How to Respect Language Diversity on College Campuses

Colleges home students from areas all over, and in my experience, some students possess rather prescriptivist views when it comes to language varieties spoken by other students. Unless you took a course in linguistics (the scientific study of language), the term prescriptivist does not ring any bells. A prescriptivist, in simple terms, is someone who views language as a deficit, not different. Prescriptivists will live and die with the opinion that there exists a "right" way of speaking, an idea that ignores the fact that roughly 7,000 languages exist in the world, and language varies and changes. In the wise words of Anne Curzan (2014):

The prescriptivism of the modern period is often framed as, in many ways, an epic fail. It represents a concerted effort by a group of elitist, sometimes self-proclaimed language authorities to stop language change that does not recognize that language change cannot be stopped (1).

1. Understand that the United States does not possess an official language

While some states do possess an official language, and most Americans speak English as their first language, the United States does NOT hold an official language. Therefore, saying, “This is America, so speak English” reeks of ignorance and disregard. Millions of Americans speak English, yes, but millions of others speak languages such as Spanish and Chinese, so understand that the U.S. homes a melting pot of languages and cultures.  

2. Campuses in the United States home students from different regions, states, and sometimes countries. Therefore, respect that some students will not know the local vocabulary 

Even native English speakers will not know the regional vocabulary or speak with the area’s dialect of the regions they visit. People from my Pennsylvania hometown refer to sunny side up eggs as “dippy eggs”. When I ordered dippy eggs in Virginia, however, the waitress looked at me like I had two heads. Then there is the more commonly know regional vocabulary differences such as Southerners using “pop” and Northerners using “soda” when referring to a carbonated beverage. To put it simply, LANGUAGE VARIES! Curzan (2014) describes language as a river, “constantly in motion, [and] prescriptivism is often framed as the attempt to construct a dam that will stop the river in its tracks…the river is too wide and strong, too creative and ever-changing, and it runs over any such dam” (4). So, always keep in mind that language is always changing and always flowing.

3. Help out students whose first language is not English

Language is hard. It is one of the most physically complicated things we as humans do. As someone who tutored international students on occasion, I witnessed what happens when students with a first language other than English face negative judgment for their inability to master North American English; it breaks their self-confidence and sometimes makes them feel isolated. So, if someone is comfortable enough to ask you for help to improve their English-speaking skills, do not laugh or tease them, take that request seriously! I mean, sentences like “The bandage was wound around the wound” are grammatically correct. Imagine learning English from scratch.

4. Take the time to learn about language

You do not need to study linguistics in college to learn about language. Recognizing that everyone speaks differently, whether from language varieties or a person’s specific way of speaking, also known as an idiolect, serves as a reason to Google something as straightforward as “Why does my classmate pronounce “water” like “wooder”?”. I recommend checking out Erik Singer, a dialect coach who appears on WIRED’s YouTube channel. He breaks down accents in movies and television, language pet peeves, and fictional languages (including Dothraki for any Game of Thrones fans and Pareseltongue for any Harry Potter stans) in the technique critique videos in entertaining, comprehendible ways for the average viewer. The series serves as a great introduction to language!

5. Remember that a person’s language remains an element of their culture

When learning about any culture, language is a crucial element. You cannot learn to speak a new language without simultaneously getting a lesson in other areas of the language’s culture. Learning French? Expect to learn about how the college experience differs in France, or about the presence of the language’s one variety, Creole, in Louisiana, and who speaks it. More than that, language helps make up a person’s identity in the way it connects speakers to their society. To disrespect someone’s language disrespects who they are to an extent. Do not be that person.

Curzan, A., (2014). Fixing English: Prescriptivism and Language History. Cambridge University Press.