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Language and Disadvantage (Dr. Dimitris Thanasoulas, Linguist, Author, Translator, Lexicographer)

Δημοσιεύτηκε: 6:00 μμ Νοέμβριος 3rd, 2013  


Language and Disadvantage


1. Introduction

There is no denying that the term disadvantage evokes images of poverty, disability, and lack of potential; to be at a disadvantage means to be discriminated against and looked down on. In short, it suggests that a specific social group differs from society at large because it evinces characteristics that deviate from the norm. For example, as Passow (1970: 16, cited in Edwards, 1989:1) notes, a disadvantaged child is one who

because of social or cultural characteristics (e.g. social class, race, ethnic origin, poverty, sex, geographical location etc.)…comes into the school system with knowledge, skills and attitudes which impede learning.

Given this definition, we can say that the notion «disadvantage» is to be seen as sociocultural in nature, inasmuch as what counts as disadvantage is a product of, and emanates from, society’s value-laden attitudes towards social groups, rather than the latter’s intrinsic qualities. Nevertheless, Passow’s definition does not rule out the possibility of biological deficits arising from the environment in which certain «disadvantaged» individuals live. In this light, disadvantage should be construed as being the result of the interplay of class, genetic deficiencies and / or cultural environment. Bearing all this in mind, in the present study we will be concerned with the role of language in ascribing unfavourable attributes to students that do not conform to the «standard» world-view, as this is sanctioned and promoted by the socially potent. More specifically, we will look into the difficulties that speakers of vernacular dialects run into within the context of the English educational system, refraining from dwelling upon those faced by immigrants, precisely because the problems they encounter are comparable to those of native speakers of non-standard English. Moreover, it will be shown that British schools, concerned as they are with teaching and preserving Standard English, end up being ‘monocultural’ in an indisputably polycultural society, which constitutes ‘the first and most damaging inequity foisted upon the poverty child’ (Williams, 1971a: 5, cited in Edwards, 1976: 124). Rather than widening the Standard English debate, we maintain that it is inconceivable to regard languages as either good or bad because languages are not ‘moral objects’ (T. Bex & R. J. Watts, 1999: 16). Rather, ‘[i]t is the speakers of languages, and not the languages themselves, who live in a moral universe’ (ibid.: 16).

2. Language and Disadvantage

As was mentioned above, disadvantage relates to all sorts of differences and shortcomings exhibited by certain individuals and groups, as the latter are unfavourably compared to mainstream norms and ideologies. It goes without saying that it is by dint of comparing people to certain others, rather than evaluating them on their own merits, that disadvantage arises. In view of this,

[i]f there were no contact between certain social groups and the surrounding society, disadvantage, as viewed here, would not exist. It is precisely because groups can differ from one another and yet still share many features in common that disadvantage, a relative term, can be reasonably applied…Disadvantage always involves a comparison, most often from a particular value position. Thus…many of the things considered disadvantageous are only so when judged against a middle-class standard (Edwards, 1989: 2).

It is blatantly obvious that this comparison, sweeping though it may be, often involves, and is inextricably related to, an evaluation of people’s status, class, and education. Historically, ever since the fifteenth century, the British have been obsessed with class and the need to signal this by means of grammar, vocabulary, and accent, thus associating language with the social and cultural status of its speakers. Thus, language gradually became a social marker and certain standards of correctness and appropriateness were established, to the detriment of those in the lower ranks, who had not mastered the rules. As T. Bex & R. J. Watts (1999: 13) insightfully remark,


…the stigma attached to using incorrect forms results in discrimination, and it is this interrelationship between linguistic form and social discrimination that enables us to refer to the conceptualisation of ‘Standard English’ as ideological in its nature.


The stigma that Bex & Watts allude to is what Grillo (1989: 173) has dubbed as ‘ideological motif’, whereby there are some deeply ingrained beliefs that there are inferior languages and language varieties and their speakers evince a «deficit» that has to be remedied and compensated for.

In order to understand the relationship between language and disadvantage, we should first gain an insight into disadvantage itself by considering the approaches that have attempted to explain it and, specifically, to account for the difficulties that working-class students have in school.



