How Bias Creates Language Myths

For this assignment I would like to speak with regards to the ten ways we are led astray in language. In Activity 1 (as well as 2 and 3) of chapter 1 in Mapping Applied Linguistics, these myths aim to be proven to be existent and prevalent in some peoples minds, through conducting a survey of ten questions that are reflective of these myths. Specifically, I would like to show how these myths about language are formed through perceptions and ideologies about language that are intrinsically biased, either towards particular language(s) and/or people/groups speaking and representing such particular languages. I would like to explore how and where such a bias is being created. Throughout this paper I will contend that it is an unlikely culprit – economics – that plays a major role in influencing ones perception and worldview to form such biases, and all their subsequent outflows as beliefs and myths related to language. The aim of this paper is not to investigate the degree to which these misconceptions about language are existent and prevalent in peoples minds – as I am taking for granted that the myths which this survey aim to prove are true – but rather is more concerned with identifying the starting point of the creation of such myths. Identifying and understanding this point may be what determines the degree to which such myths are existent and prevalent in peoples minds.

While a survey can be a useful way to find information, a problem with a survey that may aim to expose a belief that is based in a bias, is that – given the nature of a bias -a person being surveyed may have developed mechanisms to not expose such a bias, or conversely may hold a bias and yet is not aware of it and is not surveyed or questioned specifically enough to expose any kind of a subconscious bias. A much more effective way of determining if any kind of bias and subsequent perceptions about language are existent may be to identify the starting point, conditions and context from which a person is using their language, and within identifying these points, determine what may be the natural outflows in the way a person perceives their language, and the languages of others/the world around them.

The main starting point, condition and context which I would like to focus on as a major determinant in ones language use and perceptions about language is that of survival and competition. I highlight these two points as they are primary determinants in not only the way we use and view language, but in almost every aspect of the way that we live our lives. Survival and competition are major aspects to living and existing within a world economy that is essentially capitalist and profit driven. As people are required to earn profit to survive in this world within a competition environment and context, everything that we use and are involved with in our world becomes commodified as a tool to aid and support us in our competition in the pursuit of profit and survival. This tendency to commodify things in our world to our own personal advantage within a competition environment can include various things, like for instance our abilities, our knowledge, our physically material possessions – anything that will give one an edge over another. It is for this reason that nothing in this world is beyond being used as a commodity to suit ones own pursuit of survival and profit, and that includes the very language that we are taught and speak. With almost half of the world living on less than $2.50 US a day (World Bank, 2005), the fear of survival and drive to compete and be successful is of such great magnitude, that there is very little that is beyond commodification in the pursuit of ones drive to survive and be successful within this world.

Because the economic value on commodities in this world is based on scarcity (Mankiw, Kneebone, McKenzie, 2011, p.3), the more exclusive a commodity becomes, the more valuable it becomes – and whoever holds this exclusive commodity, holds a commodity of great value. As mentioned before, even knowledge and information itself can be turned into and used as a commodity within this context and starting point, and this is where language becomes relevant.

Because language acquisition is seen as a natural biological function and part of social/cultural integration (Hall, Smith, Wicansono, 2011), everyone in a society/culture will acquire/develop their language to some degree or another. Thus, within this context, one of the most effective ways to make a language a valuable commodity through exclusivity, is to make it exclusive through separating language speakers into levels and sub-groups, based on their proficiency/degree of development in their language. The aim of this categorization is to establish what degree of language proficiency, form or method of language use is seen as valid and authentic. This can be directly reflected in “Dead End 3: Written language is superior to spoken language” (Hall, Smith, Wicansono, 2011, p. 8). As written language is something that is not necessarily acquired in a society, this would be a way that those who can read and write a language, use their skills to their own personal advantage over others who do not possess such skills. The same principle applies to “Dead end 4: Some groups don’t use their language properly”, “Dead end 5: Some people speak their language without an accent” and “Dead end 6: The way groups use their language reflects their intelligence” (Hall, Smith, Wicansono, 2011, p. 8,9,10). Again these views can be directly related to/reflective of those who believe and promote them as a personal bias, by defining their own accent and use of language as ‘proper’. This gives authenticity to it while invalidating anything that deviates from this standard.

