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Preventing Language Discrimination

How to prevent language discrimination against students who speak English with accent

In college, a high percent of students, instructors, and staff, comes from different ethnics from all over the world providing a rich cultural background based on diversity. However, sometimes languages and dialects bring up issues of possible discrimination due to the perception that some accents are more prestigious than others are.

The university campus, especially the classrooms and offices, conforms the main scenery where minority students interact, among them and with instructors and staff, in different Situations that, instead of leading to discrimination, could rather be a source of enrichment and knowledge in languages and cultures. We, Instructors, Students, Institution/Staff, can work together and assume responsibilities to prevent that linguistic discrimination happen in our campus.

Situations leading to linguistic discrimination

Differences in language accent, style, conventions, and conversational assumptions may lead to the perception that the other person is not listening, taking serious, or valuing the speaker. Possible factors:

  • Accent and identity
  • The standard view of language cause to continue existing inequalities and disregards identity and cultural differences.
  • Minority Language Rights
  • Negotiation linguistically and communicatively using different schema and meaning.
  • Discourse conventions
  • Limited linguistic means. Ethnic-minority speakers present themselves as reduces even though they may be confident personalities in their own culture.
  • Cohesion and coherence during interaction.
  • Speaker’s intent is based listener’s experience.
  • Languages and stereotypes
  • Communicative style
  • Metaphorical properties versus literal meaning of a message
  • Gatekeeping in staff, teachers, and students. Evaluation based on communicative interaction.
  • Role of expectations and perception in negotiating meaning. The participants see in different ways the same interaction and the expectations are not met.
  • Diversity seen as a threat. Lack of communication.
  • Knowledge of own ethnocentrism.
  • Interactional identities.
  • Emphasis on achievements could result in discrimination.
  • Cultural differences in compliments.

Instructors can avoid linguistic discrimination by:

  • Using knowledge of diversity as an advantage to enrich the course and teach effectively.
  • Having a methodology for better comprehending of how cultural and social knowledge enter into language. Understanding that different accents are not language deficiencies, rather the effect of the linguistic features of one language into the other.
  • Understanding that while providing student communicative power to have access to opportunities determined by our society, instructors might be teaching to act out of their social identity.
  • Knowing that differences in communicative styles across cultures may result in racism. Understanding that the interaction between students from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds may help to increase the perception of the students who try not to discriminate.
  • Considering that cross-cultural communication involves different frames and schemata during the interaction. Being aware that students may not have the same perception and understanding of the same context situation.
  • Being aware of teacher-student or student-student gatekeeping based on language accents in L1 and/or L2.
  • Focusing on inter-ethnic communication. Keeping a shared agenda including responsibilities of the teacher and students regarding communication, awareness, autonomy, and assertiveness. Having common goals.
  • Working together to solve problems across linguistic and cultural boundaries.
  • Knowing that extreme interactional identities may result in discrimination by a gatekeeper.
  • Avoiding isolation, low status, and lack of measurable outcome and progression.
  • Understanding emigration, religious backgrounds and ethnic minorities needs.
  • Assuming that linguistic discrimination feeds the attitudes that create racism.

Students can avoid linguistic discrimination by:

  • Positive feeling about their language accents. Accent is NOT a language deficiency.
  • Knowledge of situations of interaction that could result in language discrimination.
  • Awareness of differences in language habits with a native English-speaker.
  • Clear view of the way in which they want to present themselves, how much they want to show their identity and the language they use.
  • Awareness of the culture-specific standards of self-presentation (oral and written communication).
  • Notions of social appropriacy and politeness about language and culture. Conventions and patterns of common interactions within a community.
  • Understanding of the purpose of the questions during interaction, not only the surface meaning.
  • Find three sentences to respond in a situation of discrimination.
  • Refer to university officials whenever discrimination might be happening.

Institution and staff can avoid linguistic discrimination by providing training to:

  • Develop awareness skills for inter-ethnic communication through programs for students, instructors, and staff.
  • Be aware of how ethnocentric and potential discriminatory the criteria could be when delivering any service. Procedures and standards that are independent of the evaluator’s individual preferences should be clear to avoid discrimination.
  • “Challenge the discourse of disempowerment through collaborative dialogue (Cummins, 2000)." Recognize and communicate with those within the dominant groups that are willing to dialogue meaningfully. Identify common goals between dominant and subordinate communities. Expose research findings. Promote programs that challenge divisions and promote collaborative dialogue.
  • For effective inter-ethnic communication in a range of situations is requires for staff and instructors.
  • Not only demand the ability to grade students by language achievements, but also the ability to build farther language development.
  • College courses - access to vocational and academic studies.
  • Relate language technicalities to cross-cultural issues.
  • Make certain that language difference is NOT a language deficit.
  • Create practices for language accommodation in inter-ethnic communication.
  • Practice interpersonal skills needed in stressful situations where the outcome of the conversation is judged instead of the accuracy of meaning.
  • Judge inter-ethnic interviews, and perceive disadvantages and the possibility of discrimination.
  • Provide intensive and extensive cultural immersion to acquire the cultural model of the second language.
  • Continuously sharing current information about language discrimination and providing clear procedures to be followed to prevent or/and to stop any kind of discrimination.