2.1. Genetic deficit

In his attempt to account for the poor performance of some children (especially black) as well as for the failure of compensatory education, Arthur Jensen, in a seminal, albeit controversial, article in the Harvard Educational Review (1969a), argued that the causes of disadvantage are genetic in nature. In other words, some children lag behind at school because of certain cognitive or other deficits. In order to prove his contention, he investigated the genetic differences supposedly obtaining between social class and racial groups by means of intelligence tests. On all tests, whether they were culture-biased or culture-specific, blacks scored lower than whites, which, according to him, runs counter to the environmentalist assumption that poor performance is attributable to environmental deficits. One of the arguments that Jensen used to support the utility of these tests is that there are some groups that are more disadvantaged than blacks in terms of material goods, and yet perform better than the latter. Nevertheless, things are not as straightforward as he initially thought (of course, he has reconsidered many of his views, ranging from an environmental position to one of uncertainty, and then to one of genetic determinism—which attests to the fact that his theory is under constant change and should not be dismissed as racist). It remains a moot point whether one can grasp all the complexities of environmental difference that can be said to allow some people to do better on IQ tests and cause others to perform poorly.


2.2. Environmental deficit

Within the context of environmentalist theory, the disadvantaged child is unable to cope with school life and the challenge it presents by virtue of deficiencies in his physical, social and psychological background. Even though there is a general tendency for environmentalists to reject the importance of genetic factors, some of them concede that the interaction between genetic factors and environment makes an important contribution. The two major positions of this theory are sensory deprivation and social / cultural deprivation.

In accordance with sensory deprivation position, animals reared in isolation, and often in darkness, develop abnormally. Such deprivation may severely affect the development of learning and sexual behaviour, and lead to neural disorders or degeneration. Similarly, among human beings, the effects of sensory deprivation may prove pernicious, as was demonstrated in various experiments during the 1950s. Several subjects were asked to lie on a bed with no auditory, visual or somaesthetic stimulation. Those who endured this monotony complained of being unable to think in a coherent way, had hallucinations and their very identity began to disintegrate (Hebb, 1968, cited in Edwards, 1989). The implications of sensory deprivation for isolated and institutionalised children are that they often exhibit apathy and, in the long run, developmental retardation.

From the point of view of social / cultural deprivation theory, it has been put forward that lower class and minority children are deficient compared to those of the middle-class. As Edwards (1989: 17-18) says,

[i]t is, in fact, from this viewpoint that the deficit stance on disadvantage most often arises. That is, most who feel that the problems of disadvantaged children are actual deficiencies do not emphasize either genetic factors or sensory deprivation in their explanations. Rather, they stress the inadequate aspects of early socialization practices which lead to cognitive and emotional defects in children—defects which show up most clearly in the early school years.

In keeping with Edwards’ keen observation, the Plowden Report stressed the importance of a wide range of factors resultant in disadvantage, such as large family size, overcrowded living conditions, socio-economic status, incomplete families, low value placed on education, and so on.


The home environment, in short, is viewed as one of noise, crowding and physical discomfort, in which children have little opportunity to learn and develop, and in which the usual (i.e. middle-class) parental role of tutor and guide is largely lacking. Such factors are seen to lead to deficits in the child’s perceptual and conceptual abilities and…in his verbal development (ibid.: 19).


It is true that most of the times, the interaction between mother and child is lacking ‘in encouragement to use language to enquire, discover and reason’ (Edwards, 1976: 127), and thus denies the kid the opportunity to ‘expand his emotional [and cognitive] space’, to quote Greenspan (1997).

Consequently, the disadvantaged child is considered to be concerned with the here-and-now and the satisfaction of her ‘concrete needs’ (ibid.). For her, activities requiring thought and the school’s concern with knowledge as a terminus ad quem are immaterial, if not downright hostile.

However, much as the deficit literature has afforded very useful insights into the causes of disadvantage, it has come under strong attack, being dismissed as a myth ‘created and sustained by the authority of a social science which transforms differences into deficits, and then justifies remedies for weaknesses that are not really there’ (Edwards, 1976: 125) (my emphasis). Moreover, Gordon (1968) believes that what is considered a «deficit» might well be seen as a strength, if the context of the disadvantaged child were taken into account. Similarly, Gordon (1965) notes that what is considered a deficit is merely a deviation from middle-class norms.


