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Against “Proper English”: How Dialect Discrimination Threatens Diversity

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Many of the grammar “rules” you were taught in elementary school are probably wrong, either because they are outdated or because they were never meaningfully correct in the first place.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. 

How Dialect Discrimination Threatens Diversity

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. 

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Tonie Leatherberry was at Deloitte for nearly three decades where she was the principal architect of The Board Leadership Forum and the NextGen CEO Academy, each of which has had a meaningful impact, ultimately placing more than 70 Black leaders into executive-level and board roles. As Chair Emeritus of the Executive Leadership Council, she created the Chairman’s Council of Academic Achievement to address achievement gaps for students of color in America’s educational systems, and as President of the Deloitte Foundation, the mission was to drive initiatives to develop future leaders through education. She is a passionate leader who has devoted much of her professional life to creating opportunities for women and people of color. Tonie is Lead director for Direct Digital Holdings, and a Board Director at Zoetis Inc. and American Family Insurance.

Cindie Jamison was elected Chair of the Darden Restaurants Board (NYSE: DRI) in September 2023, having served as a Director since October 2014 as part of a complete Board replacement slate through Starboard Value’s proxy fight. Since 2013, she has also served on the Office Depot Board (NASDAQ: ODP) where she Chairs the Audit Committee and is a member of the Compensation Committee. In May 2015, she joined the Big Lots, Inc (NYSE: BIG) Board, and became Chair in May 2022. In May 2023 Cindie stepped down from the Tractor Supply Company Board (NASDAQ:TSCO), a position she has held since 2002, where she was Chairman of the Board, after serving as Lead Director, and Chair of the Audit, Compensation & Corporate Governance Committees. Cindie joined the Board of Save the Children in February 2024.

David Chun, Founder and CEO, Equilar, Inc., has led Equilar since its inception to become one of the most trusted names in the corporate governance community. David has been recognized as one of the “100 Most Influential Players in Corporate Governance” by the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD), the Disruptor Award by 2020 Women on Boards and Outstanding 50 Asian Americans in Business. David speaks publicly on corporate governance and board diversity matters, including events hosted by The Conference Board, Deloitte, EY, HR Policy Association, KPMG, NACD, NASDAQ, NYSE, The Society for Corporate Governance and Stanford’s Directors’ College. Prior to founding Equilar, David was a Vice President in the Investment Banking Division of Donaldson, Lufkin and Jenrette, a global investment bank that has since merged with Credit Suisse. Before DLJ, David was a management consultant with Bain & Company and also Kenan Systems, a telecom software developer acquired by Lucent Technologies. David serves on the boards of the Commonwealth Club of California, PGA Reach, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF) and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group (SVLG). He is on Nasdaq’s Center for Board Excellence Advisory Board and Catalyst’s Women on Board Advisory Council. David is a member of Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), Past Chair of the SF Bay Chapter, a founding member of the Council of Korean Americans (CKA) and a former board member of the Wharton Center for Entrepreneurship and the Asian Pacific Fund Community Foundation of San Francisco.

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Priscilla Sims Brown serves as President and CEO of Amalgamated Bank, a full-service bank, lender and investment manager with a century-long commitment to advancing positive social change. Amalgamated Financial Corp., the holding company for the Bank, is the first publicly traded (NASDAQ: AMAL) financial institution to be a public benefit corporation. Priscilla guides Amalgamated Bank in championing social responsibility through values-based banking, customer-centric services, and mission focused lending, serving individuals and organizations, including climate groups, foundations, labor unions, advocacy groups, political campaigns, and other socially responsible businesses, who care that their deposits are put to work for good. Priscilla is also dedicated to addressing environmental and social justice issues at Amalgamated Bank. More than 60% of the Bank’s lending and select balance sheet investments are high-impact through affordable housing, nonprofits, and climate solutions. Named one of the Most Powerful Women in Banking in 2023 by American Banker, Priscilla has been featured in The New York Times, TIME Magazine, PBS, and CNBC Changemakers, among others.

