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Language and Disadvantage
by Dimitrios Thanasoulas
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4.1.2. Classroom register

As has been hinted at above, classroom register 'involves linguistic constraints which are social rather than intrinsic to the material being learned' (Edwards, 1976: 155). Thus, its chief function is to maintain social distance between teacher and students, reminding the latter of their dependence on the authority of the former to make pronouncements on what is correct, incorrect, or downright prosaic. Furthermore, classroom register is an essential vehicle for the dissemination of the mainstream culture, and it does not take much perspicacity to realise that it is this kind of register, rather than subject-specific language, that accentuates social disadvantage in school. It could be said that the transmission of culture is inextricably related to 'the distance between the linguistic and cultural competence implicitly demanded by the schools, and the competence inculcated by the home' (Bourdieu, 1973: 73, cited in Edwards, 1976: 155).
Within the context of an institution that has always associated Standard English with intelligence, confidence, status, and prestige, the use of non-standard language is extirpated from its milieu, on the grounds that it is not capable of imparting specific, nuanced meanings of any academic merit. Besides, according to teachers, who are actually the preservers of mainstream culture and ideology, '[i]t is not enough to communicate, it is also necessary to communicate properly' (Edwards, 1989: 100), adjusting one's linguistic behaviour to the context of situation, i.e., knowing, among other things, the etiquette of speech. Clearly related to 'etiquette' is the demarcation of roles, which should impose constraints on what is said, by whom and how. In this light, the pupils must be able to assign a second, deeper meaning to fairly neutral or even ambiguous linguistic cues-a task that the "disadvantaged" child is bound to find unprepossessing to cope with. For instance, the students are supposed to be able to construe the following sentences as 'imperative' in function: "Would you please close your books now?" or "Someone is talking." In other words, they 'must subordinate their behaviour to the role-relationship' (Edwards, 1976: 163).
Another skill that the pupil needs to master is that of categorising and correctly answering various types of questions. Barnes (1975b, cited in Edwards, 1976: 171) identifies three broad categories:

- Factual (or 'what') questions-naming ("What is this called?") or informative ("What happened when we added the acid to the zinc?")

- 'Open' questions not calling for reasoning-factual ("Tell me something about Magellan") or observational ("What do you notice in this picture?")

- Reasoning ('how', 'why') questions.

Given that 'the type of question asked also has far-reaching communicative consequences, as well as…cognitive implications' (Edwards, 1976: 171), it is no wonder that some children lacking the necessary cognitive skills to tackle such distinctions will be assigned the label "disadvantaged children" and suffer the consequences that this entails.

4.1.3. Lectal Bias and Standard English

So far, it has become clear that the cards are stacked against "disadvantaged" children-not only because of any putative shortcomings that their home lives may exhibit, but also mainly on the grounds of the very language they speak. To a greater or lesser degree, this social bias that plagues school life becomes what is referred to as lectal bias-reified by various 'screening tests', such as normal language development and achievement tests, which purport to test students' knowledge of standard English (see Fasold, 1990: 286). On the face of it, the rationale underlying these tests is unexceptionable. There are several sets of test items administered to a sample of the population at schools; then, these items become 'normed' in that the developers of the tests decide whether the scores obtained 'approximate the range and distribution of the scores that the whole population would get if it were possible to give it to everyone' (ibid.: 286). Later, individual scores are compared to the "large-scale" scores and inferences are made about a particular student's language development.
But what happens when a child speaking a vernacular dialect with grammatical and syntactic rules different from Standard English is called on to do these tests? Let us adduce the following examples (found in Fasold, 1990: 286-287):

- Beth {come, came} home and cried.
- Can you {went, go} out now?
- When {can, may} I come again?

These sentences were provided in the 'Language Use' section of the California Achievement Test and students were required to choose one of the words in the brackets. It is patently obvious that a child speaking Standard English and coming from a background where the use of 'correct' grammar and distinguishing among various ways of making requests have been encouraged and rewarded will take the test in her stride. Conversely, a student with a 'non-standard' background will have difficulty conforming to the model of 'normal' or 'correct' English. In cognisance of the fact that in his vernacular dialect there is no distinction between present and past forms of verbs, it is reasonable to anticipate such 'errors' as "Beth come home and cried." In this light, the second sentence will cause no difficulties. As for the third one, chances are that he will choose the form that he seldom encounters, i.e., 'may'.
These types of tests, along with the present education systems in Britain and the USA, leave much to be desired as they have overlooked a wide range of parameters in their evaluations of what is correct and incorrect in language use. Is it reasonable to assert that the so-called "disadvantaged" child fails such tests because he does not understand them? Can one say that the child using 'come' instead of 'came' suffers from a cognitive deficit that precludes him from conceptualising the world in terms of such features as past, present, or future?
The answer is no. The poor child suffers from a social deficit present, not in himself, but in those around him. As Edwards (1989: 100) observes,

