What can we do to promote social equality for speakers of non-standard language varieties?

Ruth Kircher
Liverpool Hope University

Have you ever noticed how people get treated differently simply because of how they speak? Lately, this has become an increasingly popular topic on social media (e.g. with the Accentism Project now sharing stories under the twitter handle @AccentismProj), in traditional media (e.g. Katie Martin’s 2018 Slate article ‘How “sounding white” helps you get ahead’), and even on screen (e.g. Boots Riley’s 2018 film Sorry to Bother You). Yet while the public attention paid to this phenomenon might be relatively recent, there is a long tradition of academic research that deals with prejudices and stereotypes towards particular language varieties, as well as the resulting discrimination against their speakers. The findings of this research show that if you are a speaker of a non-standard variety, you will face disadvantages compared to speakers of standard varieties in almost every sphere of your life: in education (e.g. Sachdev et al. 1998), employment (e.g. Giles et al. 1981), the search for housing (e.g. Purnell et al. 1999), and even in institutional contexts (e.g. Dixon et al. 2002). We know this to be the case for speakers of both regional non-standard varieties such as Cockney, Scouse, and Geordie as well as for non-native varieties such as Asian-accented English. However, so far, hardly any research has investigated the social inequality experienced by multiethnolect speakers.

What exactly is a multiethnolect? sprinkles.pngIt is a relatively new type of contact variety that has its origins in the mixed multicultural neighbourhoods of urban centres with large immigrant populations. If the children of the newcomers in these contexts do not have a consistent target variety of the language of their host community, they ‘acquire combinations of language features from a rich “feature pool” of linguistic forms influenced by a wide variety of languages, dialects and learner varieties’ (Cheshire and Fox 2016: 288). Multiethnolects can be found in numerous cities across Europe, and despite their origins, they are not restricted to any particular ethnic group – hence the name. Nevertheless, multiethnolects are frequently perceived to ‘sound black’ (e.g. Cheshire et al. 2017), which is an issue because previous research has shown that varieties ‘linked to skin that isn’t white’ tend to be particularly stigmatised (Lippi-Green 1997: 238). We can thus assume that multiethnolect speakers, like speakers of other non-standard varieties, face serious disadvantages compared to speakers of standard varieties.

So what can we do to promote more social equality for multiethnolect speakers? This is the question my colleague Sue Fox and I set out to answer when we embarked on a study of attitudes towards one particular multiethnolect, namely Multicultural London English (MLE; Kircher and Fox 2019). You may know MLE as ‘Jafaican’ because that is how the media frequently labels it (see e.g. Kerswill 2014). It is easily recognisable by features such as the narrow diphthongs or monophthongs in the lexical sets of FACE and GOAT; the distinctive levelling pattern for the past tense of BE, where was and wasn’t are used throughout the paradigm; the use of slang terms such as ends, bare, and blud; and the use of discourse-markers such as like and innit (see e.g. Fox 2016). You might wonder why we need to know about people’s attitudes towards MLE to promote social equality for its speakers. The answer is: because knowledge about attitudes is a crucial prerequisite for the development of any effective language planning strategy. Language attitudes consist of three components: beliefs (stereotypes), feelings (prejudices), and behaviour (discrimination) – all in relation to language varieties and their speakers (e.g. Ryan et al. 1982). Importantly, such attitudes do not reflect linguistic or aesthetic quality per se, but they are merely expressions of social mores – which means that they can change as the social mores change (e.g. Kircher 2016). However, we cannot change anything if we do not know what the status quo is.

UK flag headphonesTo find out about attitudes towards MLE, we used an online questionnaire which was completed by 800 Londoners. Our participants’ ages ranged from 18 to 86 (we tip our hats to the 86-year-old who takes online surveys!) and their mean age was 33.4. The participant sample included individuals of different genders, ethnicities, birthplaces, educational levels, and occupations. The participants also differed in terms of their mother tongues, their own varieties of English (with 130 of them being MLE speakers), and the amount of contact they had with MLE speakers. Our findings show that overall, our participants had rather negative attitudes towards MLE: their mean score was only 2.20 out of 5 (where 1 stands for very negative and 5 for very positive attitudes). But our findings also show that there were four variables that had a significant effect on these attitudes.

  1. Participants’ own variety of English: MLE speakers held more positive attitudes towards their own variety than speakers of other varieties, which can be explained in terms of ingroup loyalty (e.g. Tajfel and Turner 1986).
  2. Participants’ mother tongue: speakers of other mother tongues held more positive attitudes than English mother tongue speakers, which was probably the case because the former were less familiar with the relevant social stereotypes (cf. Giles et al. 1974).
  3. Participants’ level of education: increased levels of education led to more positive attitudes, which was likely due to enhanced reasoning skills and, consequently, decreased likelihood of deception by prejudices and stereotypes (cf. Brennan et al. 2015).
  4. Participants frequency of contact with MLE speakers: increased frequency of contact led to more positive attitudes towards MLE, which can be explained in terms of the reduction of stereotypes through intergroup contact (e.g. Allport 1954).

