Developing Teachers.com
A web site for the developing language teacher

Language and Disadvantage
by Dimitrios Thanasoulas
- 1


1. Introduction

There is no denying that the term disadvantage evokes images of poverty, disability, and lack of potential; to be at a disadvantage means to be discriminated against and looked down on. In short, it suggests that a specific social group differs from society at large because it evinces characteristics that deviate from the norm. For example, as Passow (1970: 16, cited in Edwards, 1989:1) notes, a disadvantaged child is one who

because of social or cultural characteristics (e.g. social class, race, ethnic origin, poverty, sex, geographical location etc.)…comes into the school system with knowledge, skills and attitudes which impede learning.

Given this definition, we can say that the notion "disadvantage" is to be seen as sociocultural in nature, inasmuch as what counts as disadvantage is a product of, and emanates from, society's value-laden attitudes towards social groups, rather than the latter's intrinsic qualities. Nevertheless, Passow's definition does not rule out the possibility of biological deficits arising from the environment in which certain "disadvantaged" individuals live. In this light, disadvantage should be construed as being the result of the interplay of class, genetic deficiencies and / or cultural environment. Bearing all this in mind, in the present study we will be concerned with the role of language in ascribing unfavourable attributes to students that do not conform to the "standard" world-view, as this is sanctioned and promoted by the socially potent. More specifically, we will look into the difficulties that speakers of vernacular dialects run into within the context of the English educational system, refraining from dwelling upon those faced by immigrants, precisely because the problems they encounter are comparable to those of native speakers of non-standard English. Moreover, it will be shown that British schools, concerned as they are with teaching and preserving Standard English, end up being 'monocultural' in an indisputably polycultural society, which constitutes 'the first and most damaging inequity foisted upon the poverty child' (Williams, 1971a: 5, cited in Edwards, 1976: 124). Rather than widening the Standard English debate, we maintain that it is inconceivable to regard languages as either good or bad because languages are not 'moral objects' (T. Bex & R. J. Watts, 1999: 16). Rather, '[i]t is the speakers of languages, and not the languages themselves, who live in a moral universe' (ibid.: 16).

2. Language and Disadvantage

As was mentioned above, disadvantage relates to all sorts of differences and shortcomings exhibited by certain individuals and groups, as the latter are unfavourably compared to mainstream norms and ideologies. It goes without saying that it is by dint of comparing people to certain others, rather than evaluating them on their own merits, that disadvantage arises. In view of this,

[i]f there were no contact between certain social groups and the surrounding society, disadvantage, as viewed here, would not exist. It is precisely because groups can differ from one another and yet still share many features in common that disadvantage, a relative term, can be reasonably applied…Disadvantage always involves a comparison, most often from a particular value position. Thus…many of the things considered disadvantageous are only so when judged against a middle-class standard (Edwards, 1989: 2).

It is blatantly obvious that this comparison, sweeping though it may be, often involves, and is inextricably related to, an evaluation of people's status, class, and education. Historically, ever since the fifteenth century, the British have been obsessed with class and the need to signal this by means of grammar, vocabulary, and accent, thus associating language with the social and cultural status of its speakers. Thus, language gradually became a social marker and certain standards of correctness and appropriateness were established, to the detriment of those in the lower ranks, who had not mastered the rules. As T. Bex & R. J. Watts (1999: 13) insightfully remark,

…the stigma attached to using incorrect forms results in discrimination, and it is this interrelationship between linguistic form and social discrimination that enables us to refer to the conceptualisation of 'Standard English' as ideological in its nature.

The stigma that Bex & Watts allude to is what Grillo (1989: 173) has dubbed as 'ideological motif', whereby there are some deeply ingrained beliefs that there are inferior languages and language varieties and their speakers evince a "deficit" that has to be remedied and compensated for.
In order to understand the relationship between language and disadvantage, we should first gain an insight into disadvantage itself by considering the approaches that have attempted to explain it and, specifically, to account for the difficulties that working-class students have in school.


2.1. Genetic deficit

In his attempt to account for the poor performance of some children (especially black) as well as for the failure of compensatory education, Arthur Jensen, in a seminal, albeit controversial, article in the Harvard Educational Review (1969a), argued that the causes of disadvantage are genetic in nature. In other words, some children lag behind at school because of certain cognitive or other deficits. In order to prove his contention, he investigated the genetic differences supposedly obtaining between social class and racial groups by means of intelligence tests. On all tests, whether they were culture-biased or culture-specific, blacks scored lower than whites, which, according to him, runs counter to the environmentalist assumption that poor performance is attributable to environmental deficits. One of the arguments that Jensen used to support the utility of these tests is that there are some groups that are more disadvantaged than blacks in terms of material goods, and yet perform better than the latter. Nevertheless, things are not as straightforward as he initially thought (of course, he has reconsidered many of his views, ranging from an environmental position to one of uncertainty, and then to one of genetic determinism-which attests to the fact that his theory is under constant change and should not be dismissed as racist). It remains a moot point whether one can grasp all the complexities of environmental difference that can be said to allow some people to do better on IQ tests and cause others to perform poorly.

