June 2017
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Riah Werner, La Unidad Educativa Carlos Cisneros, Riobamba, Ecuador

The world we live in is becoming increasingly nationalistic, with more and more countries around the world enacting policies designed to privilege their own citizens at the expense of others. One way this exclusion is enacted is through attitudes and policies on language use, which frame immigrants and other nonnative speakers of the national language as illegitimate and outside the national identity. Despite widespread condemnation of overt racism as unacceptable, many people do not recognize linguicism—discrimination based on language—as discrimination at all. As language educators, we have an important role to play in raising awareness of linguicism and challenging linguistically discriminatory practices within our field, many of which have racial implications.

At the TESOL convention in Seattle, Washington, USA, I attended a session called “Addressing Linguicism: A Classroom Language Discrimination Simulation Activity,” in which Shannon Tanghe demonstrated a simulation that she uses with her teacher education students to raise awareness of linguicism and its classroom manifestations. Tanghe based her demonstration on Elliott’s famous 1968 blue eyes/brown eyes experiment, in which she divided her all-White class into groups based on the color of their eyes in order for them to experience racial segregation (Peters, 1970). In our case, she divided us into two groups based on the section of the room where we were sitting. As we discussed the meaning and manifestations of linguicism, the participants on the right side of the room were praised and encouraged to participate by name, with ample wait time given for them to get their thoughts together. Tanghe’s body language and vocal cadences were warm and inviting and she clearly showed affection for those on the right side. In contrast, whenever those of us on the left side spoke, she asked us to repeat ourselves and even after multiple attempts she asserted that she could not understand us. She turned her back on us and referred to us by the articles of clothing we were wearing or chose new pronunciations of the names on our name tags. In one case, she singled out an Asian woman with an Anglo name and insisted she share her “real name,” repeating the question despite the woman’s objections, until she finally relented and gave an Asian name. Throughout, Tanghe’s manner was gruff and dismissive. When she claimed not to understand us, she dismissed it as being reasonable and made insinuations about our “situations” and our home lives. When she did admit to one of us having a correct answer, she expressed incredulity and asked who helped us think of it. When a member of the privileged group changed sides of the room, to sit in solidarity with those of us who were not being heard, Tanghe refused to allow it and stopped the session until she returned to her “proper place.”

Half way through, she switched which group was considered privileged, but despite being in the group that now had “permission” to speak, I found myself staying silent, even though linguicism is an issue that I feel passionately about and I am usually not shy about participating in discussions. Knowing that I wouldn’t be heard if I’d spoken during the first half of the simulation, I chose instead to keep quiet rather than have Tanghe direct her disapproval toward me, and that conditioning lingered even after the external restraint was removed. As a White, American native English speaker, my English has always been considered “standard,” and when speaking my additional languages in the foreign countries I’ve lived in, I’ve found that my efforts have usually been appreciated and my mistakes sympathetically overlooked, so this experience of linguistic marginalization was new for me. Like Tanghe’s Korean students who participated in a similar simulation exercise focused on racial discrimination, I found the experience to be more “real” than I had expected, and it led me to reflect on the ways linguicism is present in my own teaching contexts (Tanghe, 2016).

As a participant in the simulation, one of the things that was most frustrating to observe was my peers repeating their answers over and over, with Tanghe insisting “I just can’t understand you” each time. While at times I genuinely can’t understand what my students are trying to communicate, the simulation raised my awareness of how disheartening repeated requests for clarification can be for a student. Being cognizant of the ways I ask students to repeat themselves, consciously making an effort to remember that communication is a process of negotiation, and being explicitly supportive when I have difficulty understanding a student’s ideas have been some of the ways the simulation has impacted my practice. Given that the burden of communication is usually placed firmly on the minority language speaker (Lippi-Green, 2012), my taking an active role in negotiating meaning shifts the power dynamic in the classroom.

