Prejudice surrounding youth language?

By Rob Drummond

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the ways in which some young people face prejudice because of the way they speak and use language. The reason I’ve been thinking about it is that I found myself explaining the project to someone at university who has no involvement with language or young people or anything related to the work we are doing, and framing it in the reality of linguistic prejudice seemed like an accessible way in to what we are researching. This is nothing new for me – the idea that the language of some young people is looked down upon is so central to the reasons for starting the project that it is second nature to describe it in these terms. However, what was different this time was that the person I was talking to asked what evidence I had that young people do indeed face this prejudice. I then explained about newspaper articles such as this one in the Daily Mail, and this one in the Telegraph, and of course the musings of Lindsay Johns, and she immediately seemed to be aware of the kind of things I was talking about; but she did get me thinking about what constitutes evidence in this kind of context.

The thing is, I know there is underlying prejudice in relation to the language of young people, but I am unsure how I know, or whether I just think I know. Maybe I only know because I have been looking for it – looking for articles like the ones above in which people explicitly write about the ways in which young people are making themselves unemployable due to the way they speak. But there aren’t actually that many. Sure, the ones that are there are very strongly worded, and Lindsay Johns alone does a great job of demonising urban youth language, but is that enough to claim prejudice, now, in 2015? After all, Lindsay Johns himself has been pretty quiet on the topic for the last couple of years.

Of course I could look at the online comments below the articles to get a wider viewpoint. Sure enough, these are filled with poisonous views about how ‘stupid’ young people sound these days with their ‘fake Jamaican accents’ and their ‘innits’ and ‘bluds’ and how this limits their chances of getting anywhere but the dole or prison. But does this constitute prejudice in any meaningful way? Yes, prejudice undoubtedly exists in these comments, but do the views represent actual people (as opposed to anonymous commenters) who young people will actually come into contact with? Are the views expressed here having any effect (is effect necessary for prejudice to be real)? You can find hate-filled comments against pretty much any section of society of you look hard enough online, and doing so seems a bit like cherry-picking evidence to suit your argument – something that sits uncomfortably with most researchers.

I did try (and am still trying) to gather data myself on people’s attitudes towards the language of young people by launching an online survey. While it is generating some fascinating and useful opinions, I am fully aware that the self-selecting participants are far more likely to be skewed in favour of open-mindedness when it comes to issues of language variation and change purely on the basis of the kind of people who follow me on twitter, visit this site, share the link, and are willing to take the time to respond. Or maybe I’m wrong and this is a fair reflection of society – that people generally do welcome language change, and see youth (s)language as a positive thing.

My colleague on the project noted how interesting it is that we haven’t actually come across talk of prejudice at all in our research so far. This again made me worry that I was making a big deal out of not very much. But then again, would we expect to come across prejudice, given that we have spent our time with a) young people who have generally not had to deal with job interviews yet and who do not tend to read opinion pieces in the Telegraph or the Daily Mail, and b) adults who clearly enjoy working with these young people and who are familiar with their use of language? And even if we caught up with them two years down the line – how might we expect any prejudice to manifest itself then? Do we expect them to be explicitly told they didn’t get the job because of the way they spoke in an interview? Unlikely.

So where does that leave us? I am still convinced there is an underlying prejudice towards some young people because of the way they speak. In the same way that there was (and still is, but to a lesser extent) prejudice against regional accents in the UK. Part of this belief comes from the recognition I almost always get when I explain what it is I do, and part of it comes from always being aware of comments in newspapers, online, and on twitter about the issue. Maybe I simply need to make more of an effort to collect all of these comments when I see them and build up evidence that way. I could then balance this against the generally positive views on language we get from the young people and those who work with them, and the varied responses from my own survey. Our research does not depend on there being prejudice, far from it; but if there is prejudice, it would be good to know in order that we might be able to challenge it with what we have found.

So, I’ll leave you with a small task. If you read this, and have a view, please let me know by commenting or emailing I’m especially interested in three things:

  1. Whether you feel some young people face prejudice because of the way they speak.
  2. Whether you feel I am making a mountain out of a molehill.
  3. Can you think of an approach to identify the evidence one way or another?

I should point out that I am not looking for examples of why some young people shouldn’t face prejudice because of the way they speak – we have more evidence than we know what to do with to show that young people are able to use and manipulate language in the most sophisticated ways, and that they are equally able to use contextually appropriate ‘standard’ language when they need to. I’d just like to know if the prejudice exists.