Saturday, February 12, 2011

Language Stigmatization and Language Coaching

by Tamara Whitehouse

The concept of Standard English, a limited set of norms within which a speaker is judged to be using ‘proper’ or ‘standard’ English, is often taken for granted. Its existence, however, produces inequalities and hardships for those who do not or cannot speak ‘properly.’  The ‘standard’ forms of English are popularly viewed as being somehow ‘above,’ or ‘better than,’ any non-standard forms, and the perceived lack of an ability to use Standard English can be seen as a “deficit,” or as an “affliction of poor background.” (Silverstein, Monoglot “Standard” in America, 286-295).  It can even become viewed as a “social and business handicap,” (Warriner and Griffith as quoted in Urciuoli, Good English as Symbolic Capital, 120).  Unfortunately, these stigmas can become quite powerful, affecting the way others perceive and treat the speaker.  The ability to “control” one’s language use, or ‘overcome’ one’s original accent in favor of acquiring Standard English, is often “read as a sign of education”- which implies that those who do not use Standard English are not educated, or perhaps aren’t trying hard enough (Urciuoli, 120).

To illustrate the stigmas and reactions that an accent can acquire, one need look no further than a recent article in The Gothamist.  The article discusses various ways the supposed “New York Accent” can be judged, using information from a poll.  Apparently, 51% of adult Americans believe the New York accent “implies that the speaker is rude,” and only 7% believe the accent sounds “nice.”  Furthermore, the article links to another which focuses on a common desire to get rid of a New York accent, quoting one speech therapist who claimed a New York accent makes people “sound ignorant.”  Common sense dictates that the mere presence of a New York accent does not automatically mean a person is rude or ignorant, yet that is a perception that seems to be popular.  The accent is stigmatized as carrying negative characteristics, and these negative characteristics are then mapped onto those who speak with the accent- an illustration of iconicity (Irvine and Gal).

More evidence is seen in this video, where a woman is encouraged by both the cameraman and her friends on-screen to say the word “coffee.”  The way she pronounces the word, as “cawfee,” is the punch line of the video; when she says it, she is teased for her way of pronouncing it by all present.  Though visibly embarrassed, she laughs along.  The video cuts to another woman, who is then instructed to say the word “sausage,” and is found to pronounce it “correctly.”  The video then pans back to the first woman, who is urged to say "sausage."  She is reluctant, presumably because she knows she will be laughed at again, but says it anyway- "sawsage"- to another round of giggles.  At the end of the video, the cameraman looks into the screen and deadpans “sausage,” in a way that suggests he believes his way is not just the right way, but the better way- as though "sawsage" or “cawfee” is inherently inferior.

Many are aware, even subconsciously, of the stigma attached to non-standard accents and ways of speaking and of the benefits of speaking ‘correctly’ (Urciuoli, 126).  As a result, people who speak using non-standard English sometimes go to great lengths to “correct” their speech, a process which can involve speech therapists, coaches, instructional videos and more.  This process, while it can be lengthy, expensive, and frustrating, is deemed worth it because the possibility of permanently removing the stigma attached to speaking ‘incorrectly’ can be an appealing one.   When Standard English is seen as the only correct way of speaking, and is perceived as a marker of education and status, then Standard English can become a commodity; people begin seeing the ability to speak Standard English as a tool of social mobility, as social currency (Silverstein, 298). 

Out of curiosity, I did a simple search on Youtube to find out what accent coaching consists of.  The results were fascinating.  For example, this video by a speech therapist seems reasonable on the surface, but closer inspection reveals many of the problems that have already been described.  She regularly uses statements such as “we Americans” and “American speakers,” under the assumption that “Americans” speak in the specific manner she does- which could imply that any who speak differently are not included in her “we” and are not her “Americans.”  She states that one can “sound American” as though “American” is only one accent and encompasses only one way of speaking.  At one point, she even states that “Americans say…” which immediately begs the question, what Americans?

Each time she describes her accent as the way “Americans” speak, she is (perhaps unconsciously) referring to a relatively small group of people, who do not and cannot represent all Americans and all American accents.  What her words ignore is that Americans can “sound like” many other accents besides the one her advice is based on; Americans can, and do, “sound like” New Yorkers, Bostoners, Southerners, Chicagoans, and uncountable other regions and groupings both named and unnamed.  This unfairly excludes and alienates huge swaths of America, as though they don’t exist.

Her video also conspicuously reinforces the concept of Standard English as a tool for advancement, or a social currency- not only in the video’s very presence on Youtube, but in an image shown during the last few seconds.  The logo for her series includes an image of a pair of hands locked in a handshake, a symbol of cooperation and positive communication, perhaps with a connotation of success or a deal being made.  This visibly echoes the common perception that Standard English can be used to heighten someone’s prospects and position, and is one last way her video stresses the supposed importance of speaking with her version of an American accent.

The unfair stigmatization of non-standard forms in English has a large, detrimental effect on those who speak using those non-standard forms.  These speakers are not only judged for the way they sound, but may in time begin to judge themselves, and go to great lengths to try to change the way they speak, even if the Standard they are trying to emulate is not actually widely-spoken.  Furthermore, those who provide their services in teaching Standard English sometimes perpetuate these modes of stigmatization, which may be beneficial for their continued business success but does nothing to help those who do not speak ‘properly.’ 

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