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Review of  Linguistic Diversity and Social Justice

Reviewer: Mary Hudgens Henderson
Book Title: Linguistic Diversity and Social Justice
Book Author: Ingrid Piller
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Anthropological Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 28.525

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


“Linguistic Diversity and Social Justice: An Introduction to Applied Sociolinguistics” by Ingrid Piller examines the intersection between language and social (in)justice in various aspects of society (such as work, education, and civic participation). As an exploration of linguistically-based social injustice, the author draws attention to how language discrimination compounds with racism, sexism, classism, and other social hierarchies to reproduce power structures. Potential reading audiences include students of social justice, critical pedagogy students, social workers, and others interested in the effects of globalization and the global spread of English.

In the Introduction (Chapter 1) Piller presents the conundrum that linguistic diversity is both celebrated and demonized. The goals of the book are presented: (1) provide an overview of contemporary research in linguistic diversity and social justice; (2) call attention to linguistic diversity as a compelling issue in social justice debates. The book’s focus is primarily on the relationship between linguistic diversity and economic inequality, cultural domination, and political participation.

Chapter 2 explains the term “linguistic difference” and how diversity within a language is often more socially relevant than between languages. The author explains that linguistic difference is often hierarchically structured because the ways in which people communicate are valued differently. The author presents Abram de Swaan’s language pyramid schema, in which 5,000-6,000 world languages are categorized as “peripheral” or local languages, used primarily for conversation. The next layer in the pyramid is around one hundred “central languages”, which are used for official purposes in many nation-states. About one dozen “super-central” languages serve international and business purposes, while English alone sits at the apex of the language pyramid as the “hyper-central” language. The author explains that local languages often follow this pyramid hierarchy model among each other as well. The author points out that everyone is linguistically and culturally diverse, but only a minority section of the population gets labeled as “diverse” from the mainstream, thereby contributing to inequality among social groups. The author gives an example (among others) of Turkey’s attempts to assimilate its various speakers into one homogenous linguistic group.

Chapter 3 examines discursive processes through which non-mainstream language use is subordinated by obscuring it or problematizing it. The author presents the territorial principle, through which an association is made with language and state (such as English with the United States). The territorial principle results in two injustices: 1) real-life speaking practices get subsumed under a language umbrella (such as Alsatian being categorized as German), and 2) speakers of languages that do not have long-standing historical ties to a place (such as Turkish in Germany) are regarded as not belonging. The author offers the example of the English-only ideology in the United States, where civic participation and citizenship are tied to speaking English exclusively. People who are learning or who do not yet know a language are often blamed for their low proficiency, an injustice which is compounded by the reality that achieving a high level of language proficiency is mediated by social status of the learner (age, socioeconomic status, gender, prior education, etc.). The author emphasizes that judgments about language are ultimately judgments about speakers.

The next three chapters focus on linguistic diversity in work, education, and civic participation. Chapter 4 focuses on how language proficiency is perceived to be the main barrier to employment. However, the author presents situations in which migrants are underemployed or unemployed for reasons that are not connected to target language proficiency. Speakers must follow hidden pragmatic norms while avoiding racial and gender bias in the interview process. Linguistic diversity intersects with race, ethnicity and other social categories to exclude non-mainstream speakers from the labor force.

Chapter 5 focuses on education and the monolingual habitus of schools with multilingual students. Many schools use one mainstream language as the medium of academic learning without taking into account all students’ language learning needs. Although the submersion education method has been identified as a violation of civil rights (Lau v. Nichols 1974), it is still a common education approach. The author discusses the example of Székely Land in Romania, in which Hungarian speakers do not receive appropriate mother-tongue education due to lack of resources. The Székely Hungarians are submersed in Romanian with inadequate preparation to learn content through a language that is foreign to them but not foreign to curriculum designers. The collective underperformance of non-mainstream groups in education is often misinterpreted as reflective of these students’ abilities, as opposed to the failure of schools, policy makers and test designers to adequately educate them.

Chapter 6 discusses community participation and multilingual access to community services, such as emergency responders. The author outlines examples in which social organization may convert linguistic diversity into an obstacle to participation, with a focus on gender. Linguistic discrimination can also spiral into linguistically-related violence, connected to racial and gender-based violence. Microaggressions and linguistic alienation compound the limited participation of linguistically non-mainstream speakers. The author reminds us of Bourdieu’s assertion that social acceptability is not limited to grammaticality, but related to knowledge of pragmatic norms. Therefore, it is not appropriate to blame the victims and assume that disadvantaged speakers are at fault for not accessing community services because they do not (yet) speak the language.

