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