[p]erhaps the first thing of importance is the realization that teachers, like all other members of society, hold perceptions concerning different language varieties. They are not immune from the attributions of prestige (or the lack of it) made of certain language variants.

The end-result is, among other things, 'linguistic insecurity' (Trudgill, 1975, cited in Grillo, 1989: 199) on the child's part. "Whatever I say is wrong," the child thinks, "so I'd better say nothing."
It goes without saying that there would be no "disadvantaged" children-at least of the kind we have considered here-if teachers and society at large disabused themselves of biased notions as to correct and appropriate language or behaviour. After all,

Standard English is a dialect…It is a sub-variety of English .....
selected…as the variety to become the standard variety precisely because it was the variety associated with the social group with the highest degree of power, wealth, and prestige (T. Bex & R. J. Watts, 1999: 123, 124).

Perhaps, a good way to combat social disadvantage in school is to take steps to ensure that teachers have a firm grounding in psychology and pedagogy, so that their expectations of certain groups of students will be flexible and amenable to change, if need be.

If we can somehow influence teachers before they begin their formal careers, perhaps we can bring about greater changes than will be possible once they are set into the system. And, in an area so plagued with set ways of thinking, and firm expectations, perhaps the most important factor to be stressed in teacher training is flexibility of outlook (Edwards, 1989: 123-124).

Besides, the 'sociolinguistic barriers' (Stubbs, 1983: 21, cited in Grillo, 1989: 200) that school erects should be removed creating an atmosphere where the 'potential clash between schools and minority social groups' (Fasold, 1990: 294) will be minimised. Two ways of achieving this have been proposed (see T. Bex & R. J. Watts, 1999). The first is to allow minority groups to receive education in their vernacular dialects; the second is to teach these groups in their own dialect during the first years at school, gradually adding Standard English into their repertoire. It seems then that bilingual or rather bi-dialectal education is a promising solution to social prejudice.

5. Conclusion

Disadvantage is often associated with language and the tendency to deviate from standard linguistic norms. Thus, social groups speaking non-standard varieties are lumped together under this term, even if they do not exhibit any inherent deficits, whatsoever. As a matter of fact, they are socially handicapped, as it is their social background, rather than their cognitive abilities, that is unfavourably judged. This handicap is accentuated in school, where all cultural and linguistic differences are jettisoned in favour of norms emphasising 'standard' or 'correct' English and mainstream ideology. What we could glean from this discussion is that school has contrived to 'mute' all those minority groups whose language and values are at odds with 'standard' culture. Nevertheless, this ignominious condition could change if the education system accepted differences without passing judgement on them. As Greenspan (1997: 230) puts it, '[a]n educational system that serves the needs of our society is compelled to recognize children's developmental levels, deal with individual differences, and foster dynamic affective interactions'.

- Bex, T. & Watts, R. J. 1999. Standard English: The widening
Debate. London: Routledge.
- Edwards, A. D. 1976. Language in culture and class. London:
- Edwards, J. R. 1989. Language and Disadvantage. 2nd edn.
London: Cole and Whurr Ltd.
- Fasold, R. W. 1990. The Sociolinguistics of language. Oxford:
- Greenspan, S. I. 1997. The Growth of the Mind and the Endangered
Origins of Intelligence. Massachusetts: Perseus Books.
- Grillo, R. 1990. Dominant Languages. Cambridge: University
- Honey, J. 1997. Language is power: the story of standard English and its enemies. London: Faber.


Dimitrios Thanasoulas studied English Literature and Linguistics at Athens University and then did an MA in Applied Linguistics at Sussex University. After that, he earned an MBA from Mooreland University and is currently finishing the second year of my PhD studies in Education at Nottingham University. His academic interests include fostering cultural awareness and learner autonomy, as well as such issues as language and ideology, Critical Discourse Analysis, Pragmatics, Sociolinguistics, and the Psychology of Education.


Dimitrios can be contacted at:

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