2.2. Environmental deficit

Within the context of environmentalist theory, the disadvantaged child is unable to cope with school life and the challenge it presents by virtue of deficiencies in his physical, social and psychological background. Even though there is a general tendency for environmentalists to reject the importance of genetic factors, some of them concede that the interaction between genetic factors and environment makes an important contribution. The two major positions of this theory are sensory deprivation and social / cultural deprivation.
In accordance with sensory deprivation position, animals reared in isolation, and often in darkness, develop abnormally. Such deprivation may severely affect the development of learning and sexual behaviour, and lead to neural disorders or degeneration. Similarly, among human beings, the effects of sensory deprivation may prove pernicious, as was demonstrated in various experiments during the 1950s. Several subjects were asked to lie on a bed with no auditory, visual or somaesthetic stimulation. Those who endured this monotony complained of being unable to think in a coherent way, had hallucinations and their very identity began to disintegrate (Hebb, 1968, cited in Edwards, 1989). The implications of sensory deprivation for isolated and institutionalised children are that they often exhibit apathy and, in the long run, developmental retardation.
From the point of view of social / cultural deprivation theory, it has been put forward that lower class and minority children are deficient compared to those of the middle-class. As Edwards (1989: 17-18) says,

[i]t is, in fact, from this viewpoint that the deficit stance on disadvantage most often arises. That is, most who feel that the problems of disadvantaged children are actual deficiencies do not emphasize either genetic factors or sensory deprivation in their explanations. Rather, they stress the inadequate aspects of early socialization practices which lead to cognitive and emotional defects in children-defects which show up most clearly in the early school years.

In keeping with Edwards' keen observation, the Plowden Report stressed the importance of a wide range of factors resultant in disadvantage, such as large family size, overcrowded living conditions, socio-economic status, incomplete families, low value placed on education, and so on.

The home environment, in short, is viewed as one of noise, crowding and physical discomfort, in which children have little opportunity to learn and develop, and in which the usual (i.e. middle-class) parental role of tutor and guide is largely lacking. Such factors are seen to lead to deficits in the child's perceptual and conceptual abilities and…in his verbal development (ibid.: 19).

It is true that most of the times, the interaction between mother and child is lacking 'in encouragement to use language to enquire, discover and reason' (Edwards, 1976: 127), and thus denies the kid the opportunity to 'expand his emotional [and cognitive] space', to quote Greenspan (1997).
Consequently, the disadvantaged child is considered to be concerned with the here-and-now and the satisfaction of her 'concrete needs' (ibid.). For her, activities requiring thought and the school's concern with knowledge as a terminus ad quem are immaterial, if not downright hostile.
However, much as the deficit literature has afforded very useful insights into the causes of disadvantage, it has come under strong attack, being dismissed as a myth 'created and sustained by the authority of a social science which transforms differences into deficits, and then justifies remedies for weaknesses that are not really there' (Edwards, 1976: 125) (my emphasis). Moreover, Gordon (1968) believes that what is considered a "deficit" might well be seen as a strength, if the context of the disadvantaged child were taken into account. Similarly, Gordon (1965) notes that what is considered a deficit is merely a deviation from middle-class norms.

2.3. Difference, not deficiency

To subscribe to the difference view of disadvantage does not mean to deny that children from the lower classes do perform poorly or evince characteristics that as often as not lead to seemingly insurmountable difficulties in school. Yet, its proponents do not take "difference" to mean "deficit." Since it is taken for granted that there are no important inter-group differences in terms of cognitive ability, any differences that may arise simply reflect varying adaptations to the environment. Even Bernstein, whose theory of 'formal' ('elaborated') and 'public' ('restricted') codes contributed to the "deficit" literature, later reconsidered many of his views, noting that the term 'compensatory education' is infelicitous, insofar as it gives undue weight to the child's deficiencies rather than the school's shortcomings which have to be attended to.
Inherent in the difference view is a respect for social and cultural differences; a child coming from a working-class background should be encouraged to learn new things rather than to replace what he, consciously or subconsciously, brings to school. For this to happen, it is necessary that society be changed because linguistic intolerance-looming large in school-is embedded within the wider matrix of society, where difference is afforded social significance, or rather insignificance, and is denigrated as inferior or savage.

To page 2 of 3

Back to the articles index

Back to the top


Tips & Newsletter Sign up —  Current Tip —  Past Tips 
Train with us Online Development Courses    Lesson Plan Index
 Phonology — Articles Books  LinksContact
Advertising — Web Hosting — Front page


Copyright 2000-2016© Developing Teachers.com