Taking the first steps
When I was a brand new Spanish teacher, linguistic bias was not something I was consciously thinking about. I had an alternative certification on the one hand, a decades- old textbook on the other, and no experience to stand on. I was trying to survive!
But the more I learned about the curriculum and standards, and the more I appreciated the diversity of my students, the more my eyes were opened. I quickly became an advocate for all students on their language journey—especially those with roots in Spanish-speaking cultures.
And I could only help my students build pride in their linguistic backgrounds if I removed linguistic bias from my classroom practices.
In the important conversations our world language community is having about culturally responsive classrooms, equity, and inclusion, we should be talking more about linguistic bias. We all carry biases, so it’s important to recognize how linguistic bias may be present and how it impacts our perception and evaluation of students' abilities in the classroom. Being intentionally flexible when evaluating students' linguistic choices can open a new dynamic of expression and help all students feel welcome in your classroom.
Here are some things for world language educators to reflect on about linguistic bias.
What Is Linguistic Bias?
Linguistic bias is a specific type of bias related to cultural, linguistic, and social norms that attaches meaning to the language used by an individual or group.
With linguistic bias, linguistic ability can become associated with specific characteristics such as intelligence, education, and attractiveness. Something as simple as word pronunciation, such as someone saying the word ask as aks (in African American Vernacular English), or hearing a Spanish speaker use Spanglish, such as using the word lonche for lunch, can engender positive or negative feelings in us.
Common areas of linguistic bias include:
Take a moment to reflect: What connotations does a Southern or Boston accent have for you? Are there words or phrases that you hear and immediately think something about the person uttering them?
It’s only human to attach meaning and experiences to linguistic characteristics, to have linguistic bias. We all do. The problem is when we let it affect our students.
How Is Linguistic Bias Experienced?
We all carry linguistic bias, and most of it is implicit or unconscious. That’s because we naturally gravitate toward our own experiences and don't even realize we have a bias until someone points it out.
In some cases, linguistic bias can be very explicit, such as when people make hateful, public demands that others speak or not speak a certain language. Of course, we all can say with certainty that we know that is wrong and we would not ever say that in a classroom setting. But our students still experience it elsewhere.
When it comes to implicit linguistic bias, we as educators must address this in order to create a truly culturally responsive classroom because linguistic bias can impact how we treat our students.
A common type of linguistic bias students encounter is against their bilingualism or multilinguism—but only if they show up to class already having learned a language other than English at home.
Dr. Alba Ortiz, professor of special education and bilingual education, comments on this linguistic bias: “It’s a contradiction—being bilingual is seen as a mark of intelligence unless you acquire it naturally from your parents as opposed to learning it in foreign language classes. According to some, English language learners can’t seem to learn a second language fast enough or effortlessly enough. They forget how many of us take foreign language courses for several years and never actually learn to speak it.”
Like Dr. Ortiz, I’ve also seen linguistic bias as a Spanish teacher in school settings. In the classroom, it may seem harmless to tell students they cannot speak English or they cannot speak Spanglish. After all, we are teaching “formal" or "correct" Spanish, right? I’ve seen many students shut down in this environment, and re-engaging them can be difficult.
I encountered linguistic bias in how students moving into my district from another (usually Spanish-speaking) country were placed into their classes. Even armed with a transcript that was arguably better than other students who were native English speakers, it was assumed that they needed to be enrolled in English Language Learner courses and that they would struggle academically if put into Honors or AP courses.
Being aware of these types of situations is critical to ensuring student success not only in your classroom but in their lives.
How Do Teachers Identify Linguistic Bias in the Classroom?Teacher
The first step to rooting out linguistic bias from our lesson plans and classroom culture is to notice where it might exist. Think about these questions.
Have you ever…
These are standard, everyday examples of instances where we make assumptions about people and their language use and ability.
On the surface, some of these are reasonable and necessary to ensure students acquire target vocabulary, learn correct grammar, or share their heritage. I’ve even done some of them myself along my journey to understanding linguistic bias.
But how do these actions make the student feel? Asking where they’re from might make them feel othered and stigmatized because they may have been singled out like this as a representative of a specific group.
How do these actions affect students’ motivation or sense of comfort in the class? For example, using the term "proper Spanish” (or any language) when explaining to a student why they are incorrect can be demoralizing when they’re drawing on the language they’ve learned from their family and culture.
How Do Teachers Combat Linguistic Bias in the Classroom?
Combating linguistic bias in a world language classroom can be a struggle.
How do we help students learn to communicate effectively while still allowing them to be creative with language, make mistakes, and use different words for the same thing?
Do we actively accept when students communicate differently than the textbook, lesson, or teacher expects?
Do we take those opportunities to make connections and comparisons between language variations and to validate students’ language?
There’s no single right or wrong way to navigate these questions, but I’ve learned from my classroom experiences that these four strategies will lead you in the right direction as you seek to root out linguistic bias.
Understand Your Students
When you talk to your students about the languages and dialects they speak or understand (those nuances are important!), as well as their comfort levels with different types of expression, you’ll be better able to support and validate their existing knowledge and experiences.
For example, one of the most important pieces of information for me is whether a student is a heritage learner or native speaker. Knowing that was key for me as a teacher of both second language and native speaker classes because it allowed me to tailor their instruction much better and focus on the skills they didn’t have as much proficiency in.
Rather than assuming nonstandard language usage needs to be corrected, seek to understand why your student made a certain speech or writing choice.
Having that conversation encourages students to freely express themselves without fear of being penalized for using a word that isn’t “on the list”.
I loved learning new words from my students, no matter the context! It is fascinating to really explore a student’s word choice or phrasing. As a language teacher, you have to be willing to learn about the unique linguistic characteristics that make up each student’s linguistic repertoire.
