Multilingual education and prejudice


Almost all the British papers have carried the story this week that Gladstone Primary School in Peterborough has not a single native English speaking pupil out of 450. Predictably the story as run by the Daily Mail and the Daily Express is slanted towards the anti-immigration lobby, but the reason I mention it here is that the Mail, although not the Express, or any other report that I can find, talks about European and Asian languages (many of which are named, including Dari), but adds “and four African dialects”.

Is this purely ignorance on the part of the author, Andrew Levy, or is it a way of subliminally introducing racism – that the linguistic codes used in Africa are not worthy of the designation “language”?

Linguistically there is no reason for distinguishing between the two groups of languages. I had thought that the use of “dialect”, to mean an obscure language spoken in out of the way places, had died out by now, but I was obviously mistaken.

All the reports, including the Mail and Express ones, do point out that the school has been given a good report following the latest visit by Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools.


  1. It’s true that the word “dialect” tends to be used disparagingly, although it’s perfectly natural for any language to have regional dialects or variations. I wonder if there is such a thing as a language that has no “standard” form, so that all variants are equally acceptable? Often the form used in the capital is taken as a standard, although in Britain – particularly in England, I suppose – the RP form of standard English is more an indicator of social class and education than of the speaker’s geographic origins.

    It’s not always crystal clear what is a language and what is a dialect. Hindi is spoken over such a vast area of India that there are those who would class some regional variants, e.g. Bihari and Rajasthani, as separate languages.

    And then there’s the old cliché that “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy”. During the almost five hundred years when Norway was part of Denmark, I’m sure most Danes looked on Norwegian as an aberrant, rather coarse form of Danish. But when Norway achieved political independence its dialect or rather dialects was/were promoted to being a language!

    I almost forgot – meant to add that the different Chinese languages such as Mandarin and Cantonese are often referred to by English-speakers as dialects, although they are quite separate tongues. I suppose the thinking is that there is an abstract linguistic entity which is “Chinese”, then there are these regional forms or “dialects” of it. If you think that way, then English, Swedish, Portuguese and Slovene are all dialects of “European”.


  2. Maybe Mr. Levy labours under the illusion that was held by a number of my students over the years that there is “an African language” — just one!

  3. I recall many years ago going to dinner in central Belfast with colleagues from Ulster University. One of my close friends who was there is Mehroo Northover, a Parsi who speaks English, Gujerati, and some Tamil etc. The then partner of another colleague (the partner not being a UU person) asked Mehroo whether “she spoke Indian” … 🙁

  4. Perhaps ‘dialect’ is being used here as a synonym for ‘language’, ie the reporter was just avoiding repeating words. Also, without further information on the ‘four African dialects’ we can’t tell what the reporter started from. There may be some ignorance, but I wouldn’t be taliking about racism yet.

  5. Michael – The OED starts its definition of ‘dialect’ with the words “Manner of speaking, language, speech”, by which I understand – and this is backed up by the examples which follow – not “language, speech, or manner of speaking”, but “manner of speaking, manner of language, manner of speech”. So it is not defined as a synonym of ‘language’. The exception is when we talk of a ‘family of languages’ (e.g. the Romance languages, or the Germanic languages) when French, Spanish, and Italian, or English German and Swedish, respectively, may be described as [some of the] dialects of Romance or Germanic. In common parlance, ‘dialect’ is understood as something inferior to ‘language’, and so when used by a populist writer is likely to reinforce prejudices rather than remove them. I must stress that linguists do not use the word ‘dialect’ in a disparaging way, but as a technical term to distinguish one variety of a language from another.
    I wrote to Mr Levy asking for clarification of his meaning, but have not received a reply.

  6. Sorry, I wasn’t clear. I didn’t say that I believed that ‘dialect’ = ‘language’. I was trying to imply that perhaps the author used ‘dialect’ as a (perhaps mistaken) synonym for ‘language’. I was thinking of Fowler and ‘elegant variation’. But I could be wrong.

  7. Michael – I wasn’t clear either: I wasn’t ‘accusing’ you of believing that dialect = language. It was to clear up this point in Levy’s article that was the reason for my writing to him. His failure to reply may be either that he never answers messages from the public (I’ve come across that attitude before), or that he doesn’t want to engage in a discussion which he suspects will turn to his disadvantage.

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