Let's Talk Education: Language Discrimination in Schools


Today, standard English remains a political proof of power and using cultural vernacular can be dangerous, even fatal. In American schools, the power over language held by teachers and administrators can be seen in the pervasive issue of racial prejudice in schools. Simultaneously, the vernacular has been perceived as sloppy and lazy since it differs from the traditional grammar structures of standard English. Its marked difference has created a negative stereotype in schools, where traditional English users believe that the vernacular fosters incorrect grammar and ignorance.  Schools mirror society where non-standard vernacular is posited as improper. Due to their desire to fit in with their peers in the classroom, children from different cultural backgrounds who carry over the use of their home language into the classroom often learn how to change their behavior and words, but forcing the students to use a language they reject as contradictory to their racial identity can increase the resentment they have towards the education system and, most importantly, towards themselves when they conform to their educators’ requirements. The pride these students have in their ‘realness’ is necessary to preserve a healthy self-concept since it constitutes a part of their identity. In the resulting events, students either try to adopt the conventional standards of the classrooms or resist the majority culture, both of which cause the student to feel alienated.

Specifically, teachers associate loudness, back talk, and slang with cultural vernacular, leading to it being seen as disrespectful in the classroom. Teachers take offense at how some students hold happy conversations that can be heard clearly in the next room. However, loud voices in conversation is prevalent in many cultures at home, in conversations with families, and at worship. While some may say students ought to learn to reject those practices, the need to speak up to be heard is culturally ingrained from childhood. Furthermore, teachers sometimes see backtalk as disrespect, although from an early age, youth are taught that United States culture encourages individuality and self-expression. This fosters confusion about when it is acceptable to express a contrary opinion, which can incentivize students to act out or talk back to educators even more. This also has longer term consequences since it can stunt the development of advocacy skills in students if they equate speaking out for themselves with punishment. Finally, educators limit their discussion in the classroom to Standard English regardless of the students’ backgrounds. The practice discriminates against children who do not use Standard English for academic writing and presentations by penalizing them grade-wise.

These practices continue to push more students to dropping out and exponentially increases their potential to become involved with the prison system; many students become disinvested in their education process and end up out of schools and into detention centers and jail. When youth disproportionately fail to complete their high school diplomas, there are limited post-secondary careers, which can spark a cynicism about their role in society and cause them to turn to crime. While dropout and incarceration rates cannot entirely be attributed to policing language, the negative attitudes towards cultural vernacular exacerbate dropout rates since incarceration increasingly becomes normalized as punishment.

To begin to solve this issue, academic institutions and school boards should encourage educators to integrate cultural vernacular into school curriculums. While administrators may doubt the use of vernacular in schools, the benefits of providing social heteroglossia, where students can see their personal experiences represented in their curriculum, can increase academic rigor by aiding in the development of a variety of linguistic tools to problem solve, communicate, and access materials. It can also prove that the use of Standard English doesn’t necessitate the rejection of the students’ culture and favoritism of the white middle-class culture. Only through meshing the subcultures in academic settings and teaching the practice of code-switching languages without punishing them for using their home language in class can incentivize students to learn new language dialects. Although discrimination has been ingrained into the school system, only signaling that educators recognize their stereotypes about vernacular and aim to change their attitudes can begin to reverse the discrimination woven into the school system.