How can linguistic variation help teachers to fight (covert) linguistic prejudice in ELT classes?

Back on ‘BrELT on The Road 2019’ (an amazing event on English Language Teaching that took place in Casa Thomas Jefferson, in Brasília), I had the opportunity to talk to a few teachers about linguistic variation and English classes. Such a topic deals with lots of theory - it is true - and may seem distant from the reality of other issues dealing directly with applied linguistics. Linguistic variation is an important topic on mother tongue teaching and has been thoroughly portrayed by professor Marcos Bagno - among other professionals - in books and papers related to Linguistic Prejudice. However, such a subject is not widely discussed within ELT, even though several linguistic studies aim on describing language use in relation to its social context.

Linguistic prejudice is a form of prejudice in which one may hold implicit biases based on the way somebody speaks – this being used to draw conclusions on a speaker’s gender, profession, educational level, social class and other personal characteristics. Such an evaluation on what is linguistically produced may be related to a speaker’s choice of words (“pop” vs “soft drink”), pronunciation (“where are my car keys?” vs “where are my kakis?”), syntactic structures (“I didn’t see anybody here” vs “I didn’t see nobody there”) or even pragmatics (“hey, guys” vs “hey, everybody”). As language is made out of several layers of history, those judgements evoke sociohistorical conceptions that lead to comments such as “people who didn’t finish school speak like that” or “that is not American/British English”. In big Brazilian cities, for instance, the blend of people from different regions of our country leads to accent comparisons and to discussions on the so-called “right/proper” language use (can anybody in Brazil tell if the right translation for ‘cookie’ is “biscoito” or “bolacha”? Just kidding.).

As we know, there is no right or wrong when it comes to language spoken by native speakers; after all, is it possible for a person to be born and raised in a country and not to speak its tongue? And this has led me to another question lately: is any of this considered whenever a second language is being taught? For the sake of time (and the length of this article) I will make a simple proposal: open a new tab on your browser and type “how to pronounce th in English” (if you can do it in Portuguese, it will be even better). Your Google page is most likely going to display three videos as suggestions for this short and fast research – shown right before a long list of links - and I am going to play the fortune teller here and say that all the teachers on these videos’ thumbnails are pointing at their tongues as they are between their teeth. Such a gesture makes sense, I mean, if you go to ‘Dictionary.com’ - or any other online dictionary - the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) symbols for this sound shall be [θ, ð] – also known as the interdental fricatives.

But what if we consider linguistic variation on this sound production? This was studied by William Labov, a sociolinguist, in New York (in a book entitled “Sociolinguistic Patterns”, first published in 1972). Labov registered native speakers pronouncing different linguistic variants (different possibilities of pronunciation for the very same sound) as their socioeconomical status changed: those who belonged to higher social classes would pronounce ‘th’ as the standard [θ, ð], whereas working class and low class speakers would pronounce it as [t, d] (in the same way as words like “tank” and “dart”) or even as [tʃ, dʒ] (similar to the first sound on “cheese” and “John”). In other words, native speakers have different sounds to pronounce ‘th’, but whenever we check a video on ‘how to pronounce the ‘th’ sound’ only one is considered “correct” – and it may look like a coincidence, but the chosen pronunciation in these videos is the one seen in high class speakers in linguistic studies (funny, huh?).

Any time teachers or students point that the only correct form of pronouncing the ‘th’ sound is when you put your tongue between your teeth (are you all with that previous research on Google open yet?), are they saying that a certain percentage of the population of the United States (or at least part of New York’s population, according to Labov’s study) do not speak proper English? Are they saying that they are native speakers, born and raised in an English speaking country, but yet they are speaking “wrong English”? These assumptions carry in themselves the bias of “the correct language” or “the language of the educated”: they carry Linguistic Prejudice.

This is just a short example on one sound out of many others. Whenever this type of preaching is used in the classroom, a covert linguicism is being reproduced. When linguistic variation is denied, social diversity is erased. This vanishing is already happening every day in non-linguistic ways, whether congress votes a bill to build a wall separating peoples or the police arrest people because of the place their ancestors came from. Linguistic prejudice is an unconscious and covert way of strengthening these practices and, no matter how small the flap of the tongue on a “thank you, brother” may seem, there is a lot of history there that does not deserve to be wiped out.

Out of 40 talks on ‘BrELT on the Road 2019’ – most of them focused on Applied Linguistics -, only four addressed issues related to inclusion and native-speakerism. Theoretical Linguistics is a strong weapon in order to fight the myths that surround language – and in this short article, Sociolinguistics helped us showing this. We are living through dark times. Times in which research and education are seen as a cost and not as an investment; times in which minorities are suffocated; times in which not following a (fabricated) standard means to be banned. If we can fight the small prejudiced ‘flap of tongues’ in our classes, maybe something bigger will be easier to be fought next.

Biodata:

Victor has worked in ELT since 2007, teaching in varied educational contexts. He is a Phd candidate in Linguistics and has a Master’s in this field, as well as a PG in Teaching Methodologies, and degrees in English/Portuguese and Management. He is also a speaking examiner for international exams and holds the CPE, CAE and TKT Modules 1, 2 and 3.

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