Language shaming: enacting linguistic subordination


The value of a particular way of using language is always relative to other ways of using language. It is often assumed – and implicit in the terms ‘minority’ and ‘majority’ language – that linguistic hierarchies are largely a function of the size of a speech community and the communicative reach of a language. Consequently, attempts to enhance the value of a minority language usually operate within a group framework and seek to enhance the status and reach of the language by increasing speaker numbers, inserting it into new domains or fostering pride in speakership. Important as this approach has been, it overlooks that much linguistic disadvantage is tied not to minority language use per se but to stigmatized ways of using a dominant language; in other words, linguistic disadvantage is frequently the result of language use that is marked by traces of late acquisition and subordinate identities.

Therefore, I propose to examine processes of linguistic subordination and will focus specifically on linguistic stigma as it is enacted through shaming. By language shaming I mean (social) media campaigns or face-to-face interactions that deride, disparage or demean particular ways of using language. Although language shaming has received relatively little attention in sociolinguistics, it is, in fact, widespread and a key component of linguistic subordination. I will present examples of language shame campaigns from a variety of international contexts.

Research into other forms of stigma has shown that shaming has deleterious effects on the groups and individuals concerned and may reinforce the stigmatized traits or behaviours, may result in low self-esteem, a lack of self-worth and social alienation. Against this background, I will conclude by examining the consequences of language shaming for the language learning and settlement experiences of adult migrants.


Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Her research expertise is in the sociolinguistics of intercultural communication, language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization. She is the author of Bilingual Couples Talk, Intercultural Communication and Linguistic Diversity and Social Justice, which won the 2017 Prose Award in the ‘Language and Linguistics’ category. Ingrid also serves as editor-in-chief of Multilingua, curates Language on the Move and tweets about language-related matters @lg_on_the_move.