The same way an individual or group may commodify their form(s) of language through exclusivity within a culture that speaks the same language, individuals and groups of a language/culture are found to do this amongst different languages themselves – by defining and comparing entire languages in a way that is biased in support of ones own language, and therefore culture and individual self, for the purpose of reasoning why ones own language is superior to another/others. This can be directly reflected in “Dead end 7: People with 2 languages are confused”, “Dead end 8: Languages get contaminated by influences from other languages” and “Dead end 9: A nation has, or should have, one language” (Hall, Smith, Wicansono, 2011, p. 11,12,13). The one point that all of these beliefs have in common is that they aim to validate one ‘official’ and ‘authentic’ form of language over another/others. The obvious implications of this would be that those who are speaking the language that is believed to be valid, official and authentic have an immediate advantage over others who are not native speakers of that language. The value that is being given to/associated with certain languages is directly linked to the people of such languages who are affected.

This bias towards promoting an individual, group or cultures through language can not only be reflected in beliefs and misconceptions about others languages, but more recently has been found reflected in the actual native language itself and the way it is used. In a study done by researchers Shai Danziger of Ben-Gurion University and Robert Ward of Bangor University, using bilingual Israeli Arabs, it was found that it was easier for them to make positive associations with their own culture through Arabic than it was through Hebrew, as Danziger and Ward hypothesized. In an article about the study, Christopher Fisher (2010) wrote:

“The study used a computer test known as the Implicit Association Test, which is often used to study bias. Words flash on the computer screen, and subjects have to categorize them by pressing two keys on the keyboard as quickly as possible. It is a nearly automatic task with no time to think about the answers. The trick is the subjects are classifying two different kinds of words: words describing positive and negative traits and, in this case, names – Arab names like Ahmed and Samir and Jewish names like Avi and Ronen. For example, they might be told to press “M” when they saw an Arab name or a word with a good meaning, or “X” when they saw a Jewish name and a word with a bad meaning. In this example, if people automatically associate “good” words with Arabs and “bad” with Jews, they’ll be able to do the classifications faster than if their automatic association between the words is the other way around. In different sections of the test, different sets of words are paired.”

This would be one of the more obvious ways that language has been used in a way that is biased towards one culture or another, and actually indicates that it is possible that within the very development of a language itself, an intrinsic bias is created. The natural outflows of this would then be that beliefs, perceptions, and myths about a particular language(s) or culture(s) are created.

To conclude, the aim of this author is to briefly touch on factors and aspects outside of the realm of applied linguistics and discourse studies as a way of understanding how we have come to create dead-end myths about language. By clearly identifying the starting point, context and environment from which a language is being used and developed, we are generally able to determine how this will be done. In this paper I have demonstrated that within the context and environment of a capitalist economic system, competition and survival is the starting point of individuals, groups and cultures who use and develop language. Based on this starting point, biases about ones native language versus other languages will inevitably be created, as reflected in the prevalence of language myths that exist in peoples minds.

As a former ESL teacher, this author is able to give direct evidence, testimony and verification of the way language has become a commodity. If it were not for my ability to speak English as a native speaker, I would not have been employed as an ESL teacher, and if it were not for the extensive amount of value placed on the English over other languages of this world, this author would not have had such an opportunity to capitalize and profit from such an asset. This an opportunity that many people in this world do not have as they do not possess such as an asset as the English language.

All of these findings call into question obvious moral dilemmas with regards to the way we are using language – are we abusing language through competition and private interests? Is the development of language, tainted, sabotaged or hindered in any way by being subject to a system of competition and ‘survival of the fittest’? Does the way we use language separate and divide people and cultures? And most importantly, how can we begin using language in a way that is truly based within the starting point and context of what is best for all life, equally?

References

– Shaw, (2005), Poverty Facts and stats, World Bank data and statistics, http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats

– Mankiw, Kneebone, McKenzie, (2011), Principles of Microeconomics, Fifth Canadian Edition, Nelson Education

– Hall, Smith, Wicansono, (2011), Mapping Applied Linguistics, Routledge Taylor and Francis Group

– Fisher, (2010), Language Influences Thoughts And Perception Of Others, The Behavioral Medicine Report, http://www.bmedreport.com/archives/15040

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About adrianblackburn

I am 1 vote for World Equality and an Equal Money System
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