Linguistic racism is a global phenomenon


No one owns the English language anymore.

In my BA English literature class in India, I was first introduced to the Cockney accent, the dialect of working-class Londoners. The Queen’s English came to us later.

I got my first taste of linguistic racism working in a newspaper in the Persian Gulf. Linguistic racism occurs when people are discriminated on the basis of their accent and the dominant culture feels superior in the use of a particular language and in this case, it was English.

The Persian Gulf, fully reliant on expat labor, had become an inevitable breeding ground for discrimination against non-native English speakers.

Newspapers advertised for Native English language speakers alone for all the top jobs. It was common to see a British editor at the top in a newspaper with a global mix of underlings, mostly non-Native English speakers from Asia.

One high-ranking English editor who I worked for had a Cockney accent. Being a native, he had only one task daily- write a 750-page editorial on the Arab-Israeli conflict, a perennial conversation point in the region. He mastered it by cutting and pasting sentences every third day!

Meanwhile, the non-Native English speakers brought out the 32-page English newspaper every morning.

Today, there are 400 million native English speakers and around 2 billion non-Native English speakers. Teaching English is now a multibillion dollar industry and no one owns the English language anymore.

“English is constantly evolving, because of the diverse ways different nations and groups use it. Yet instead of embracing this linguistic diversity, we still rank particular types of English higher than others – which means that both native and non-native speakers who differ from what’s considered ‘standard’ can find themselves judged, marginalized and even penalized for the way their English sounds,” according to an article by Christine Ro in BBC Worklife titled “The pervasive problem of ‘linguistic racism’.”

Linguistic racism showed its ugly head when the global economy shifted to a work from home mode. Those with thick accents found it hard to express their ideas to those who spoke ‘standard’ English.

Linguistic racism has created workplace conflicts due to the unnecessary superiority of the Native English speaker. Employees often felt that Native speakers showed superiority and sometimes insulted them.

I believe the term “Native English speaker” must be removed forever. For centuries, we have discriminated against non-Native speakers and shut their voices down. Many great ideas have been lost in the process because we never had the patience to tap into the additional expertise they had, even though their accent was different than ours.

In a language with no masters, a removal of unconscious bias, some empathy and the ability to listen to people from other cultures will only do your business good, now and in the long run.



Categories: business, Business Relations, diversity, linguistic racism, Marketing, native speaker, non-native speaker, Uncategorized, writing

2 replies

  1. Yes. I read “Race, Empire, and English Language Teaching: Creating Responsible and Ethical Anti-Racist Practice” while in graduate school, and it made me think a lot about the importance of respecting every person’s unique voice.

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