A dialect is a form of a language. Languages can have one or many dialects, differing in pronunciation, vocabulary, grammatical features, and that fuzzy stuff that laypeople refer to as “reading between the lines” and linguists refer to as pragmatics. Dialects are usually shared by a subgroup of people with something in common, be it ethnicity, geographic region, social class, or something else. Usually, people who speak different dialects of the same language can understand each other.Dialects represent the beauty of language: it’s so fascinating that two people who use different communication systems can not only understand one another, but also share, learn, and laugh together about the eccentricities of their respective dialects. The first time someone used the Southern phrase “slap your mama good” to describe some tasty food I laughed for a week.

Unfortunately, dialects can also be at the root of injustice. All over the world, people face discrimination based on their dialect. Again and again, we see that when an individual has an accent that is different from that of a superior – a hiring manager, for example – chances are disturbingly good that they will be seen in a negative light.

It seems that dialect discrimination affected the court proceedings following the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin. One of the key witnesses in the trial was Rachel Jeantel, a friend of Martin’s who had been on the phone with him before and during his fatal run-in with George Zimmerman. John Rickford, linguistics professor at Stanford, pointed out that had there been another speaker of African American Vernacular English serving as judge, transcriber, attorney, or jury member, Jeantel’s critical testimony would have been understood, and the outcome of the trial would likely be very different. Marguerite Rigoglioso with Stanford News published an excellent article on this topic here.

According to the American Speech-Language and Hearing Association (ASHA):

Given that SAE [Standard American English] is the linguistic variety used by the government, the mass media, business, education, science, and the arts in the United States, speakers of other varieties of American English may find it advantageous to be able to speak SAE. In these cases, the role of the speech-language pathologist is to assist in the acquisition of the desired competency in the second dialect without jeopardizing the integrity of the individual’s first dialect.

Being able to speak the mainstream dialect of English can, without a doubt, open up a whole new world of possibility for native speakers of other dialects. However, as ASHA indicates, the goal is not to replace the way you walk with the language they speak on television. It’s about code-switching, communicating in the most appropriate dialect, given the situation.

However, when it comes to the topic of dialect/linguistic discrimination, the solution cannot be focused on the behavior of the speaker. While there is certainly no single, simple solution, and linguistic discrimination is just a part of the systematic discrimination that occurs against minority groups every minute of the day, part of the solution must be to listen to and learn more about the different dialects of speakers you know and are likely to meet. The more you hear these dialects, the more you will understand. In short, listen more.

If you are interested in code-switching, let us know. People should hear your ideas, not your dialect.