2.3. Difference, not deficiency

To subscribe to the difference view of disadvantage does not mean to deny that children from the lower classes do perform poorly or evince characteristics that as often as not lead to seemingly insurmountable difficulties in school. Yet, its proponents do not take «difference» to mean «deficit.» Since it is taken for granted that there are no important inter-group differences in terms of cognitive ability, any differences that may arise simply reflect varying adaptations to the environment. Even Bernstein, whose theory of ‘formal’ (‘elaborated’) and ‘public’ (‘restricted’) codes contributed to the «deficit» literature, later reconsidered many of his views, noting that the term ‘compensatory education’ is infelicitous, insofar as it gives undue weight to the child’s deficiencies rather than the school’s shortcomings which have to be attended to.

Inherent in the difference view is a respect for social and cultural differences; a child coming from a working-class background should be encouraged to learn new things rather than to replace what he, consciously or subconsciously, brings to school. For this to happen, it is necessary that society be changed because linguistic intolerance—looming large in school—is embedded within the wider matrix of society, where difference is afforded social significance, or rather insignificance, and is denigrated as inferior or savage.



3. Bernstein’s ‘elaborated’ and ‘restricted’ codes

Since Bernstein’s work is controversial, either through his own ambiguity or through misinterpretation of its basic premises, it is not entirely correct to subsume his views under the rubric «language deficit.» Nevertheless, like Jensen, Bernstein appears to have oscillated between the environmentalist-deficit view of lower-class speech to one of denying that this has ever been the import of his work. At any rate, he has been associated with the deficit hypothesis, and it is in this light that we will discuss some of its main tenets.

In 1958 and 1959 Bernstein introduced the terms ‘public’ and ‘formal’ language (later to become known as ‘restricted’ and ‘elaborated’ codes, respectively). According to him, ‘restricted’ code is characterised by ‘the emotive rather than the logical implications’ (Bernstein, 1958: 164, cited in Edwards, 1989: 34) and seems to be employed by working-class speakers, whereas ‘elaborated’ code is grammatically and syntactically accurate and is used mainly by members of the middle class. In view of this, working-class children were, at that time, described by him as less sensitive to words as vehicles for feelings and ideas, and less curious about their environment. What is particularly depressing in Bernstein’s early theory is his contention that the disadvantaged child not only lacks critical skills but also has ‘learned a self-perpetuating code that effectively bars him from acquiring them’ (Bareiter and Engelmann, 1966: 32, cited in Edwards, 1976: 143).

Yet, the dividing line between elaborated and restricted code is blurred in everyday speech. Let us adduce the following examples found in Fasold (1990: 271):


The blokes what was crossing the road got knocked down by a car.

The gentlemen were crossing the road and a car knocked them down.

Apparently, the first sentence is non-standard yet it is an example of the elaborated code, as it contains a relative and a passive clause. On the contrary, the second sentence is couched in ‘standard’ forms but is more like what one finds in restricted code, with the use of active voice and conjoining of clauses rather than subordination.

But even if we acknowledge (and we do) that lower working-class pupils use the restricted code more often than middle-class students, Bernstein’s assumption that the former are deficient and even impotent to learn Standard English or develop conceptually is certainly unacceptable. By denying disadvantaged children the ability or potential to change, he helps widen the gap between the classes. Later on, however, he attributed the linguistic differences between the working- and middle class to cultural or sociolinguistic factors—a view that echoes the difference theorists. According to this view, the working-class child faces problems in school because he has never questioned, or looked for, the reasons for adults’ orders, and is not used to assuming responsibility for his actions. He feels ill at ease with the abstract learning emphasised in schools because he has had less experience of being presented with problems to solve and alternatives to explore. After all, other things being equal (which is hardly the case under society’s pressure), the working-class child sees no point in using the elaborated code, as he can communicate effectively in his «home» language.