Talk About It
Your students may have experienced linguistic bias, but they may not be able to name it yet. When they can recognize it in their lives, they can advocate for themselves and combat it in their own ways.
For example, when a student uses a word that others are unfamiliar with, take the opportunity to talk about (and validate) not only that word but ask what other words students might use.
If everyone at your school and district understands and is committed to identifying and combating linguistic bias, it’ll be far easier for students to feel validated, empowered, and confident in their learning—in every classroom.
The toughest conversations I ever had were with well-meaning counselors responsible for placing students in a second language or native speaker class. Helping them to understand that some of the practices were reinforcing linguistic bias and why that was harmful was a challenge, but a necessary one.
Be Mindful of Your Classroom Interactions
Telling students that their accent or grammar is not acceptable assumes that certain ways of speaking are “better” than others. But we know that the wide variety of accents and languages used all over the world is something to be celebrated, not shunned!
This is a tough one to follow sometimes because our instinct as educators is to help students achieve what we believe is success. What I found was that success often meant simply providing examples of the rich variety of languages and dialects so that students could see themselves reflected and know that how they sound is perfect for them.
For decades, the world language classroom has been seen as the place to formalize and standardize language use under the guise of preparing students for real-world usage.
How students receive that message can be that the way they speak is wrong or improper, which is a surefire way to have them disengage. My experience with this sometimes came from Spanish-speaking parents criticizing that their child was not learning the “right” way to speak or write.
Having conversations not just with students, but with parents and guardians, about the (very limited) scenarios in which their child might be expected to communicate with a formal register and language is an important piece of removing the stigma of less formal language and prioritizing communication.
Be Flexible With Assessments
When we give vocabulary quizzes that only accept one right word that matches a definition, it reveals a linguistic bias towards a specific language variation or simply a bias toward the word familiar to the teacher.
Replacing this type of quiz with other activities keeps the focus on teaching language as a vehicle for real-world, effective communication—not just learning and memorizing a vocabulary list.
One of my favorite ways to encourage students to expand their vocabulary is to use circumlocution to explain a word or phrase. As students read or listen to a resource, have them jot down unfamiliar words and then use context to attempt to explain it to a partner or group.
Marking students down for conjugating a verb incorrectly, missing an accent mark, or misspelling something sounds like what we should do as teachers (and proud language nerds, as one of my colleagues affectionately refers to us).
The core of our job is to help our students communicate and get their messages across while exposing them (and ourselves) to a rich variety of languages.
My favorite example of this is when I received an email from a teacher regarding an article from an Argentinian magazine that was provided to students to read and answer some questions about. The email detailed the article's “grievous grammatical errors” and expressed the teacher’s dismay that it would be used as an authentic resource for an activity. The article was correctly written using “vos,” which was not taught in their textbook as the “standard, " which the teacher had also never learned.
Why Addressing Linguistic Bias Matters Right Now
Fostering equity, inclusion, and culturally responsive classrooms by addressing linguistic bias is more important than ever for three reasons.
1. Teacher Demographics in the U.S.
Demographic research tells us that the student population across the country is more diverse than the teacher population. In the U.S., 74.3% of teachers are female, and 72.3% are white. Of K-12 students, 53.8% are children of color.
What does this mean for us world language teachers? The burden is on us for helping our students all feel validated and that they belong. We are responsible for examining our linguistic biases and how they affect student learning.
2. Culturally Responsive Teaching and Linguistic Bias
As we are being called to incorporate culturally responsive teaching into our classrooms, the good news is that as world language teachers, what we do naturally leans in this direction. Making connections and comparisons between various cultures is already a central focus related to understanding and removing linguistic bias in the classroom.
3. Focus on Performance to Proficiency
We want our students to TALK! We know it is the best way to become proficient. So we must ensure that our linguistic bias doesn’t interfere with evaluating a student’s journey to proficiency or undermine their confidence.
Breaking Through Linguistic Bias Requires Reflection
Breaking out of our linguistic biases to teach more effectively and empathetically requires reflection. Now that you’ve read this post think about what you learned and how it relates to your interactions inside and outside the classroom. Reflect on your understanding of linguistic bias, how you might identify it, and how you plan to combat it.
It can be as simple as being more aware in class, being flexible with assessments, or talking to your colleagues about linguistic diversity.
Creating an inclusive and equitable learning environment for all students is a constant process. It all starts with each of us taking responsibility for our actions and making a change.
Most importantly, give yourself, your students, and your colleagues grace regarding complex topics. We all constantly learn and improve as teachers and humans—including me. The best thing about being a world language teacher is that we come in wanting to learn about, respect, and share different cultures and perspectives, so I’m confident we’re ready to take on this challenge!
Janet's teaching experience is in Spanish, having taught all levels, both AP Language and AP Literature, dual credit courses, and native Spanish speaker courses. After seven years of teaching high school Spanish, she joined the Carnegie Learning team, but she still serves as an adjunct Spanish professor at Lone Star College in Houston, as well as an AP Reader for the AP Spanish Language and Culture Exam. Her Bachelor of Arts in Spanish is from Geneva College, and she learned my Master’s degree in Spanish focusing on Hispanic Linguistics from the University of Pittsburgh. She enjoys traveling and experiencing new places (when there isn’t a pandemic). She also loves presenting at local, regional, and national world language conferences on a variety of topics from differentiated instruction to cultural biases and how they impact the classroom.Explore more related to this author
It’s a contradiction—being bilingual is seen as a mark of intelligence unless you acquire it naturally from your parents as opposed to learning it in foreign language classes. According to some, English language learners can’t seem to learn a second language fast enough or effortlessly enough. They forget how many of us take foreign language courses for several years and never actually learn to speak it.
Dr. Alba Ortiz, Professor of Special Education and Bilingual Education