Language is more than a mean of communication, is a possession of all human have. Language is a very noticeable and valuable mean to establish and promote our social and ethnic identities (Lippi-Green 1997, 5). Different ways of speaking conform varieties of accents. L1 accent is a structured variation of the first language, while L2 accent refers to the result of native language phonology effect in the target language (Lippi-Green 1997, 43).

Fewer wrights are established for non-linguistic community to learn their mother dialects than to learning foreign languages (Phillipson 1992, 52).

As teachers lead second language learners to acquire the communicative power to be able to access to opportunities, a standard view of the languages takes place. The standard view of language may cause to continue existing inequalities and disregards identity and cultural differences. Teachers need to question and be critical when working in the field of language and communication in a multi-ethnic society (Roberts 1992, 30-33).

The interaction include assumptions, expectations and intentions which work at the levels of schema, the knowledge and assumptions; frame, the interpretation of what is happening during the interaction; and language, the forms and uses. Cultural and social differences in assumptions, interpretations, and attitudes may lead to misunderstanding and power. There is limited power to negotiation from speakers with limited English (Roberts 1992, 7).

Differences in making connections into the discourse, in prosodic features, and distinctions in emphasis expression lead bilingual speakers to think that they have not been understood. Different cultural and linguistic conventions lead to perceive behaviors with own conventions (Roberts 1992, 49).

There is cohesion if the inference of some element in the interaction depends on other, such as, semantic, lexical, and syntactic or other devices indicate cohesion. The listener will not make connections if the interactants do not share the same background knowledge. The listener do connections and judge the speaker’s competence based on culture-specific schemata (Roberts 1992, 76).

Differences in ways of speaking and in cultural conventions are perceived as differences in behavior and attitudes, then negative stereotyping ethnic-minority speakers (Roberts 1992, 95).

Communicative styles are relevant to inter-ethnic communications due to reaction between the speakers. A speaker who talks for a long time and loud may be seen as dominating or impolite, while other speakers can be embarrassed (Roberts 96).

In a given context, a metaphorical meaning of a message is processed during a communicative interaction. Non-native speakers tend to a literal meaning following the properties of their own cultural model. Research shows that students may not appropriate knowledge of metaphorical meaning and lexical concepts in the classroom, but rather an extensive and intensive cultural immersion is necessary (Lantolf 2006, 113-149).

Students, instructors, and staff are dependent on the bureaucratic processes and interview procedures when applying to enter or for a job at the university. The officials on how they communicate in English constantly evaluate students, instructors, and staff. The officials do gatekeeping when they do not lead inter-ethnic conversational objectivity. Judgments in inter-ethnic communication may increase discrimination even when officials do not perceive the differences in communication (Roberts 1992, 15 & 43).

A main debate has been taken place in USA about diversity in education, especially bilingual education. Between educational equity and xenophobic movements, there is a misinformed group on what the research has demonstrated. There is a need to communicate and engage in dialogue with many of those who think that diversity is a threat for the society (Cummins 2000, 232-245).

Research has showed that listeners’ interpretation of the speaker’s intent is based on their own interaction experiences, how the message makes sense under their culture (Roberts 1992, 53).

Unequal relationships are captured during interaction, but even more when one member speaks with accent. There is not power for negotiation and there is sense of inferiority and low self-esteem (Roberts 1992, 34-35).

Pragmatic strategies differ among cultures (level of formality, excitement, etc). Compliments may be used for manipulation of power and then discrimination.

Interactional identities of an instructor or academic advisor may promote discrimination lead by ideals, a fair gatekeeper, or a friendly helper (Tracy 2002, 26-31).

The unequal relationship between the members of the interaction is sometimes unconscious. Dominant may reflect on own ethnocentrism and discrimination (Roberts 1992, 33-35).

Emphasis on achievements in a class with students from different socio-economic levels and cultural backgrounds may result in language discrimination based on the level of education (Roberts 1992, 18).


Cummins, J. (2000). Challenging the Discourse of Disempowerment through Collaborative Dialogue. In J. Cummins (Ed.), Language, Power and Pedagogy. Bilingual Children in the Crossfire (232-245).

Lantolf, J.P. & Thorne, S. L. (2006). Symbolic Mediation and L2 Learners: Metaphor, Lexis, and Narratives. In Sociocultural Theory and the Genesis of Second Language Development. Oxford University Press.

Lippi-Green, R. (1997). English with an Accent: Language, Ideology and Discrimination in the United States. London: Routledge.

Phillipson, R., & Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (1999). Minority Language Rights. In B. Spolsky (Ed.) Concise Encyclopedia of Educational Linguistics. New York: Elsevier.

Roberts, C., Davis, E., & Jupp, T. (1992). Language and Discrimination: A Study of Communication in Multi-Ethnic Workplace. London: Longman.

Tracy, K. (2002). The Rhetorical Perspective. In Everyday Talk: Building and Reflecting Identities. New York: Guilford

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