Now that we have begun to understand what disadvantage is and what it has come to be associated with, we should embark upon the ‘Standard English’ debate, with a view to examining the role of language in maintaining disadvantage in school. More specifically, an attempt will be made to show that what has been glossed as ‘Standard English’ is but a language variety which, at a certain point in history, happened to be exalted to the status it now enjoys. Consequently, any value judgements as to the status of non-standard or vernacular dialects are flagrantly biased in favour of social groups that are endowed with power and prestige. Against this background of prejudice, we will trace some of the problems that working-class students are confronted with in school, while asserting that ‘[the classroom] has been a total inhibitor of the natural voice’ (Creber, 1972: 111, cited in Edwards, 1976: 149).


4. The emergence of a ‘standard’

In the past three centuries or so, linguists have interested themselves in the study of languages considered to exist in ‘standard’ forms. Such languages as Latin, Ancient Greek and Sanskrit, and subsequently English, French, Spanish, Italian and others, have been admired, even extolled, for their putative elegance and sophistication. Yet, under the veneer of expressiveness and refinement, many of these languages have been established, or rather foisted upon millions of people, ‘by fire and sword’ (T. Bex & R. J. Watts, 1999: 16). Thus, along with social status and material wealth, language was thought to serve as yet another instrument of power. Pertaining to English, it seems that there have always been some «language guardians» who have seen it as their goal to defend a glorious heritage by systematically purging their language of any supposedly insidious contamination. For them, language was and still is the property of the elite whose members are entitled to make pronouncements on what is appropriate language behaviour. John Honey has definitely aligned himself with this ideology, in holding that


[w]hat the English language needs is a form of authority that can easily be appealed to for guidance as to the uses which are acceptable compared with those which are not—an authority based not on an individual’s irrational likes and dislikes but on the genuine consensus of educated opinion (Honey, 1997: 163).


What is more, these guardians of language seem to advocate the institution of classroom drills as a useful and reasonable means of eradicating such ‘errors’ as I seen him and They was rather than as ‘[a] time-wasting absurdity’ (T. Bex & R. J. Watts, 1999: 21).

Going back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, we come up against a discourse community comprising «well-intentioned» linguists and educators who assisted in establishing Standard English as the ‘legitimate language’, to use Bourdieu’s term. Within a prescriptive context, they tried to inculcate an officially sanctioned linguistic code as well as the forms of discourse typical of this social institution. However, most of their works, mainly grammars of English, are, with hindsight, marred and vitiated by a number of shortcomings. In brief, their penchant for frequent comparisons with Latin and the tendency to present the structures of English to native speakers as if they were learning a foreign language attest to their desire to disseminate the kind of language that maintained the values underpinning its use, i.e., social stratification and disadvantage. Greenwood, studying language from a prescriptive point of view, grapples with the notion ‘grammar’ by equating it with art, as the subheading to a chapter of his book illustrates: ‘Grammar is the Art of Speaking rightly’. At the end of each chapter, he provides a set of questions and answers as a way of testing what the students have learnt:

Q. What is Art?

A. Art is a Method or Way of doing any thing well. Therefore the Word

rightly might have been omitted in the Definition of Grammar; for no one

would suppose that Art is doing any thing ill (quoted in T. Bex & R. J.

Watts, 1999: 46).


Since it is not within the purview of the present paper to engage in a de profundis study of the works of these educators and their basic premises, we will not dwell on this issue. It should only be mentioned that language can be thought of as being socially constructed, associated as it is with perfection, excellence, prestige, and so forth. Moreover, the social values forged and reproduced through the education system are firmly entrenched in the minds of many linguists and laymen, which has far-reaching implications for students coming from poor socio-economic backgrounds and speaking vernacular dialects. It is to these implications that we now turn.


