English prof: 'No such thing' as 'correct and incorrect way to speak'

One professor called the use of standard English in academia a "massive act of authority and power."

Professors at Old Dominion University held an event arguing that teaching proper English is “judging students based on how white they write.”

A group of linguistics professors argued that teaching standard English is “racist” and should be removed from colleges. Hosted by Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia on Oct. 6, the event looked at “Linguistic Justice as Anti-Racist Practice.”

Professor Bridget Anderson spoke first, arguing that there was, “no such thing" as a "correct and incorrect way to speak” going on to argue that, when people frame language as “proper/improper, correct/incorrect” it “shows that they don’t understand the way that language actually works.”

Anderson argued against a standard form of English saying that, “socially constructed prescriptivist grammar tells speakers what they should do to be accepted by a mainstream that has, what I think is a pretty haughty expectation, that all cultural groups speak like they do.”

She went on to call the use of standard English a “massive act of authority and power.”

Anderson went on to explain that different language forms being acceptable in different contexts is “linguistic discrimination, full stop.”

[RELATED: English professsors demand higher ed reject 'standard English' language, 'put some respeck on Black Language']

“So, to tell people that their language is fine for home, fine for their own communities, but not fine for institutions, that is linguistic and cultural segregation,” she explained.

Professor Kole Matheson, one of the other presenters, agreed with Prof. Anderson, arguing that, “Everything these students wrote was graded based on their demonstration of academic diction,” a grading practice he says “echoes white language normativity.” 

Matheson claimed that “judging students for formality alone, is actually a judgment of how White students write.” 

He then argued against the need to prepare students for the type of language that will be expected of them after graduating college.

“Our students are not writing for academic journals in our classes. Their papers are not job interview documents. So why are we rejecting their linguistic practices?” Matheson questioned “Why do we feel obligated to simulate a practice from a context that is not our classroom? Because teachers did it to us when we were students?” 

“This is an appeal to linguistic justice,” he added.

[RELATED: Prof: ‘privileging of standard English' is 'linguistic racism']

Professor Kevin DePew followed, and acknowledged the concern that teachers should make sure students can communicate with other individuals after the teacher. “Students who are going to be teachers will sit there and say, 'Well aren’t I responsible for making sure that these students can write to the audience that they’ll  have after me.'" He said a proper response to this is, “just because the next audience is going to have racist perspectives on language, then it doesn’t mean that we necessarily need to adopt those same practices.”

DePew would go further saying that to acknowledge that even if you didn’t grade the student badly but then told them the proper way, that was wrong. “that’s racist, because the acknowledgment of the privilege of standard academic English, is perpetuating its privilege.”

Retired professor James D. Williams holds a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Linguistics and says that this type of approach to language is deeply problematic and that it actually has long-term negative impacts on academia as a whole. 

He told Campus Reform that while language does change over time, “it does not change very quickly, certainly not from one generation to the next. If that were the case, we wouldn’t be able to understand movies that were made back in the 1940s.” 

[RELATED: Rutgers English Department seeks to 'push against biases' in grammar]

In his  47-year tenure as a teacher, Williams says he has “seen a steady decline in students’ language ability,” including the areas of, “reading, writing, and speaking.”

Comparing a newspaper from 1935 to a modern edition, he commented that the modern edition was primarily graphs and short sentences, the 1935 edition was long and dense sentences. 

“Then the question is why has it changed? Well, in part, because our schools are no longer teaching students formal standard English, they are no longer teaching academic writing. And so, today’s reader is unable to process this more dense language from 1935. Now is that a good thing? I don’t think so.” 

“The reading level of children and their ability to write has declined significantly. You might be surprised to find, for example, that the most frequently required textbook at the undergraduate level is written at 7.6 reading level. That’s 7th grade halfway through the term. And that should scare all of us,” said Williams.

Williams said the notion that standard English is racist “is just the opposite of reality.”

"The idea that we are imposing a White standard is fundamentally false, fundamentally false. It is a linguistic standard that is necessary in any community if you are going to have a community,” he added.

“If we are not teaching students the conventions of formal standard English, if we are emphasizing non-standard English, then what we’re doing is actually discriminatory,” Williams explained. “Because we are preventing those young people from getting the jobs that they went to university to be qualified for.”

As support for that claim, Williams said that “last time I checked the federal government is spending upwards of $3 billion a year just to provide new hires training in standard, at least, standard English....These ideas are just so wrong-headed,” says Wiliams, that “it staggers the imagination. That people who are dedicated to education would be coming up with such nonsense.”