Chapter 7 focuses on the global ramifications of linguistic injustice. A global language hierarchy places English in a privileged position, and inner-circle English-speaking countries are privileged compared to outer-circle English-speaking countries (Kachru 1985). Linguistic imperialism and promises of economic development promote the dominance of English globally and the linguistic assimilation of non-mainstream speakers. The intense valuation of English language education reinforces social hierarchies between those that have access to high quality English language learning resources and those who do not. English is correlated with educational excellence because many top universities are located in center-circle countries; students in outer-circles are assumed to have low academic capabilities if they do not speak English proficiently. English has become the main vehicle of knowledge dissemination, but academic excellence is not guaranteed with English proficiency. Overvaluation of English can lead to psychological issues such as shaming, self-marginalization, and linguistic self-depreciation.

Chapter 8 makes explicit how the linguistic privilege of native English speakers is related to linguistic domination of other languages and speakers. Just as racism and sexism are better understood with racial and gender privilege, linguistically dominant speakers need education regarding their privilege to promote empathy and ally behaviors. As nations become more culturally and linguistically diverse, national strength may become inflated with linguistic homogeneity.


“Linguistic diversity and social justice: An introduction to applied sociolinguistics” meets the author’s goal of linking linguistic discrimination with other forms of injustice and discrimination. Throughout the book, the author includes illuminating examples and anecdotes of each concept under discussion. Examples range from Vietnamese nail salons, the Turkish Language Reform, sociological studies of migrant women, and how academics from non-Western institutions play up their experiences with center-circle institutions. The examples in each chapter are enlightening, surprising, and heart-breaking. The reader does not need to be a sociolinguist in order to understand the premise of this book; the book cites very few sociolinguistic studies, in fact. Most of the reported research is related in some way to what the field of sociolinguistics has uncovered in the last 50-60 years, namely, that language varieties are communicatively equal, but they are not socially equal due to perceptions and social prejudices (cf. Meyerhoff 2011 for an introduction to sociolinguistics). The author does not include research that has found specific phonetic variants to trigger social categorizations (e.g. Mack & Munson 2012), or research in how social information impacts dialect perception (e.g. Niedzielski 1999), so readers trained in sociolinguistics may be disappointed. Nevertheless, for readers with no background in (socio)linguistics, this text is an excellent introduction to how language is connected to local and global power structures.

The chapter on education (Chapter 5) does not mention recent efforts in bringing linguistics into K-12 education, which include teaching students to recognize the systematicity of non-mainstream language practices (e.g., Charity Hudley & Mallinson 2011, Godley & Loretto 2013; West Brown 2009). A surprising omission was a discussion of ethnic identity development as it related to language (e.g. Noels 2014); linguistic identity is relevant considering the focus on discrimination and social injustice. Nevertheless, the book promotes a critical examination of how language plays a role in discrimination and prejudice, with concrete examples in each chapter.


Charity Hudley, Anne & Mallinson, Christine. 2011. Understanding English language variation in U.S. schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

Godley, Amanda J. and Loretto, Adam. 2013. Fostering counter-narratives of race, language, and identity in an urban English classroom. Linguistics and Education, 24(3). 316-327.

Kachru, Braj. 1985. Standards, codification, and sociolinguistic realism: The English language in the outer circle. In R. Quirk & H.G. Widdowson (Eds.), English in the world: Teaching and learning the language and literatures (pp. 11-30). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mack, Sara and Munson, Benjamin. 2012. The influence of /s/ quality on ratings of men's sexual orientation: Explicit and implicit measures of the ‘gay lisp’ stereotype. Journal of Phonetics, 40(1). 198-212. doi:10.1016/j.wocn.2011.10.002

Meyerhoff, Miriam. 2011. Introducing sociolinguistics, 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge.

Niedzielski, Nancy. 1999. The Effect of Social Information on the Perception of Sociolinguistic Variables. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 18. 62-85. doi:10.1177/0261927X99018001005

Noels, Kimberly A. 2014. Language variation and ethnic identity: A social psychological perspective. Language & Communication, 35. 88-96. doi:10.1016/j.langcom.2013.12.001

West Brown, David. 2009. In other words: Lessons on grammar, code-switching, and academic writing. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann.
Dr. Mary Hudgens Henderson is Assistant Professor of Spanish at Winona State University. Her research connects the study of language variation to educational justice by improving language attitudes and sociolinguistic awareness in the classroom. For students who do not speak a mainstream language variety, it is critical for teachers and peers to appreciate the rule-governed nature of nonstandardized grammars to truly affirm linguistic and cultural diversity. She investigates language attitudes regarding Spanish, language contact and change, and second language acquisition. She directs the Bilingual/Bicultural Education minor program for prospective teachers.

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9780199937264
Pages: 296
Prices: U.S. $ 29.95