4.1. The language of the classroom

There is no denying that the school exerts a tremendous influence on a child’s personality—and there are several reasons for that. First, the school is a child’s first «break» from the security (whatever this might mean) of the home; second, it is a point of contact between Standard English and Non Standard English Speakers—a fact that certainly poses either positive challenges or formidable difficulties to the young child; and third, it is called on to educate the still pliable child at an impressionable and critical age (see Edwards, 1989: 99). Given all this, it is no wonder that the school often becomes a nightmare for some children. Disadvantaged children, in particular, find themselves in an even worse condition, since they experience a discontinuity between home and school, which precludes them from the school’s social and academic life. Entering a world of experience in which abilities, knowledge and the very language acquired at home are usually deemed irrelevant and thus excluded, the child goes through a harrowing identity crisis, for


[w]hat the teacher regards as cognitively indispensable is still experienced by the pupil as a form of social control, emphasizing his dependence on the teacher’s definition of what is acceptable. It is part of the larger process by which the ‘worlds’ of home and school are separated (Edwards, 1976: 155).


This separation between home and school is engendered mainly by the language employed by teachers and expected to be produced by students (what is called ‘classroom register’), and the range of styles appropriate for the description and negotiation of the subjects taught (what we call ‘subject registers’). These registers, though couched in equally formal language, are different in nature, in that the former involves a social change on the part of the students, as they interact with, and defer to, the teacher, while the latter require a cognitive change in the learners, as they are called on to understand and adopt the terminology and the specific labels in areas such as chemistry and statistics. Of course, the difficulties arising from this distinction between registers are actually there and need to be attended to by all students, yet they are more tenacious and impervious to change when it comes to «disadvantaged» children.





4.1.1. Subject registers

‘A large amount of hydrogen is made to combine with nitrogen to make ammonia’ (found in Edwards, 1976: 151).

The sentence above is a typical example of the register used in chemistry, whereby the use of passive voice and vocabulary seldom encountered outside the domain of an academic discipline contribute to what has been called the ‘frozen’ style of academic writing—one of its main underlying premises being the emotional dissociation from the object of study, which strikes disadvantaged children as unnecessary. Thousands of examples similar to the one above could be adduced; the fact remains that educational achievement is tantamount to adoption and acquisition of the subtle nuances of abstract linguistic and non-linguistic meaning with which subject registers are endowed. Interestingly, if language can be thought to serve two main functions—that of communicating factual information (the ‘linguistic intellectual’ function) and that of signalling and maintaining group identity and solidarity (the ‘linguistic conventional’ function), then it is clearly the case that school favours and rewards the former.


Conventional language [‘linguistic conventional’] has a sociocultural, ‘performative’, function, possibly that of signalling a boundary between disciplines, or, more generally, between educated and non-educated persons. It connotes group identity…An intellectual-conceptual [‘linguistic intellectual’], ‘propositional’ function, on the other hand, may reside in the precise, rigorous, vocabulary of substance and processes in, say, chemistry. Such language…is denotative (Grillo, 1989: 206).


Nevertheless, acknowledging that there is such a distinction between ‘linguistic intellectual’ and ‘linguistic conventional’ functions still begs a number of questions: How are students supposed to learn to use all the different types of subject register? By imitation, or by grappling with subject-specific activities in which the meaning of the linguistic form is illustrated within the context of its function? How, and to what extent, does the teacher play the role of mediator between the «lay» language of his students and the register that he wishes them to attain? Finally, would it be unfair to argue that, by dint of the language she uses, the teacher is implying, «This is the reality which is called geometry, and this is how we talk about it. For the next fifty minutes all other realities are irrelevant, so you are supposed to subscribe to the only reality offered.» There are no straightforward answers to these questions; a reasonable response could be to the effect that the use of Standard English, cloaked in a wide assortment of subject registers, once again widens the gap between middle class children—who have had potentially more experience in problem-solving skills, as well as in choosing from a wide range of linguistic and non-linguistic behaviours the one that is appropriate for a specific purpose—and working-class children, whose background is lacking in important intellectual or cognitive stimuli.


