language ideologies are often connected to processes such as language standardization and institutionalization.

For most modern linguists, the typical meaning and use of race is closer to the notion of ethnicity. Within this use of race, language is an outward cultural behavior related to group norms rather than the phenotype or DNA of an ancestry group. Thus, appropriate forms of ethnically-affiliated language used by an individual reflect the strength of their group membership. Often ethnically-affiliated language exhibits further variation by other human groupings such as by social class, gender, age, geography, etc. and can intersect with norms of other ethnically-affiliated groups.

Race is a term with many uses over the past hundreds of years. Unfortunately, for some (Linnaeus, Bloomenbach, the linguists Schliecher and Bleek; Arthur Jensen, etc.), race is a concept where a person’s outward physical appearances and behaviors (especially language) necessarily reflect one’s internal and intrinsic being including group level DNA and intelligence. For those holding this position with perceived sharp boundaries between human groups, language variation by race reflects evolutionary success or deficits of human groups.

Strong evidence argues against such conflated position of language and race:

  • biologists have demonstrated that, while ancestry matters to the individual, human DNA varies more across continents than within them;
  • anthropologists and sociolinguists have demonstrated that cultures have different values, terms and interpretations of outward appearance, behavior, and notions of concepts such as kinship and group membership;
  • historical linguists have demonstrated that all languages change and may morph by taking on features of other language families;
  • linguists, psycholinguists and cognitive scientists have demonstrated that all languages operate with cognitive machinery (the brain and its processing) consistent among all human groups such that learning additional languages than one’s first language is not biologically impossible; and
  • linguists studying language acquisition have demonstrated that children are primed for learning any human language, regardless of their DNA ancestry.

Thus, it is not impossible for a hypothetical person with Japanese ancestry raised in Helsinki to become a first language Finno-Ugric language speaker who can also speak a Slavic, Germanic, Athabaskan, or Nilotic language.

While most of the world’s population can speak or use more than one language, Americans far too often adhere to the “belief that being a monolingual Anglophone is a mark of good citizenship” (as our colleague Cathy Stafford wrote in her chapter in Wisconsin Talk).  A large and growing body of research shows that speaking or using more than one language has not only social and economic benefits, but also correlates with better cognitive skills, especially as we age. We are working to understand multilingualism on campus – among students, staff and faculty – and to raise awareness of the advantages of bilingualism and multilingualism.

Some members of the Language Ideologies and Linguistic Discrimination working group have discussed some of these key concepts at the UW-Madison’s 2023 Diversity Forum. We invite you to watch a recording of their session, “Understanding and Addressing Linguistic Bias and Discrimination”, to learn more about how they have addressed questions such as: What is standard(ized) English and whose language does it (not) represent? What does it mean to have an accent or to think you don’t? How do our beliefs about language influence how we perceive and treat others? What is linguistic discrimination?