Recently, UC Berkeley student Khairuldeen Makhzoomi was removed from his flight. The reason: he was speaking Arabic. And this isn’t the first time this has happened. Nor the second. These are all, in addition to being deeply disturbing and illegal, examples of linguistic discrimination.
What is linguistic discrimination?
Linguistic discrimination is discrimination based on someone’s language use. And it’s not restricted to the instances I discussed above:
- African American English is often discriminated against. For example, Rachel Jeantel’s testimony in the Trayvon Martin case was largely dismissed by the white jury–not because of the content of the testimony, but because of her use of African American English, and there is a long history of landlords linguistically profiling and discriminating against African American and Latina/o prospective tenants.
- Sometimes it’s the language itself under attack, as in this letter about American Sign Language, claiming that it’s unnecessary for deaf children to learn to sign. (Here’s a rebuttal from the Gallaudet Linguistics department, which is a major center of sign language research at the world’s only university “devoted to deaf and hard of hearing students.”)
- In multilingual countries, it’s unfortunately common for speakers of marginalized language to find themselves denied services in their language.
As I’ve talked about before, linguistic discrimination can be a way to discriminate against a specific group of people without saying so in so many words. Linguistic discrimination, in addition to being morally repugnant,is illegal in the U.S. under Titles VI and VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
These are important legal protections and the number of people affected by them is huge: There are over 350 different languages spoken in the United States. In Seattle, where I live, over a fifth of people over age five speak a language other than English at home. That’s a lot of people! Further, most of these individuals are bilingual or multilingual; 90% of second-generation immigrants speak English. And since multilingualism has both neurological benefits for individuals and larger positive impacts on society, I see this as no bad thing. And I’m hardly the only one: how many people that you know are learning or want to learn another language?
Unfortunately, linguistic discrimination threatens this rich diversity, and every person who speaks anything other than the standardized variety of the dominant language.
What can you do?
- Don’t participate in linguistic discrimination. It can be hard to retrain yourself to reduce the impact of negative stereotypes but, especially if you’re in a position of privilege (as I am), it’s literally the least you can do. Don’t make assumptions about people based on their language use.
- Stand up for people who may be facing linguistic discrimination. If you see someone being discriminated in in the workplace (like being given lower performance evaluations for having a non-native accent) point out that this is illegal, and back up people who are being discriminated against.
- Be patient with non-native speakers. Appreciate that they’ve gone through a lot of effort to learn your language. If possible, try and arrange for an interpreter (for face-to-face communication) or translator (for written communications). Sometimes non-native speakers are more comfortable with reading and writing than speaking; offer to communicate through e-mails or other written correspondence.