Youth, language, and prejudice

Prejudice exists throughout the whole of society, targeting gender, age, wealth, and education. But two researchers from Manchester Metropolitan University are documenting how prejudice also exists in language—and, in particular, how young people are discriminated against for the way they speak.

After two years spent monitoring the language used by a group of Manchester youths—through mock interviews or chats at the local bus stop—the UrBEn-ID project is soon to wrap up. The researchers Rob Drummond and Susan Dray have recorded a mass of interactions with students excluded from local schools, who are now attending Pupil Referral Units. In these government centres that work with youth outside mainstream schools, they certainly found a distinct linguistic identity. But they also found reason to challenge the idea that slang youth languages are corrupting kids in society.

Photo credit: Flickr/CC/Snipsnapper

Challenging linguistic prejudice

The project seeks to explore the construction of youth identities through language, particularly as this applies to marginalised youth in Manchester. But it’s also helping to challenge certain prejudices. On the project’s website Drummond is highly critical of commentators like Lindsay Johns and newspapers like the Daily Mail for their dismissal of youth language as being something akin to ‘ghetto grammar.’ Johns, for instance, says that ‘language is power’ and the seeming inability of disadvantaged youths to speak standard English is perpetuating their position in society. He thinks it prevents them from integrating in settings where ‘proper’ English is required, including the workplace.


But Drummond and Dray suggest instead that, while young people may develop their own style of language, they are also capable of returning to standard English when necessary. They call it ‘code-switching’: the ability to change between different linguistic variants depending on the context—and they see it as a skill, something to be encouraged. If some young people are less adept at switching to formal English, they say, it’s a problem of how literacy is being taught in schools, but not a problem with the slang per se.

Photo credit: Flickr/CC/Philip Goddard

Failing to acknowledge the practice of code-switching is to overestimate the hold linguistic variants have on individuals and to underestimate their grasp of the English language as a whole. Instead, Drummond and Dray suggest that youth language is more accurately associated with the desire to construct an identity than it is with educational failure. Which means that to attack youth language is much more personal than previously thought. ‘Language is so inextricably linked to issues of identity, community, friendship, and social practice, that to stigmatise and attack a particular way of speaking so strongly is to stigmatise and attack the very young people who use it,’ says Drummond on the project’s blog.

Choosing a linguistic identity

A major finding of the pair’s research—that ethnicity doesn’t determine the type of language used; rather, people tend to opt in to different linguistic identities—would seem to substantiate this idea. For example, Drummond and Dray focused on the use of a hard ‘t’ in words like ‘thing’ (thus pronounced ‘ting’), which is generally associated with Creole languages. They found that white, British youths are about as likely as someone of Caribbean heritage to use this trait. Determinants of use were more easily found in other practices that the participant valued and participated in. So young people using the hard ‘t’ were also more likely to participate in certain musical practices, like rapping and freestyling, than they were to be descended from a particular ethnicity.

Some traits people are born with; other traits they choose. Linguistic identity is an important expression of self and, to an extent, it’s something people choose in order to project a certain image. And so long as young people retain the ability to switch into formal English, there seems little use in inventing another form of prejudice targeting youth identity.

Madeleine Willis


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