Tuning in to Accentism: Dialect, discrimination and education in the Black Country


Supervisor: Sophie Holmes-Elliott

Non-accademic partner: Black Country Radio

Studentship start date: October 2021

Within the UK, each year thousands of children begin school only to find that the language variety they speak at home is at odds with the one used in the classroom. This was neatly illustrated when a Black Country primary school sent a letter to parents explaining that local dialect forms would no longer be tolerated in the classroom. However, local press coverage of the story revealed the parents’ reaction to be one of disdain, demonstrating how the standard language ideology within education is often at odds with how accent and dialect are experienced within the local community where they are a source of pride and connection. While research into language acquisition demonstrates the necessary milestones children must reach in order to be “ready for school”, much less research has looked at how dialectal diversity may impact on this journey, particularly when the variety spoken is stigmatised. Indeed, earlier work has shown that the denigration of local dialect forms can lead to lower engagement in class. The negative effects of these early experiences can have long lasting effects: they can be a contributing factor in lower academic attainment and in some cases create a barrier to literacy (Labov, 1994). Examples of accentism, or prejudice against an individual based on their linguistic background, can be found throughout society. If you speak with a Birmingham accent, a jury is more likely to find you guilty (Dixon et al., 2002). If a medical professional speaks with Korean accented American English, they are perceived to be less trustworthy (Pantos and Perkins, 2012). This prejudice has far reaching consequences, not only for individuals who speak with a non-standard accent, but also on the linguistic vitality of the dialect itself. Just as with language, when accentism leads people to stop using their native dialects, the dialect dies out, taking with it the associated culture and history. Through targeting the sectors of media and education, this project will investigate and tackle accentism in England’s Black Country, where accentism is keenly felt. The project will combine the perspectives and platforms of two research sites: Colley Lane Primary School in the West Midlands, and the collaborative partnering of ‘Black Country Radio’ a local radio station and community hub. This collaboration presents a unique opportunity to unite the contrasting perspectives of community and classroom whilst simultaneously benefiting both. The primary academic research site is the classroom. How do children cope with the competing language ideologies of home and school? How do they integrate this understanding within their developing linguistic systems? And ultimately, how does this impact on their academic attainment? These academic findings and questions will be explored in a public-friendly way using the platform of local radio. This will enable the results from the school study and their implications to be disseminated amongst the most important stakeholders: the parents and pupils themselves, whilst simultaneously engaging and educating teachers and policymakers about the effects their decisions and practices have on both the future of the local dialect, and its speakers.