What do these findings mean for language planning to promote the social equality of MLE speakers? Should further research show that our results can be generalised to the London population at large, they would have important implications. Language planning cannot (or rather, in this context, should not) influence individuals’ mother tongue or the variety they grow up speaking natively – but it can promote non-MLE speakers’ education as well as their contact with MLE speakers in order to engender more positive attitudes. Of course, eventually, it would be desirable to develop measures that apply to anyone who is likely to encounter multiethnolect speakers and might discriminate against them. However, to begin with, measures targeting educators seem to be a sensible starting point because their attitudes arguably have the strongest influence (at least initially) on MLE speakers’ prospects. We came up with two ideas how this could be done.

classroomFirstly, regarding education, we argue that more positive attitudes towards MLE and its speakers could be achieved not only by a higher level of education, but also by a different kind of education. Therefore, we propose the creation of schemes for educators that are modelled on the anti-bias programme devised by Wiese et al. (2017) in Berlin – another city that is home to many multiethnolect speakers. Wiese et al. (2017: 203) describe their scheme as follows:

The programme implements some methods from existing programmes, such as dialect awareness materials, linguistic landscape excursions, and contrastive linguistic explorations in both the core materials for teachers and additional classroom materials. However, aiming at negative preconceptions and stereotypisations of different populations, it mainly draws on the methodological and didactic domain of anti-bias and antiracism pedagogics. It is distinctive in that it tackles such biases on the linguistic plane where they target speakers and speech communities via their language use.

Secondly, regarding contact with MLE speakers, we suggest the creation of complementary schemes that promote interaction between educators and multiethnolect speakers. There are five conditions that lead to ‘optimal contact’ and therefore make the amelioration of attitudes most likely – namely intergroup cooperation, authority support, equal status, common goals, and friendship potential (Pettigrew 1998). We suggest that these conditions could be established in schemes in which standard-speaking educators and MLE speakers come into contact in contexts other than the typical classroom encounters.

  • Intergroup cooperation: could be achieved if approximately even numbers of educators and MLE speakers came together to jointly engage in a meaningful endeavour, e.g. in theatre groups, sports teams or choirs.
  • Authority support: would be in place if these schemes were set up and promoted by the city or council.
  • Equal status: would result from the fact that in these endeavours, the standard speakers would not be in charge of the multiethnolect speakers, but they would instead work together as a team.
  • Common goals: would consist in coming together to rehearse for a play or concert, or practice for a sports tournament.
  • Friendship potential: could be promoted by creating these schemes for participants who are ideally all adults, rather than adult educators and student MLE speakers.

SignsAs noted above, attitudes consist of three components: beliefs, feelings, and behaviour. Engendering more positive attitudes towards MLE and its speakers by reducing stereotypes (beliefs) and prejudices (feelings) should thus also lead to a reduction of discrimination (behaviour). Therefore, ‘we propose that anti-bias programs in combination with schemes that promote optimal contact between educators and multiethnolect speakers would be effective measures to begin engendering more positive attitudes towards MLE and its speakers – and to thereby promote their social equality’ (Kircher and Fox 2019: 16).

But, of course, that would only be a starting point. What other measures could help promote the social equality of multiethnolect speakers – or, in fact, speakers of non-standard varieties more generally? We are curious to hear your suggestions: please tell your thoughts us in the comments section below!


Ruth Kircher is a sociolinguist with a specialisation in societal multilingualism and language contact situations. Her work focuses especially on social identities, language attitudes, and language policy and planning. She has a particularly strong interest in these issues with regard to indigenous and migrant minorities. After many years in England, Ruth will be moving to the Netherlands in April to start a new job as a researcher for the Mercator European Research Centre on Multilingualism and Language Learning.

Twitter: @ruth_kircher 


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Brennan, J., J. Chanfreau, J. Finnegan, J. Griggs, Z. Kiss, and A. Park. 2015. The Effect of Higher Education on Graduates’ Attitudes: Secondary Analysis of the British Social Attitudes Survey. London: Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.

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Kircher, R. 2016. “Language Attitudes Among Adolescents in Montreal: Potential Lessons for Language Planning in Quebec.” Nottingham French Studies: UK Perspectives on Francophone Canada 55 (2): 239-259.

Kircher, R. and S. Fox. 2019. “Attitudes towards Multicultural London English: Implications for attitude theory and language planning”. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, online ahead of print: https://doi.org/10.1080/01434632.2019.1577869

Lippi-Green, R. 1997. English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States. London: Routledge.

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Purnell, T., W. Isardi, and J. Baugh. 1999. “Perceptual and Phonetic Experiments on American English Dialect Identification.” Journal of Language and Social Psychology 18: 10–30.

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Sachdev, I., N. Elmufti, and P. Collins. 1998. “Oral Assessment and Accent Evaluation: Some British Data.” In Social Psychological Perspectives on Second Language Learning, edited by R. Agnihotri, A. L. Khanna and I. Sachdev, 187-203. New Delhi: Sage.

Tajfel, H. and J. C. Turner. 1986. “The Social Identity Theory of Intergroup Behavior.” In Psychology of Intergroup Relations, edited by S. Wochel and W. G. Austin, 7–24. Chicago: Nelson-Hall.

Wiese, H., K. Mayr, P. Krämer, P. Seeger, H.-G. Müller, and V. Mezger. 2017. “Changing Teachers’ Attitudes Towards Linguistic Diversity: Effects of an Anti-Bias Programme.” International Journal of Applied Linguistics 27 (1): 198-220.


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