4.1.2. Classroom register

As has been hinted at above, classroom register ‘involves linguistic constraints which are social rather than intrinsic to the material being learned’ (Edwards, 1976: 155). Thus, its chief function is to maintain social distance between teacher and students, reminding the latter of their dependence on the authority of the former to make pronouncements on what is correct, incorrect, or downright prosaic. Furthermore, classroom register is an essential vehicle for the dissemination of the mainstream culture, and it does not take much perspicacity to realise that it is this kind of register, rather than subject-specific language, that accentuates social disadvantage in school. It could be said that the transmission of culture is inextricably related to ‘the distance between the linguistic and cultural competence implicitly demanded by the schools, and the competence inculcated by the home’ (Bourdieu, 1973: 73, cited in Edwards, 1976: 155).

Within the context of an institution that has always associated Standard English with intelligence, confidence, status, and prestige, the use of non-standard language is extirpated from its milieu, on the grounds that it is not capable of imparting specific, nuanced meanings of any academic merit. Besides, according to teachers, who are actually the preservers of mainstream culture and ideology, ‘[i]t is not enough to communicate, it is also necessary to communicate properly’ (Edwards, 1989: 100), adjusting one’s linguistic behaviour to the context of situation, i.e., knowing, among other things, the etiquette of speech. Clearly related to ‘etiquette’ is the demarcation of roles, which should impose constraints on what is said, by whom and how. In this light, the pupils must be able to assign a second, deeper meaning to fairly neutral or even ambiguous linguistic cues—a task that the «disadvantaged» child is bound to find unprepossessing to cope with. For instance, the students are supposed to be able to construe the following sentences as ‘imperative’ in function: «Would you please close your books now?» or «Someone is talking.» In other words, they ‘must subordinate their behaviour to the role-relationship’ (Edwards, 1976: 163).

Another skill that the pupil needs to master is that of categorising and correctly answering various types of questions. Barnes (1975b, cited in Edwards, 1976: 171) identifies three broad categories:

  • Factual (or ‘what’) questions—naming (“What is this called?”) or informative (“What happened when we added the acid to the zinc?”)
  • ‘Open’ questions not calling for reasoning—factual (“Tell me something about Magellan”) or observational (“What do you notice in this picture?”)
  • Reasoning (‘how’, ‘why’) questions.

Given that ‘the type of question asked also has far-reaching communicative consequences, as well as…cognitive implications’ (Edwards, 1976: 171), it is no wonder that some children lacking the necessary cognitive skills to tackle such distinctions will be assigned the label «disadvantaged children» and suffer the consequences that this entails.


4.1.3. Lectal Bias and Standard English

So far, it has become clear that the cards are stacked against «disadvantaged» children—not only because of any putative shortcomings that their home lives may exhibit, but also mainly on the grounds of the very language they speak. To a greater or lesser degree, this social bias that plagues school life becomes what is referred to as lectal bias—reified by various ‘screening tests’, such as normal language development and achievement tests, which purport to test students’ knowledge of standard English (see Fasold, 1990: 286). On the face of it, the rationale underlying these tests is unexceptionable. There are several sets of test items administered to a sample of the population at schools; then, these items become ‘normed’ in that the developers of the tests decide whether the scores obtained ‘approximate the range and distribution of the scores that the whole population would get if it were possible to give it to everyone’ (ibid.: 286). Later, individual scores are compared to the «large-scale» scores and inferences are made about a particular student’s language development.

But what happens when a child speaking a vernacular dialect with grammatical and syntactic rules different from Standard English is called on to do these tests? Let us adduce the following examples (found in Fasold, 1990: 286-287):

  • Beth {come, came} home and cried.
  • Can you {went, go} out now?
  • When {can, may} I come again?

These sentences were provided in the ‘Language Use’ section of the California Achievement Test and students were required to choose one of the words in the brackets. It is patently obvious that a child speaking Standard English and coming from a background where the use of ‘correct’ grammar and distinguishing among various ways of making requests have been encouraged and rewarded will take the test in her stride. Conversely, a student with a ‘non-standard’ background will have difficulty conforming to the model of ‘normal’ or ‘correct’ English. In cognisance of the fact that in his vernacular dialect there is no distinction between present and past forms of verbs, it is reasonable to anticipate such ‘errors’ as «Beth come home and cried.» In this light, the second sentence will cause no difficulties. As for the third one, chances are that he will choose the form that he seldom encounters, i.e., ‘may’.

