Linguistic Problems as Societal Problems
A senior professor of education visited a London comprehensive school and discussed with one class the languages they spoke at home. One boy put up his hand and said that his family spoke a French Creole. In an unguarded moment the professor replied, 'That's nice.' 'What's nice about it?', asked the boy.
SOCIOLINGUISTIC research, in particular on social dialects and minority languages, has had many practical implications since it is concerned with fundamental inequalities in language use. There are many areas of public life where language has an impact, such as the medical and legal professions, but particularly in the school. Sociolinguists have been actively engaged in studying the problems which arise from language use in these contexts, and especially what happens when there is a mismatch or difference in language involved between the participants, such as doctor and patient, lawyer and client, judge and jury, etc. In this chapter I will focus on some of the types of problems arising in school which are language-related.
Language has often been cited as the main cause for the greater rate of school failure among minority children. As one of society's main socializing instruments, the school plays a powerful role in exerting control over its pupils. It endorses mainstream, and largely middle-class, values and language. Children who do not come to school with the kind of cultural and linguistic background supported in the schools are likely to experience conflict. This is true even of working-class children belonging to the dominant culture, but even more so for children of ethnic minority background.
In Britain, for example, there is a hierarchy of educational success or failure. Indigenous middle-class children do best, while