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Myra Biblowit is the President Emeritus of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the nation’s highest-rated breast cancer research organization with a mission focused exclusively on funding the world’s most promising research. Myra took the helm as BCRF President in 2001 and, after 22 years, retired in April 2023. During Myra’s tenure, BCRF funding enabled breakthroughs in breast cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment, metastasis, and survivorship. Myra was widely recognized for leading one of the most impactful, financially efficient, and transparent nonprofits in the United States. Prior, Myra was Vice Dean for External Affairs at NYU Medical Center where she headed the Development, Alumni Relations and Public Relations departments. Previously she led the capital campaign as Senior Vice President of the American Museum of Natural History. Earlier, Myra served as Executive Vice President of the Central Park Conservancy. Myra is a member of the Board of Directors of Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, the Housewares Charity Foundation and the Historic House Trust of New York City. She is a member of the New York Women’s Forum, the Yellow for Pink National Council, Extraordinary Women on Boards and serves on the Advisory Board of Project Hope for Ovarian Cancer Research & Education.

Truett Tate is Chairman of a number of Boards, including Reference Point, TLC Lions, Thinkably and the recently retired Chairman of QBE, NA. Truett Tate is also Director of the DEVClever board. Truett has a long and esteemed global executive history including most recently as CEO of ANZ USA, Europe, Japan, Korea and the Middle East. Immediately prior, he was Group Executive (and Board member) at Lloyds Banking Group, responsible for Wholesale & International Banking (Including Global Wealth and International Retail) across the United Kingdom, the Americas and worldwide and prior spending 27 years at Citigroup where he held a variety of senior roles including corporate banking business across each of its regional geographies. Truett’s long board history includes Virgin Group, Ten Group, the BITC, BAB Inc along with many other charitable and academic organizations. A speaker, guest lecturer, philanthropist and professional coach/mentor, Truett has seemingly bottomless energy and passionate interest in a safer, more just, more humane and more sustainable world.

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Janice Reals Ellig

Chief Executive Officer

As the head of the Ellig Group, Janice is dedicated to increasing the placement of women and diverse candidates on corporate boards and in C-suites by 2025. Janice joined the legacy firm in 2000 and became Co-Chief Executive Officer in its transition to Chadick Ellig in 2007; she assumed sole ownership of the company as the Ellig Group in 2017 with a new focus on Reimagining Search. Prior to her career in executive search, Janice spent 20 years in corporate America at Pfizer, Citi and Ambac Financial Group, an IPO from Citibank, where she was responsible for Marketing, Human Resources, and Administration.

Heralded by Bloomberg Businessweek as one of “The World’s Most Influential Headhunters,” Janice is often consulted for her expertise and her commitment to gender parity, inclusion, and diversity. She frequently appears at speaking engagements and as a media guest, and she has penned multiple articles for outlets such as Directors & Boards, Directorship, Corporate Director, The Huffington Post, and Forbes.com. Janice also co-authored two books: Driving The Career Highway and What Every Successful Woman Knows, acknowledged by Bloomberg Businessweek as “the best of its genre.”

A tirelessly active member of the industry and champion of her causes, Janice is Founder of the Women’s Forum of New York’s Corporate Board Initiative and its signature event, Breakfast of Corporate Champions. Since 2011, Janice continues to spearhead this event to honor companies committed to board diversity and to encourage CEOs to sponsor board-ready women for the Women’s Forum database. (LINK: www.womensforumny.org).

Janice is personally committed to several NFP organizations: Board Director of the National YMCA and Past Chair of the YMCA Board of Greater New York; Trustee of the Actors Fund and Committee For Economic Development (CED); Incoming Chair, University of Iowa Foundation; Women’s Forum of New York Past President and Chair of the Corporate Board Initiative; member of the Steering Committee, US 30% Club and The Economic Club of New York.

In recognition for her many philanthropic activities, Janice received the University of Iowa Distinguished Alumni Award in 2011 and the Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC) Eleanor Raynolds Award for Volunteerism in 2008. Named one of the “21 Leaders for the 21st Century” by Women’s eNews, she was also a recipient of the Channel 21 Award In Excellence for her contribution to “Excellence in the Economic Development for Women.”

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– Janice Reals Ellig

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