Noticing languages - noticing linguistic inequality

by Nicola McLelland

I’ve just been called up for Jury Service – my first time – and I’m approaching it with what I’m guessing is the usual mix of curiosity, eagerness to be useful, and nervousness. The last time I set foot in a courtroom was doing work experience as a teenager, shadowing a court interpreter. The defendant who needed the interpreter was convicted of a driving offence. He said he hadn’t understood the rules, but, I discovered, that was no defence, though it might mean a more lenient sentence.

I’m facing my second brush with the legal system just as the University of Nottingham plays host to Prof Doug Kibbee, whom we’ve invited as a Leverhulme Trust visiting professor to help us think more about language, the law, and linguistic inequality (see his 2016 book).

Doug shows how legal recognition (or not) of linguistic diversity creates inequalities and discrimination of the kind more commonly associated with race, gender, disability or class.

It’s a big topic – Australian linguist Ingrid Piller’s book Linguistic Diversity and Social Justice is a compelling read about linguistic injustice in work, education, as well as in law.

Our beliefs about language and languages determine all kinds of decisions we make about what public services we make available to who, and what, exactly, we attend to. Does a speech therapist work with a child on their pronunciation of “th” if their local language variety doesn’t have “th” and uses “f” instead? Maybe not, but what if the child’s parents want them to? Of course it’s not just a British problem, as Paul O’Neill’s project on Linguistic Prejudice in Brazil shows.

It’s not just accent, either. We also make judgements about non-standard word choice and grammar too – see Ruth Kircher’s blog, about Multicultural London English (MLE). MLE is a multi-ethnolect, a language variety that emerges in city areas where there are large immigrant populations. Heike Wiese has been investigating a German equivalent, Kiezdeutsch. How we choose to describe the language, even as linguists, is ideological. Is a Kiezdeutsch structure like ich mach dich Messer (lit. ‘I make you knife’) for ‘I’ll knife you’ an example of impoverishment, or is it linguistic creativity reminiscent of structures in bureaucratic German (along the lines of ‘give you information’ vs ‘inform’)?

A major problem remains plain institutional language blindness. To cite the Twitter hashtag on last week’s International Day of Multilingualism,  #multilingualisnormal, but we don’t always know this, and the methods we use to collect data about languages often don’t help. There’s a campaign to change the UK census question “What is your main language?” to something that is more answerable for multilingual speakers (after all, what if your family has two or more ‘main’ languages? How is “main” defined?). Even Universities, highly international institutions, can be language blind – do we even know which languages our students speak? As Universities work harder for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, we need to make sure that we understand and celebrate our linguistic diversity too.

Even once we have the facts, there is still work to be done to redress inequality. As always, budget is a factor. As Doug Kibbee points out, passive rights (such as the right not to be discriminated against at work as a speaker of language X) are generally cheaper to guarantee than active language rights (the right to access voting papers in my language, for example). So there are tough policy decisions to be made. But we can at least begin by noticing. As I learned in that court case, ignorance is not a defence.

We recently discussed language and language inequality in the real world at our Language Rules conference at the University of Nottingham, April 15-17: in teaching, testing, legislation, and speech therapy, for example. Find out more by following the link.

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