I, like many of the people who lived with friends whilst at university, spent a lot of time arguing over the correct way to say “grass” “bath” and “castle”. The ‘right’ name for a bread roll (a cob? a balm? a bap? a teacake?) was an ongoing debate and everyone spent the first week of freshers trying to mimic each other’s regional twangs.
What I did not realise was that accents, the words you use and the colloquialisms you adopt can go a long way in creating a “class ceiling”; with the most elite companies favouring people without regional accents and dialects. In fact, a 2015 study found that people who stayed completely silent were viewed as more intelligent than those with a Birmingham accent. Another study even linked a person’s accent to their likelihood of committing crime.
But it is not just about the accent you use to make your point, it is the way in which you do that.
Sociologist and linguist Basil Bernstein wrote extensively about the difference between the ways that working class and middle class students use language. He called these “Elaborate (middle-class) and Restricted (working-class) Code”. In short, elaborate code pulls from an extensive repertoire of vocabulary and is able to adapt to a variety of social situations allowing the user to manipulate their linguistic resources to make their point. Restricted code uses a much less formal sentence structure and an often narrower vocabulary (especially synonyms).
So, why does this matter?
School is taught in elaborate code. Exam mark schemes require certain words and sentence structures. Whether or not your writing adheres to the ‘academic’ style at university (and even pre-uni with personal statements/applications) is dependent almost entirely on your ability to manipulate vocabulary and syntax. To receive qualifications, score highly in speaking exams and become more ‘academic’, you need to be able to master elaborate code, which for some seems unnatural and antagonistic to their communication styles at home.
Now, I pose this question: does it really matter how someone explains photosynthesis as long as they have a solid understanding? Does the way you speak about a subject denote that you know more or less about it? Is an essay written in perfect academic form more of a worthwhile read than one that is not? If I use colloquialisms, am I worse at my job?
Radical change would see schools and universities recognise the merits of all forms and expressions of knowledge. Maybe a conversation about Macbeth is just as valid as an essay?
In any case, as potential future employers and interviewees alike, what we can do for now is our best to recognise privileges and mitigate bias.
And if you cannot? well, yu’m thick ay ya.
Blog Post by Jennifer Love, Midlands Programme Officer