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What Is Language Ideology?

Esther Ejim
By Esther Ejim
Updated Jan 22, 2024
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Language ideology is a theory whereby people are defined or judged by the language they speak. This involves different aspects of language including intonation, dialect, accent, grammar and vocabulary. The interaction of people from different backgrounds in a social setting invariably leads to the assignment of people to different categories. One of the methods of categorizing people is through the language they speak. Language ideology also applies to written forms of communication. An example of this can be seen in the distinct language used for sending text messages and for writing on social networking sites.

The application of language ideology has served as the basis of profiling people. This is a basis for social discrimination based on a person’s manner of speaking. For instance, certain sections of the inhabitants of a society may have become associated with a certain manner of speaking. The theory of language ideology states that when any member of that sector speaks in that manner, all of the assumptions and prejudices harbored against the group as a whole will automatically be transferred to that person. Such a person does not need to be physically seen for the assumption to apply. He or she may simply be talking on the phone to another member of the general society and the manner of speaking will lead to the association.

Another example of the application of language ideology is in the assumption of class through manner of speech. Hearing someone speak with an upper-class British accent may lead to favorable conclusions about the person even without seeing him or her. This assumption is not based on the person; rather, it is based on the attributes that have been associated with that manner of speech. The same applies to grammar. Someone who cannot speak English well may be thought of as uneducated.

Dialects also play a role in the application of language ideologies. If two tribes within a country that speak different dialects are fighting each other, both sides may harbor feelings of hatred for the other. When any member of either side of the conflict hears anyone speak in the language of the other side, the feelings of hatred and suspicion will automatically be transferred to that person. It would not matter if the person was born in another country and had only come to visit for the first time. The mere fact that the person spoke the other dialect would mean that such a person was the enemy by the transference of ideas about the tribe as a whole.

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Discussion Comments

By umbra21 — On Jul 17, 2012

@irontoenail - Well, it depends on how old the person is I think. It's the same thing as accents. Without training, or very careful practice, it's almost impossible to remove an accent no matter how long the person is in another country, or how long they are unable to speak their mother tongue.

Apparently the accent is cemented around the time a person hits puberty. If you move a child to another country and they learn the language, they will only have a faint accent at the most. But if you move a teenager, they will have an accent. I've heard that it's actually to do with attraction.

People are usually attracted to foreign accents and if someone has one, it's a sign that they might have a different immune system to you and that you might have healthier children together.

I guess that in some of the cases it mentioned in the article, people would have a natural dislike of a particular accent as well. I've noticed, for example, that some Americans really love the British accent while others don't like it at all, probably according to their individual prejudice.

By irontoenail — On Jul 17, 2012

This is really interesting and it reinforces something I read once about how human beings understand language. The fact is, we take in most of our information about meaning in non verbal ways. We will get more from the way a sentence is said, from the intonation, from the beats and pauses, from the accent and emphasis, than we do from the words themselves.

A lot of this isn't conscious of course. You probably don't think to yourself, oh that's an upward inflection, she must be asking a question. But, you will react instinctively to the inflection regardless, because it's been trained into you from childhood. I imagine that kind of conditioning is very difficult to break.

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