By Dr Salman Al-Azami
Language is an essential component of an individual’s everyday life. Scholars say that an individual is born with the ‘innate ability’ to speak a language, which Noam Chomsky terms as ‘universal grammar’. We learn our languages through the environment in which we are brought up. There are many types of influences that shape a human child’s language development. Parents play a vital role in this, followed by siblings, schools, neighbourhood etc. Our vernacular language (native language) depends on our linguistic upbringing. We may end up learning a number of languages in our later years, but it is our vernacular language that gives us our linguistic identity – the sense of belonging.
All languages are equal, i.e., no language is superior or inferior to the other. The main purpose of language is communication, so if that is achieved, a language is complete in itself. However, our societies are not equal and this inequality consequently makes languages unequal. The so-called ‘bigger’ languages are becoming so dominant that the smaller languages are losing speakers at an alarming rate. According to writer David Crystal, 96% of the world languages are spoken by just 4% of the world population. World languages like English, Spanish, Arabic, French etc. have attained their present status at the cost of these smaller languages. Are the bigger languages better than those that are dying? Well, one language can have more functions than the other, but that does not make a language better or worse. Yet, we often end up giving value judgments about languages.
We often differentiate between a ‘language’ and a ‘dialect’ to create a hierarchical relationship. If the difference is based on linguistic functionalities as defined by many linguists, then there is no problem. The problem lies when these terms are used to show one language as superior to another. We often think that an RP (Received Pronunciation or the so-called posh accent) speaker is more intelligent than a Scouse or a Geordie speaker. We sometimes look down upon people because of their accents. Even getting a better job is difficult if one has a regional accent. It is unlikely that one will get a high position in a city job unless one speaks with the ‘prestigious’ RP accent.
Every year I ask my first year students which accent they like most, and the overwhelming majority say that they like the Irish accent most and the Birmingham accent least. Interestingly, most of them do not like the RP accent as they find it too artificial and not something they would enjoy speaking. When I ask them how they feel about my accent, they generally answer positively because they find it neutral. They may say that to be nice to me, but I do understand where they are coming from. My accent is a bit unique as it is neither a typical South Asian accent, nor is it native English. Perhaps it is the lack of regional representation that makes my accent neutral. Whatever it is, the judgments about my accent or other regional accents have no logical explanation.
Sometimes there are regional rivalries that lead to disliking accents. People also confuse between education and language and think that the more educated a person is, the more posh his or her accent will be. Sport rivalries may also lead to disliking accents. You won’t find many passionate Mancunian-speaking Manchester United supporters in love with the Scouse accent of Liverpool and vice versa. Stereotyping is another reason for people’s perceptions about other languages or accents. We may form opinions about an accent by just listening to comedians ridiculing a language or an accent. After coming to the UK I first heard the term ‘Freshie’ – a term generally used to mock people having a non-native English accent. Not only that, I have heard the Asian younger generation using this term for people coming from their ancestors’ countries. These types of stereotyping are based on prejudice and rivalry, which create divisions in society.
Many people want to change their accent due to the prejudice they encounter. Is that the linguistic environment we want to encourage in the twenty first century civilised world? Language is an integral part of one’s identity and one should not be pressurised to change that. We should judge people for what they say, not how they say it.
Dr Salman Al-Azami holds a PhD in Linguistics and is a Lecturer in English Language at Liverpool Hope University. His research interests include bilingualism, language in education, religious discourse & media and language of advertising.
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