These types of tests, along with the present education systems in Britain and the USA, leave much to be desired as they have overlooked a wide range of parameters in their evaluations of what is correct and incorrect in language use. Is it reasonable to assert that the so-called «disadvantaged» child fails such tests because he does not understand them? Can one say that the child using ‘come’ instead of ‘came’ suffers from a cognitive deficit that precludes him from conceptualising the world in terms of such features as past, present, or future?

The answer is no. The poor child suffers from a social deficit present, not in himself, but in those around him. As Edwards (1989: 100) observes,


[p]erhaps the first thing of importance is the realization that teachers, like all other members of society, hold perceptions concerning different language varieties. They are not immune from the attributions of prestige (or the lack of it) made of certain language variants.


The end-result is, among other things, ‘linguistic insecurity’ (Trudgill, 1975, cited in Grillo, 1989: 199) on the child’s part. «Whatever I say is wrong,» the child thinks, «so I’d better say nothing.»

It goes without saying that there would be no «disadvantaged» children—at least of the kind we have considered here—if teachers and society at large disabused themselves of biased notions as to correct and appropriate language or behaviour. After all,


Standard English is a dialect…It is a sub-variety of English…selected…as the variety to become the standard variety precisely because it was the variety associated with the social group with the highest degree of power, wealth, and prestige (T. Bex & R. J. Watts, 1999: 123, 124).


Perhaps, a good way to combat social disadvantage in school is to take steps to ensure that teachers have a firm grounding in psychology and pedagogy, so that their expectations of certain groups of students will be flexible and amenable to change, if need be.


If we can somehow influence teachers before they begin their formal careers, perhaps we can bring about greater changes than will be possible once they are set into the system. And, in an area so plagued with set ways of thinking, and firm expectations, perhaps the most important factor to be stressed in teacher training is flexibility of outlook (Edwards, 1989: 123-124).


Besides, the ‘sociolinguistic barriers’ (Stubbs, 1983: 21, cited in Grillo, 1989: 200) that school erects should be removed creating an atmosphere where the ‘potential clash between schools and minority social groups’ (Fasold, 1990: 294) will be minimised. Two ways of achieving this have been proposed (see T. Bex & R. J. Watts, 1999). The first is to allow minority groups to receive education in their vernacular dialects; the second is to teach these groups in their own dialect during the first years at school, gradually adding Standard English into their repertoire. It seems then that bilingual or rather bi-dialectal education is a promising solution to social prejudice.


5. Conclusion

Disadvantage is often associated with language and the tendency to deviate from standard linguistic norms. Thus, social groups speaking non-standard varieties are lumped together under this term, even if they do not exhibit any inherent deficits, whatsoever. As a matter of fact, they are socially handicapped, as it is their social background, rather than their cognitive abilities, that is unfavourably judged. This handicap is accentuated in school, where all cultural and linguistic differences are jettisoned in favour of norms emphasising ‘standard’ or ‘correct’ English and mainstream ideology. What we could glean from this discussion is that school has contrived to ‘mute’ all those minority groups whose language and values are at odds with ‘standard’ culture. Nevertheless, this ignominious condition could change if the education system accepted differences without passing judgement on them. As Greenspan (1997: 230) puts it, ‘[a]n educational system that serves the needs of our society is compelled to recognize children’s developmental levels, deal with individual differences, and foster dynamic affective interactions’.



·      Bex, T. & Watts, R. J. 1999. Standard English: The widening

Debate. London: Routledge.

·      Edwards, A. D. 1976. Language in culture and class. London:


·      Edwards, J. R. 1989. Language and Disadvantage. 2nd edn.

London: Cole and Whurr Ltd.

·      Fasold, R. W. 1990. The Sociolinguistics of language. Oxford:


·      Greenspan, S. I. 1997. The Growth of the Mind and the Endangered

Origins of Intelligence. Massachusetts: Perseus Books.

·      Grillo, R. 1990. Dominant Languages. Cambridge: University


·      Honey, J. 1997. Language is power: the story of standard English

and its enemies. London: Faber.





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Dr. Dimitris Thanasoulas,

Linguist, Author, Translator, Lexicographer






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