Language as Identity and the Implications of Standard English

This paper explores the integral link between language and student identity, as well as how encouraging students to embrace their language identity can create a more welcoming learning environment. The diversity of languages in the American classroom is not a challenge to be overcome but a vibrant asset to the classroom community.


              My goal in this paper is to address some of the underlying issues we have discussed in Global Englishes, such as language as a means of creating identity and social standing as well as the role of standard English both within the classroom and in students’ everyday lives. While my focus tends toward English usage in the United States, that is primarily because I wish to bring this language-as-identity concept home to an environment we have both experienced and understand, as opposed to language variations in other countries. In the end, however, I hope to show that these same language variations and language identity issues may be applied to any nation and that every usage of English carries with it considerations of identity, usage, and social context. Overall, language itself is much more complex than the desire for mutual intelligibility in communication.

Recognizing Difference in Written and Spoken Language

              There is a marked difference between oral or conversational language and written or literary language. In speaking of standard English, there is an expectation that students will speak the way they write, using the same grammar and structure. With spoken language, however, Carter (1999) observes “there is a concern to balance the communication in the interests of the dynamics of personal exchange,” which you don’t see in written contexts (pg. 169).

              For instance, in spoken language, you may see double negatives used solely for the purposes of creating emphasis. Double negatives are typically avoided in written language due to their association with nonstandard dialects, but when they are used it is rarely and with a very specific purpose in mind, such as politeness, guardedness or irony. Likewise, subject-verb agreements in terms of plural or singular subjects matching with the associated verb show much more variation in spoken dialect.

              At the same time, Carter warns against the expectation that students converse only in a spoken version of standard written English, saying “to have everyone speaking and writing in only one code – a standard written English code – generates an illiteracy almost as grave as would be the case if everyone were only able to use a single regional dialect” (pg. 172-173). There is much to be said about the benefits of a more flexible spoken grammar and structure.

              The language used in spoken communication reflects the speaker’s perception of the relative formality of the discussion and their role within the conversation. The way people speak is closely connected to their identification with specific social and cultural groups. Likewise, if certain ways of speaking are discouraged within the classroom, “there may be an underlying and implicit statement that nonstandard language use equals nonstandard people” (Carter, 1999, pg. 176).

              Any attempt to replace home languages or dialects can affect a student’s sense of identity, value and self-confidence. It seems that there is a greater emphasis on teaching students a standard written English as opposed to standard spoken English. In regards to a standard spoken English, Carter concludes that “speaking such a variety in a number of informal and interpersonally rich contexts, or refusing to speak it, are choices the education systems should do all in their power to preserve” (pg. 176). In other words, they should leave students to their unique ways of speaking the English language.

Language as Identity

              The language students use, particularly their spoken language, is a direct reflection of their identity and their place socially among their peers. Nerds, for instance, are often classified as such because they excel academically, but not socially. The categorization of nerd also most often refers to white males, who express this cultural and social identity through the language they use. As Bucholtz (2001) has observed in her field studies in California, “there is a particular emphasis on language as a resource for the production of an intelligent and nonconformist identity” (pg. 87).

              Often, the language spoken by whites is viewed as standard or normative, and therefore unmarked by racial indicators, although this is an error in judgment which allows a certain white privilege when the language is viewed as neutral or even superior to other variations of speech. In this case, Bucholtz discusses what she refers to as a “superstandard English,” which goes beyond the idea of a standard spoken English which echoes standard written English to include “‘supercorrect’ linguistic variables: lexical formality, carefully articulated phonological forms, and prescriptively standard grammar” (pg. 88).  In this way, this version of superstandard English becomes associated with a sort of hyperwhiteness, in contrast to the whiteness of standard spoken English.

              In their choice of vocabulary, these self-proclaimed nerds would regularly avoid the use of trendy slang in an effort to maintain their status as unmoved by popular culture. They would choose instead literal definitions or even outdated terminology instead of utilizing current phraseology. In addition to this, they would purposefully enunciate and carefully pronounce words much in the way a person reading a text aloud would, often showcasing their use of vocabulary they may not hear said aloud but may instead have encountered in a book they had read instead.

