Linguistic Discrimination: Is there a proper way to speak [insert language]?

I recently read an article from NPR and the comments that followed (Link below). The gist of the article is one of many in recent years as research has started to reveal the growing list of benefits of bilingualism, specifically in older generation. It is all very fascinating and definitely a an advocate for learning more than one language from both a linguistic and medical perspective, but the thing that struct most people in their response was the old argument against learning a second language which was quoted in the article by the researcher’s cousin:

‘You’re not going to learn to speak English properly’.

The initial comments ensued that today’s youth already, to put it bluntly, ignorant and unable to speak English (in this case) properly. This saddens me as a linguist and impending English teacher. One person did speak out to linguistic diversity which restored my faith, but I couldn’t help but wonder: why do we only believe there is only one way to speak a language correctly, and why do people assume this is a sign of cognitive competence?

In many of my courses in university, we talked about humankind’s tendency to categorize those different from us as a way of understanding them, what we call generalizations, but there is a difference when those generalizations are used as a basis with how we interact and treat those people, at this point those generalizations are called stereotypes which leads to discrimination and prejudice. This isn’t a new concept to anyone, but most people aren’t aware of when they do this linguistically. Which is just as wrong. We grow up learning to speak from those around us and with that comes just as much diversity and color as every person. Is it more acceptable to discriminate against someone and make assumptions about their intelligence because we believe we can control how we speak but not control our skin color? I have been told on multiple occasions, “You don’t seem like you’re from the South at all.” I often ask why. “Oh, well… you don’t have an accident or anything.” I always wonder what other messages are hidden in that sentence and why they didn’t just say, “Oh, well…you don’t have a twang nor are you uneducated with the fashion sense of a farmer’s daughter.” This isn’t limited to dialect but also accent. I married a Korean and if you listen to what he says in English, he makes very little mistakes when speaking. My father was also a non-native English speaker (NNES). Aside from the accent, they both speak English perfectly fine. When asked if my husband speaks English well, my mother who was also there said not bad while I said he spoke very well. Did a non-native accent lead to this difference of opinions? Did his accent contribute to a difference interpretation of his competence in a language? I think maybe my awareness of linguistics and language in use/society makes my perspective on it different.
I would go as far as to extend this to youth’s changing of language. It is the nature of language to simplify over time since language changes to adjust the needs of its speakers. With the technology age upon us, teens are often criticized for typn lyk this, but this is no different than how we create new words as we need them and words come in and out of trend or we shorten them. We all have done it, every generation does, and I believe that if there is a lowering of intelligence in today’s use it is because of failures in the schools, in parenting (not entirely parents’ fault as they are forced to work longer outside the home), and in society as a whole. Not bc ppl 2day typ diffrntly.

Another interesting point I found when reading through the comments of the NPR article was people seem to not understand how a foreign language changes your perspective of the world and how we interpret it. But… that’s another blog post all together…

What do you think? Is there only one way to speak a language properly? Does this  serve as any indication of intelligence?

Link to article:


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