Despite the fact that Tanghe’s session chose to focus exclusively on linguicism, linguistic discrimination often serves as a cover for racism, and language and race are deeply intertwined. In places such as the United States, where racial discrimination is illegal, students who are minority language users do not have the same protections and can be denied access to educational services on the basis of their language abilities, entirely within the scope of the law, even though the majority of English learners in U.S. schools are students of color (Liggett, 2014). This leads to racialized discrimination being justified on the grounds of language use, a trend that is likely to continue in the current political climate. Examining the position of English learners in U.S. public schools, Motha (2014) found that “speaking about ESOL students in terms of language identity provide[s] a shroud for discourses that might otherwise be read as racist” (p. 87). Colonial legacies and mainstream discourse link English to Whiteness, and anything considered nonstandard is racially marked. Within the field of TESOL, the racialization of linguistic minorities affects English learners of all races, speakers of World Englishes, nonnative-English-speaking teachers, and even non-White native-English-speaking teachers, who often have their linguistic background challenged on the basis of their race. Even in EFL contexts, there are often discourses in circulation that privilege Whiteness and English over local languages and racial groups.

As teachers, we need to be cognizant of the ways race and language intersect and how overlapping identities affect our students’ experiences of discrimination. During the simulation, Tanghe disparaged the family background of those in the marginalized group. While such statements are clearly derogatory, it is impossible to separate their racial and linguistic impact. Beyond overtly discriminatory statements or actions, both linguicism and racism can be quite subtle. When Tanghe smiled at one group, but not the other, or allowed a longer wait time for students in the privileged group to think of their answers, she was demonstrating subtle preferences that could have been equally influenced by racial or linguistic identity. For students with intersectional identities, there’s no way to know the reasons behind a teacher’s lack of support, but that doesn’t diminish its discriminatory impact.

As English teachers, we can work to eliminate these discriminatory practices in our classes and raise awareness of linguicism and its racial implications. Because linguicism is real, but often unnoticed, we can ask our students to observe linguicist practices in their communities. We can also encourage them to reflect on the racial identities of those they see face linguistic discrimination. Raising awareness of language as a situated, context-dependent practice can help students value all of their linguistic resources while encouraging them to make conscious choices about the forms they use with those in gate-keeping positions. One way to do this is to incorporate diverse accents and images of non-White English speakers into classroom materials. Another is to discuss code-switching and translanguaging practices and give students scenarios where they can consciously practice these skills in different contexts. Thinking about the audience and the communicative intention behind speaking or writing assignments can help students make informed choices about which language varieties are most effective.

By discussing these issues in the classroom, we give our students the tools they need to address them outside of class, as advocates for themselves and others in their communities. And for those of us who are teacher educators, we can use simulations such as Tanghe’s to integrate issues of language and power into the curriculum. We can also use counterstorytelling, a technique from Critical Race Theory, to help students reflect on their own racial and linguistic identities and challenge taken-for-granted mainstream norms (Cho, 2016). By raising future teachers’ awareness of linguistic discrimination and its racial connotations, we can help the next generation of English teachers become advocates of social justice within their classrooms. Given the increasingly hostile and nationalistic discourses playing out around the world, the social advocacy component of our work as teachers is more important now than ever.


Cho, H. (2016). Racism and linguicism: Engaging language minority pre-service teachers in counter-storytelling. Race Ethnicity and Education. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1080/13613324.2016.1150827

Liggett, T. (2014). The mapping of a framework: Critical race theory and TESOL. The Urban Review, 46(1), 112–124.

Lippi-Green, R. (2012). English with an accent: Language, ideology and discrimination in the United States (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Motha, S. (2014). Race, empire and English language teaching: Creating responsible and ethical anti-racist practice. New York, NY: Teachers’ College Press.

Peters, W. (1970). The eye of the storm [Motion picture]. USA: ABC News.

Tanghe, S. (2016). Promoting critical racial awareness in teacher education in Korea: Reflections on a racial discrimination simulation activity. Asia Pacific Educational Review, 17(2), 203–215.

Riah Werner is an English teacher and teacher trainer who has taught in Tanzania, South Korea, Thailand, and Ecuador and trained more than 200 teachers. She holds an MA in TESOL from the SIT Graduate Institute. Her research interests include drama and the arts, social justice in ELT, and locally contextualized pedagogy.

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