By creating a separate superstandard of English language, these students distanced themselves from their white peers and even further distanced themselves from the vernacular of African American students within their school. Despite the initial observation that standard spoken English appears unmarked by racial identity, the superstandard English used by nerds is in fact “culturally marked with respect to other, cooler, white students” and also “racially marked with respect to both whites and blacks” (Bucholtz, 2001, pg. 96). In other words, the language used by the nerds in Bucholtz’s study situated them socially among their peers.

Promoting Biculturalism

              While historically, immigrants entering the great Melting Pot of America have been largely encouraged to culturally assimilate, there is growing evidence that a greater amount of assimilation may be detrimental to students who suffer the loss of their native heritage. The term “immigrant paradox,” as explained in Buriel (2012) refers to the “better than expected academic and behavioral outcomes” of earlier generation immigrants compared to their later generation peers (pg. 37). Instead, what Buriel suggests is a type of biculturalism, where certain aspects of traditional immigrant culture are preserved alongside newly acquired Euro American competencies, such as fluency in English.

              One of the ways Buriel suggests Mexican American immigrants can hold on to their heritage is through continued daily usage of the Spanish language. He argues that “among native-born Mexican Americans, bilingualism may conserve and reinforce for them aspects of immigrant culture and simultaneously promote a cognitive style related to school achievement” (pg. 44). In other words, he promotes bilingualism as an asset rather than a hurdle to overcome. Similarly, serving as “language brokers” who translate regularly for their parents, children of immigrants develop “greater social self-efficacy, higher academic performance, and more biculturalism” (Buriel, 2012, pg. 54).

Mediation in the Intercultural Classroom

              In diverse classrooms, where students may speak a wider variation of Englishes, what are some of the ways we can encourage individuality while fostering an accepting environment? In Italy, where migration has grown significantly in recent years, creating more multicultural interaction among students, one of the ways suggested by studies has been through dialogic mediation.

In multicultural Italian classrooms, students have been historically expected to assimilate and teachers have only been given direction in regards to emergency situations rather than day-to-day classroom management regarding cultural differences between students. As suggested by Baraldi and Rossi (2011), two aspects should be introduced into the classroom: “shaping children’s personalities on the basis of educational cultural presuppositions” and “treating different cultural presuppositions, in particular, cultural identities” (p. 385). In other words, intercultural education should teach students to express and accept cultural diversity. In fact, “intercultural education tries to teach dialogue among cultures, creating the conditions for both preservation and mutual enrichment of cultural identities” (Baraldi and Rossi, 2011, pg. 386).

In a classroom setting, intercultural mediators use dialogue to promote active participation and move away from ethnocentric ideals. A 2007 study in Modena, Italy took a look at the role of mediators within the classroom to encourage intercultural understanding among a population of students consisting of 72.3% born in Italy to Italian parents and 27.7% born abroad or born in Italy to migrant parents. These mediators worked to promote communication based on equity, empathy and empowerment through equal distribution of participation, active listening, and recognition of student responses.

As teachers, we work to promote mutual understanding in the classroom by focusing on differences between individuals rather than groups. The format of dialogic mediation, as described in this study, promotes more openness toward cultural diversity. At this end of this study, Baraldi and Rossi concluded that a dedicated mediator can focus exclusively on promoting student self-expression whereas a teacher’s communication with students always implies an evaluative standpoint. In the end, dialogic mediation was able to “discourage ethnocentric stereotypes, give voice to different perspectives, promote inclusion and recognition in communicative processes, stimulate reflection about these processes, and promote co-authorship of new stories” (Baraldi and Rossi, 2011, pg. 398-399).


Baraldi, C., & Rossi, E. (2011). Promotion of participation and mediation in multicultural

classrooms. Irish Educational Studies30(3), 383–401.

Bucholtz, M. (2001). The whiteness of nerds: superstandard English and racial markedness. Journal of

Linguistic Anthropology11(1), 84–100.

Buriel, R. (2012). Historical origins of the immigrant paradox for Mexican American students: the cultural

integration hypothesis. The immigrant paradox in children and adolescents: is becoming

American a developmental risk? (1st ed). American Psychological Association, 37-60.

Carter, R. (1999). Standard grammars, spoken grammars: some educational implications. Standard

English: the widening debate. Routledge, 164-182.

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