A row of Duolingo characters looking confused. From left to right: Lin, Lily, Oscar, Vikram.

Being self-conscious about speaking or your accent isn't only something that happens to new learners—you can have insecurities or anxiety around speaking your own language, too.

Have you ever heard—or been told!—any of the following about English?

  • Don't end a sentence with a preposition!
  • "Y'all" isn't a real word!
  • Double negatives are illogical! (or: Double negatives actually mean a positive!)
  • "Pecan" is pronounced PEE-can, not pe-KAHN!

But, these “rules” are completely arbitrary! In fact, some ways of speaking are revered in one place, but stigmatized in another, like pronouncing the "r" in English. In the U.K., the fanciest accents don't pronounce all the written "r" sounds, but in the U.S., accents that don't pronounce those "r" sounds (e.g. the Boston or New York accent) are often mocked (like the Boston accent in this Hyundai commercial).

So, why do we praise some features and shame others? Let's find out!

What is “good” or “right” when it comes to language?

Typically, the version of a language that is considered "correct" is the one used by people in power: often white, middle- and upper-class populations. It's not that the powerful people choose some especially logical, beautiful, or good way to talk, but rather their way of talking, whatever way that might be, becomes the "standard.” Then, over time, that standard might remain in place for decades or centuries, even though the way people speak is always changing.

The language “rules” we hear about usually come from this prestigious standard. But, there are actually two kinds of rules: those that people use to tell others how to talk, and those that describe how a community uses a language (the second kind of rules are called “grammar”!).

The statements in bold (from earlier in this post) are examples of the “tell others” kind of rules in English. Let’s revisit them to see how “breaking” these “rules” is actually just following a different set of rules.

  • Don't end a sentence with a preposition! This “rule” was actually coined by a bishop! In English, ending a sentence with a preposition is extremely common, and often necessary. We all can agree that “To what are you up?” just sounds WEIRD compared to “What are you up to?” Unlike languages like Spanish and French, where all people from all dialects move prepositions to the front, English grammar gives us more flexibility!
  • "Y'all" isn't a real word! It's a weird quirk of English that we use the same word for "you" whether we're talking to one person or a crowd of people—most European languages have different words for these cases! So it's no surprise that English speakers have created new words to help clarify. “Y’all” is just one example! Originating from the phrase “you all,” and particularly popular in the Southern U.S., “y’all” is used in all contexts where plural “you” is used!
  • Double negatives are illogical! (or: Double negatives actually mean a positive!) In English, negative sentences are formed with the word "not" plus other words to show negation; in some dialects those other words start with "any-" ("I do not want to go anywhere with anyone!"), but in many other dialects those words start with "no-" ("I do not want to go nowhere with noone!"). These different negative words evolved hundreds of years ago! Besides, when someone uses two negatives to actually mean a positive, they will usually emphasize the second negative—“I can’t NOT do my Duolingo lesson today!”
  • “Pecan” is pronounced PEE-can, not pe-KAHN! This age-old debate is really just a difference in stress placement—some people emphasize the first part of the word, while others emphasize the second part. And, if you’re wondering, both pronunciations are “correct” in English—the word comes from the Algonquian language family, indigenous to North America, and so neither pronunciation is like the original.

Structured, systematic explanations, like the ones above, can be found for grammar rules in any language! That’s because all language fits into a grammatical system, even if we think it breaks a rule. For example, in Spanish, the "standard" pronunciation is to say all the written "s" sounds, as in buenos días ("good morning"), which many dialects will pronounce with an "s" at the end of each word. But in other Spanish dialects, especially in the Caribbean, it's common for speakers to not pronounce many written "s" sounds, depending on what comes before and after the "s." Listen to how Bad Bunny, who is from Puerto Rico, pronounces buenos días! This is sometimes described as se come la s ("the s gets eaten").

How do our language beliefs affect us?

Our language biases are rooted in politics, culture, and life experience, which combine to shape how we interact with people who use different dialects or languages. But not all biases are bad! For example, if you grow up hearing a variety of accents, it might be easier for you to understand accents that you’ve never heard.

However, language biases can also lead to linguistic discrimination, or unfair treatment towards people that use language differently. Unfortunately, this is quite common, and sometimes gets disguised as humor or teasing, like in this competition for “America’s Ugliest Accent.”.

While an accent competition may seem like good fun, dialects are often stigmatized beyond internet quizzes. And, because of unequal power structures, dialects used by communities of color and immigrants are more often labeled as “non-standard.” In turn, many of these stereotypes disproportionately affect communities of color and/or immigrants.

Negative perceptions about how someone speaks can influence education policies, annual income, and even access to housing. Language biases can lead to many different cycles of inequality—from lack of educational opportunities to unfair pay practices. This can be disheartening, since we know that at its best, language can (and should) inspire curiosity about a new community, and offer a new way to build empathy with family, peers, and neighbors.

Language is connected to identity and expression!

How we use language reflects who we are. When someone uses “y’all,” they are revealing a part of their identity, such as where they grew up.

Whatever beliefs or biases someone attaches to “y’all” can be positive (e.g. “Oh! I wonder if they are from the South, like me!”), negative (e.g. “Oh man, they used ‘y’all’ so they probably aren’t from here”), or neutral (e.g. ”Oh, ‘y’all’ isn't a word I hear much.” shrug).

In fact, someone can perceive the same feature as positive, negative, AND neutral depending on who is using that feature, due to their biases. Black content creators who use African American Language have pointed out that they get less engagement (views, comments, likes, and shares), which can mean less income per post. However, white creators are able to use linguistic features appropriated from African American Language (like “What you tryna do” from the song in this TikTok) to increase engagement. Because of language biases, the same linguistic features are viewed positively for some speakers and not others.

Being a speaker of a dialect that is perceived as non-standard is not always something that people can turn off—nor should they have to! Your language is an important part of what makes you, well, you, so having part of your identity stolen or stigmatized naturally feels insulting at best and degrading and dehumanizing at worst.

So, what can we do?

Now that you have been enlightened to the serious reality of linguistic biases and discrimination, you’re probably wondering “What can I do?”

  • Build awareness. Building awareness around the inequality that exists in language is the first step! Increasing awareness can help reduce the negative perceptions surrounding non-standard dialects. These negative perceptions are built into our society, and most people don’t even realize it! So, share this post with friends and family, and take some time to reflect on biases you may have!

  • Do some research. Is there a particular accent or dialect that you are connected to or interested in? Learning about the intricacies of different dialects can open your world up to understanding linguistic diversity! So, do your research on different dialects (through credible sources) to understand them better!

  • Be curious. As a language learner, be mindful of linguistic variation even when studying your new language! You might encounter speakers from different countries or regions that speak your new language in a way that is different from how you are learning it. Instead of pointing out the differences as one of you being “right” or “wrong,” have a discussion about them! You both might be able to learn something new!

The truth is every single speaker has a different life experience that contributes to how they speak their language(s). Besides, nobody meets the “standard” at all times for all features, anyway. So, the next time you hear a different dialect or accent, instead of making assumptions about the speaker, marvel at the beauty that is linguistic variation!