Opinion: Linguistic Prejudice in the Workplace
Linguistic prejudice is an issue that countless First Nations women, Women of Colour, migrant and refugee women in all walks of life face every day, especially in the workplace. Unfortunately, this is an issue that often goes under the radar all while perpetuating racism, inequality and discrimination.
What is linguistic prejudice?
Linguistic prejudice is when people hold implicit biases about others based on the way they speak. The English language for instance exhibits substantial variation across different countries, communities, generations and ethnic groups. It’s discrimination against those who speak English with a different accent or non-standard grammar.
Linguistic prejudice is deep-rooted in racism and colonisation. In a country like Australia where a significant proportion of the population are migrants and refugees, not all English speakers are treated equally. As such, consciously or unconsciously, most people in Australia strive to “sound as White” as possible in order to be taken seriously, or to be treated with respect.
Forms of linguistic prejudice
Linguistic prejudice can take different forms, from people constantly correcting someone’s pronunciation, to joking about someone’s accent or side-lining a colleague during a team meeting because of their English. They might seem harmless and unintentional to perpetrators but non-native English speakers feel lasting, often demoralising effects throughout their lives, starting in kindergarten through to highschool, in the workplace and throughout their careers, to every other aspect of their lives.
In the context of a workplace, linguistic prejudice could manifest into unconsciously gravitating to colleagues one can more easily banter with (so there’s no need to explain or replace ‘Australianism’). It could also be in bouts of impatience during work conversations, where a perpetrator speaks over or finishes the sentences of non-native English speakers.
On a global scale, non-native speakers of English outnumber native speakers three to one – and according to linguists, there’s no such thing as one form of English being better or more correct than another.
English is constantly evolving due to the diverse ways different nations, groups and communities use it. Yet, instead of embracing this linguistic diversity, society still ranks particular types of English higher than others. For example, people who speak with a British accent are treated with respect because they are thought to be smart and wealthy. It means speakers who differ from what’s considered ‘standard’ can find themselves judged, marginalised and even penalised for the way their English sounds and is spoken.
How to eradicate linguistic discrimination
It needs to be tackled both at a corporate and individual level.
Organisations need to be intentional and strategic about having ongoing conversations about embracing linguistic diversity as a type of diversity, educating staff about how language-related biases affect communications and opportunities and incorporating this into policies.
On an individual level, native English speakers need to be more open about different types of English and avoid making fun of or correcting other people’s accents or pronunciations. They can also create more space for non-native speakers to speak up in meetings by allowing non-native speakers to drive meetings and set the tone.