How do people think about language? Do people agree that all languages, and dialects of certain languages are treated equally? In an attempt to answer these loaded questions, we interviewed a group of twenty Swarthmore College students to see how they perceive of language at home and abroad.
- Standard Language: “Taught in schools and used in print and broadcast media” (Genetti 13).
- Speech Community: “A group of people who share a common language or dialect and cultural practices” (Genetti 7).
- Communicative Competence: “Usually refers to the communicative knowledge and skills shared by a speech community, but these (like all aspects of culture) reside variably in its individual members” (Saville-Troike 21).
- Prescriptive language/prescriptivism: “The socially embedded notion of the "correct" or "proper" ways to use a language” (Language Files 14).
Students Speak Up.
Stories like this are what troubled Swarthmore students like Matt, whom we interviewed.
Students at “Swat”--the local nickname for the College, have specific perceptions of language that impact the way they use it and understand its implications. Testimony of the interviewed students reflects the idea that upbringing in various linguistic and cultural environments (also known as speech communities) can result in these perceptions. The testimonies exhibit how their perceptions are also challenged by their participation in study abroad programs and their transition to the Swarthmore Community.
The perceptions of the group are shown through statements regarding language ideology and communicative competence abroad. The group also shares the same negative view of linguistic inequality (the idea that speakers are unequal or languages are used unequally) as well as the idea that different environments shape this inequality.
Language in the U.S.
Talbot, a Freshman from Utah, noted that, “I know there are people in Utah, even some of my family, who think of people who speak English differently, like southerners, as speaking it the wrong way. I wouldn’t say that it’s worse, but it’s definitely different. I don’t think that you speaking differently than me is a good or a bad thing”. When asked what he believed to be the reasoning behind his ideology, Talbot explained that his, “immediate family didn’t care, but most typical Utah families don’t approve of the slang used in pop culture today. Their vocabulary is very traditional”.
Talbot and Izzy both explain that they do not share the negative ideology towards, in Talbot’s case, the non-standardized modern pop dialect of English, and in Izzy’s case, the “unintelligible” dialects of British English. However, they do claim that these perceptions are definitely shared by some of the people in the speech communities that they were exposed to throughout their development as English speakers. The responses of the remaining interviewees were closely related to those of Talbot and Izzy. Although there are definitely students at Swarthmore who have negative language ideologies, the testimony from the interviewed students shows that there is at least a portion of the student body that does not feel negatively towards other languages or dialects of their language.
What makes using modern pop vocabulary like ‘power move’, ‘good looks’, and ‘wavy’ and various dialects of British English looked down upon?
In the case of slang, individuals use certain words to mean something other than what can be found in a dictionary under the word. In the case of the Scottish dialects/varieties of British English to which Izzy refers, people in Scotland use a dialect with pronunciation that varies significantly from standard English. There can be negative ideologies about both ways of speaking English, and these ideologies can help to perpetuate linguistic inequality and language discrimination, as in the recent case of the African American denied his constitutional rights on the basis of language.
Ordering beer may not seem like a big hurdle to overcome when abroad, but preconceived notions of language that concern the ability to understand and communicate are an important part of interacting with natives of a foreign country.
For Dylan, a junior Swat student abroad in Prague, that meant understanding how the usage of gestures may not be an acceptable mode of communication when interacting with the people of Prague, a city with a multitude of languages. “When I try to point or select something using an American article they either have no clue what I'm gesturing or start glaring or yelling,” said Dylan.
Dylan also noted that the prevalence of articles in English, such as “a” or “the”, don’t register particularly well when he speaks with residents that speak only Slovak, a language that lacks articles. “When I do speak with English and Slovak speakers, it’s funny to see their faces as I try to describe things using the basic words I know,” the interviewee remarked.
Another interviewed student, Christian, described his use of French in Paris, his study abroad location, as another sore spot with the French speaking locals. “I can tell that the Parisians value the elegance of their language, but they're pretty mean about it when I pronounce words wrong,” Christian stated.
Christian and Dylan both outline some communicative challenges that could be the result of certain ideologies that native speakers of a language have of both their language and languages foreign to them. Although these ideologies are not shared by all native speakers of a language, the experiences of students abroad show that linguistic inequality, as result of negative language ideologies, can exist within certain groups of speakers in Prague and Paris. Christian and Dylan both assume that their respective abilities to speak French and English are adequate in communication in these different speech communities. However, certain ideologies that particular natives have regarding the way their languages should be used, such as word pronunciation in French and the negative attitude toward gestural communication in Prague, hinder Christian and Dylan’s communicative competence in these foreign communities.
Simply put, the ideas of these students abroad regarding an adequate way to communicate may not be viable everywhere.
What Does This Reveal About Language?
- People have perceptions regarding how they and others use language.
- These perceptions are often a result of the exposure to certain speech communities by an individual.
- A person’s usage and ideology of language is challenged when they travel and interact in new places (countries, schools, etc.).
Language Files. Department of Linguistics, 28 Oct. 2016, linguistics.osu.edu/research/pubs/lang-files.
Saville-Troike, Muriel. “Introducing Second Language Acquisition.” Google Books, books.google.com/books/about/Introducing_Second_Language_Acquisition.html?id=-Bnu98KHv74C.
About the Authors.
Nathaniel Johns, class of 2020, is an Economics Major at Swarthmore College. He is a member of both the Swarthmore Men’s Lacrosse Team and the Swarthmore Wealth Finance Investment Trade Club.