Against “Proper English”: How Dialect Discrimination Threatens Diversity

proper english

What is “Proper English”?

One universal piece of advice given to job searchers is to use “Proper English” in resumes, cover letters and interviews. 

In the U.S., “Proper English” usually refers to General American English (GAE). This is the dialect and accent that TV newscasters use. It is closes to the speech of middle class white people in and around Iowa and western Illinois. In the UK, the equivalent would be RP, or Received Pronunciation. Accent-wise, GAE is considered “neutral” – people who speak this way are perceived as not having an accent.

This accent has not always been standard. In the early 20th Century, the “Mid-Atlantic Accent” – actually an artificially developed accent that was taught in elite New England prep schools – was considered the most prestigious, and film actors were trained to use it. This is why characters in old American movies talk in a distinctive style. 

However, “Proper English” is a misnomer. 

There is no such thing as “Improper English”

English grammar has always been descriptive, rather than prescriptive. Prescriptive grammar focuses on how the language should or ought to be used. Descriptive grammar, meanwhile, focuses on describing the language as it is used in practice. 

In the U.S., there is no central authority setting the rules on how English should be used. In this way, English is different from French, which has the Académie Francaise. Instead, the rules of grammar in the U.S. are determined by convention, and the language changes over time in accordance with trends in popular speech. This is true for grammar, usage and pronunciation.

Many of the grammar “rules” you were taught in elementary school are probably wrong, either because they are outdated or because they were never meaningfully correct in the first place. For example, “ain’t” and “y’all” are words. It is perfectly acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition. The pronouns “they” and “their” can be either singular or plural (the singular “they” is not new; it has been in use since the 13th Century). 

What’s more, everyone has an accent. What would be considered a “neutral” accent in the U.S. would not be “neutral” to people from Australia, India, Ireland, or any other English-speaking country. (And India has more English speakers than the U.S. has people, so technically, Indian accents are more “conventional” than American ones.) Value judgments about the propriety or expressive value of various dialects and accents are usually rooted in biased assumptions about class and race.

African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) is often dismissed as “incorrect,” and therefore substandard, but it’s a valid dialect with its own internal grammar and rules. Rap music, written almost exclusively in AAVE, is a major contemporary art form with a global audience. General American English adopts words and phrases from AAVE all the time.

In the 1977 court case Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School Children et al. v. Ann Arbor School District, known as the Ann Arbor Decision, AAVE was compared to standard English to determine how much children who had grown up with AAVE were at a disadvantage compared to those who were raised with standard English. The case established the precedent that children who grow up with AAVE should receive supplementary teaching to better grasp standard English. 

People who grow up in African-American communities develop a kind of bilingualism and the ability to code-switch between AAVE and standard English, because the latter is not only used as the standard but is seen as higher prestige language – it is considered “Proper”. 

In her book Linguistic Justice, April Baker-Bell argues, “[P]eople’s language experiences are not separate from their racial experiences. Indeed, the way a Black child’s language is devalued in school reflects how Black lives are devalued in the world. Similarly, the way a white child’s language is privileged and deemed the norm in schools is directly connected to the invisible ways that white culture is deemed normal, neutral, and superior in the world.” 

In the hiring process, African-American candidates may try to avoid discrimination by concealing racial cues in their applications, which is known as “resume whitening.” Code-switching often has negative social consequences, with the in-group rejecting code-switchers and accusing them of “acting white.” Code-switching is also hard work that can deplete cognitive resources and contribute to burnout. 

dialect discrimination

Dialect Discrimination

Racist and classist attitudes are baked into popular notions of what constitutes “Proper English.” Based on differences in the use of language, a person, through unconscious bias, may form assumptions about the other person’s education level, class, character or other traits. This leads to a form of discrimination called “linguicism.”

Per federal law, dialect discrimination is illegal in the U.S. For example, it is illegal to impose broad “English-only” rules. There are exceptions to this; it is legal to require English in instances where the employee must communicate with other employees or customers who speak only English. This means you may only require an employee to speak English when they are speaking directly to an employee or customer who speaks only English. It is also legal to require English in emergency situations or for cooperative work assignments. 

Despite laws forbidding linguistic discrimination, linguicism still exists. For example, people still view AAVE as “lazy” or “bad” English. In the U.S., teachers and potential employers deem non-standard linguistic structures “incorrect.” Compare this to countries like Finland, Morocco and Italy, where people are more likely to switch between multiple dialects or languages, and therefore non-standard linguistic structure in conversation is seen as an indicator of regional origin, not of intelligence or education level. 

Similarly, a person who has a strong Spanish accent may be stereotyped as poor, uneducated, or possibly an undocumented immigrant, while someone who has a diluted accent or no noticeable accent and the ability to use more complex sentences, they are more likely to be perceived as educated and well-to-do.

Another form of linguicism that exists in the U.S. is discrimination against American Sign Language (ASL) users. Historically, ASL users have been viewed as having lesser mental capacity and have been treated with condescension by hearing people. In fact, ASL was not even recognized as its own language until the 1960s. Additionally, deaf parents are often encouraged by the medical community to not teach their children ASL in order for it to not interfere with their ability to learn English; however, research shows that ASL does not interfere with a child’s ability to learn English. 

In the U.S., the accents and dialects of poor, minority, or otherwise marginalized people are often associated with low intelligence or lack of sophistication, but these are stereotypes, not facts. Thus, when hiring managers reject applicants based on their speech, they are going to turn away qualified candidates for no good reason. 

While not generally considered different dialects, there are also gender identity and sexual orientation-based speech patterns. Patterns associated with women and LGBTQIA+ people are also devalued.

In some jobs, it is important to be able to write in specific dialects of English due to specialized vocabulary or ease of communication. But in most cases, these concerns are largely cosmetic, and we should move toward accepting a plurality of dialects.

Having a wide variety of dialects makes the language richer and more expressive overall. Many commonly used words and expressions in contemporary GAE are borrowed from AAVE, Yiddish, Latino English, or other dialects. We should cultivate variety rather than trying to flatten it by demanding “Proper English.” 

Linguistic Justice

Modern linguistic justice movements posit the idea that linguistic purity is rooted in white supremacist ideals. They reject the idea that there is a “correct” version of English that is superior. This relates to the history of linguistic imperialism because, scholars, say, speakers of the dominant language of a place gravitate toward discrimination against those who use other, less dominant languages.

In academia, there is something called Standard Written English (SWE). Those who grew up using SWE are at an advantage in academia, because Standard Written English is seen as the only acceptable version of academic English. Generally, SWE is used by white, middle- or upper-class families. People who do not grow up using SWE are generally people of color. Therefore, the rigid rules of academic writing are seen as perpetuating systemic racism. 

How to Cultivate Linguistic Diversity in Your Company

The business benefits of being bilingual have been widely documented. Learning a new language helps develop different parts of your brain, boosting creativity and brain power. Knowing multiple languages is also integral in success in international markets. Studies show that fluency in multiple languages makes you a better manager. Promoting a culture of multilingualism in the workplace starts at the top: leaders can learn a relevant language, hire translators and professional interpreters, and include foreign language in their public appearances.

Encouraging a culture of multilingualism also means respecting employees who speak a different language as their first language. Give them opportunities to share their language with the company. 

Experts say evaluating the company’s culture can shed light on how it may contribute to pressure to code-switch. When companies ask employees to bring their whole selves to work, black employees anticipate discrimination and try to be vigilant against it. This can be counteracted by inclusive behaviors, such as leaders inviting black employees into their networks and actively listening to their input.