Discrimination permeates even the most fundamental element of human interaction: language.

“One of the most pervasive beliefs about language that we engage with on a daily basis is standard language ideology,” said Megan Weaver, a collegiate assistant professor of rhetoric and writing in the Virginia Tech Department of English. “In the United States, this results in a bias toward an idealized language variety modeled after the spoken and written language of white, upper-middle-class language users.”

Classrooms are not exempt from the wide reach of language bias.

Weaver articulated the phenomenon in education settings and offered solutions in her doctoral dissertation at Old Dominion University, “Critical Language Awareness Pedagogy in First-Year Composition: A Design-Based Research Study.”

In recognition of her research and writing, Weaver earned the Council of Writing Program Administrators Dissertation Award.

The national organization’s selection committee chose Weaver’s work because it “investigates a significant and profound area of writing studies: how iterations of deeply embedded, racially influenced language beliefs have been passed from instructors to students and, importantly, how students might be engaged via CLA [critical language awareness] pedagogy to disrupt and challenge these normative beliefs.”

The selection committee said Weaver’s “anti-racist scholarship” informs writing program administrators’ work and writing studies more broadly “by illuminating important themes and discussions surrounding how language functions in our classrooms.” Further, the committee noted, Weaver’s work demonstrates how writing program administrators can direct their programs to ensure more equitable experiences.

Weaver suggests that idealized language variety, such as Standardized American English and Dominant American English, is biased toward a specific subset of speakers who hold positions of power. Rather than recognize this unfortunate truth, idealized language varieties are often positioned as “proper” or “correct” English.

“In education settings in particular, idealized language variety has been upheld as the language of social and economic mobility,” said Weaver. “Yet as research has shown us, linguistic discrimination has less to do with specific language varieties and more to do with the perceived race of a language user.”

Weaver said language varieties such as Black English and Appalachian English are often stigmatized and may even lead to discrimination.

A native of western North Carolina, Weaver said she grew up surrounded by Appalachian dialects and southern accents. The result: an interest in language and the sounds of language at an early age.

While earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Weaver began to study how K–12 education has historically responded to language variation and language diversity. “I found that, for the most part, language variation was viewed as a deficit rather than as an asset for students’ learning,” she said.

Through her own teaching, Weaver said she consciously chooses to integrate conversations about language variation into the teaching of rhetoric and writing. She invites students to write outside the bounds of what’s traditionally considered academic language.

“When I began my doctoral program, I discovered other first-year writing instructors had interest in incorporating conversations about language into their teaching, but didn’t know where or how to begin their own critical language awareness journey,” said Weaver. “This was the impetus for my dissertation project: a call to support colleagues in creating a more equitable and just writing classroom by drawing on facts about language and confronting discriminatory language ideologies through our pedagogy.”

Critical language awareness pedagogy could aid educators in achieving equity in the classroom.

“Critical language awareness pedagogy seeks to support students and teachers in recognizing and confronting the deep-seated, racially biased notions of ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ in language use,” said Weaver. “More important, it advocates for action toward linguistic justice, in both how educators respond to, assess, and cultivate language diversity in the classroom, and how students themselves respond to, make informed judgments about, and cultivate language diversity across their academic, work, and social communities.”

Weaver hopes that supporting students in recognizing how beliefs about language uphold power dynamics and discrimination can yield positive results for generations.

“As students move through the education system and contribute to their academic, social, and work communities,” Weaver said, “it’s crucial that they reject linguistic discrimination just as they reject discrimination based on race, sex, religion, and any other basis.”

People outside of academia can do their part to address linguistic bias, too. Weaver suggests beginning with asking questions of oneself such as: What are my attitudes toward other languages or accents and dialects? How did I develop these attitudes and my beliefs about language differences? How do my perceptions of others’ language usage influence how I interact with them? Do my judgments cause harm for others?

“Because standard language ideology is entrenched in society, confronting our linguistic biases is a daily challenge,” said Weaver. “Asking ourselves questions can help us interrogate how we may contribute to linguistic discrimination.”

Weaver, who joined Virginia Tech last fall, said the Council of Writing Program Administrators has been integral to her professional development as a writing studies scholar.

“I’m honored that the organization recognized the value of the project’s design as well as my choice in forefronting the participants’ journeys in developing critical language awareness,” said Weaver.

Weaver’s full dissertation is available to read and download by following this link.

— Written by Andrew Adkins