Explorations in language shaming

By September 28, 2017Education

At the recent 16th International Conference on Minority Languages at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, I delivered a keynote lecture about “language shaming”. By “language shaming”, I mean (social) media campaigns or face-to-face interactions that deride, disparage or demean particular ways of using language. Like other forms of stigma, language shame may have deleterious effects on the groups and individuals concerned and may result in low self-esteem, a lack of self-worth and social alienation. Shame can become a self-fulfilling prophesy as it disrupts security and confidence and may constitute the principal impediment to developing human relationships, communicating with others and developing a sense of belonging, as Kaufman pointed out in his classic Psychology of Shame.

My call to use language shaming as a lens through which to explore processes of language subordination, domination and (de)valorization struck a chord at the conference and I have since received a number of emails asking for the write-up of my lecture. The slides that accompanied the lecture can be downloaded here and conceptually the lecture was based on Chapters 3 and 7 of Linguistic Diversity and Social Justice. Additionally, I’ve decided to start a mini-series devoted to explorations in language shaming here on Language on the Move. What follows is the first entry in this series.

A persistent theme in linguistic diversity is that some ways of using language are heard or seen as indices of laziness, stupidity and backwardness. Speakers of non-standard varieties and particularly migrant speakers are often denigrated in this way.

Teachers may well be amongst the worst offenders when it comes to making migrant students feel inferior. For instance, a sociolinguistic ethnography with Burmese migrant students in a high school in Southwest China by Li Jia provides numerous instances of language shaming. The focus of the research was on the language learning and educational experiences of students from Myanmar who had come to China for their high school education. Many of these students had a Chinese background and most had studied Chinese as an additional language for a number of years prior to coming to China. Even so, their Chinese was different from the Chinese of local students: there were the usual accent differences and additionally there were significant differences in literacy: the Burmese students had had far less opportunities to practice Chinese literacy than the students who had been educated in China throughout their entire school career. Furthermore, they had usually been instructed in traditional Chinese characters and they had learnt to use pinyin according to a different transliteration system.

Chemistry presentation by Year 11 student (Source: Li, 2017, p. 234)

These observable linguistic differences were mostly seen in terms of deficit and often became the focus of student-teacher interactions as in the following example, where a migrant Year 11 student was required to deliver an oral presentation in his Chemistry class. The topic of the presentation was about the weather and specifically temperature fluctuations and cold spells. When the student had finished his presentation and the teacher provided feedback, the feedback had nothing to do with the content of the presentation. Instead, the chemistry teacher focused on the student’s language. He pointed out some unfortunate vocabulary choices made by the students as well as spelling mistakes. The teacher summed up his assessment of the student’s Chemistry presentation as follows:


Look, you are already a Year 11 student and how come you can’t even write the word “spell”? [as in “cold spell”; “tide”] (Quoted from Li, Jia. 2017, p. 234)

The comment focusses on the language of the presentation instead of the content and denigrates the student by linking the spelling mistake to his age – a typical example of language shaming.

This kind of language shaming is detrimental to the student in at least two ways: first, the student is obviously humiliated and his personal worth is being questioned in highlighting that his Chinese language proficiency is substandard for his age cohort (and ignoring that he is not a first language speaker of Chinese but a Chinese language learner). Second, the focus on language instead of content deprives the student of a learning opportunity.

That means that language shaming has the pernicious effect of not only denigrating students’ language proficiency but also jeopardizing their overall educational success, including achievement in the subject area. Language shaming thus serves to instill the very “stupidity” is claims to diagnose.

Poster with the school’s hair style regulations (Source: Li, 2017, p. 179)

Being scolded for the way they spoke Chinese was but one of the ways in which the students were subjected to a deficit discourse. It was also other aspects of their bodies and behaviors that were subject to criticism: they were often seen as not conforming to the strict dress code of the school or as lazy and careless with the tasks assigned to them. During classroom observations it became obvious that teachers sometimes spent up to half the lesson “criticizing Burmese students who did not obey the school rules” (Li, 2017, p. 248).

While one isolated incidence of the kind that occurred in the Chemistry lesson may be easy to write off, for the migrant students in the study such incidences of language shaming were regular occurrences; and it was their regularity that left deep psychological scars, as another student confided in the researcher:

我8岁来中国学习汉语,一开始什么都不明白, 真的很想回家,特别是老师骂,大姐姐欺负我的时候,感觉真的很无助。 […]

I came to China to learn Chinese at the age of 8. At the beginning, I didn’t understand anything, and I was missing home very much especially when I was scolded by my teachers and bullied by older students I really felt helpless. (Quoted from Li, Jia. 2017, p. 148)

Like all systems of oppression, language subordination has a psychological component, and shame is a key mechanism that leads oppressed people to accept their oppression: sociologists consider shame as a key aspect of poverty as it leads poor people to accept that their poverty is their own fault and to accept that the rich deserve to be rich. Similarly, theorists of racial and colonial oppression have long noted a psychological component where those who are subject to racism and colonialism may come to accept their oppression as justified because an inferiority complex has been instilled in them.

The examples of language shaming offered here come under the guise of teaching and must be considered a key tool in the arsenal of social reproduction. A first step in breaking their power is to call them out for what they are.

Make sure not to miss out on future installments in the series “Explorations in language shaming” and subscribe to our alerts in the bottom right corner of this page.


Kaufman, G. (1996). The Psychology of Shame: Theory and Treatment of Shame-Based Syndromes (2nd ed.). New York: Springer.

Li, J. (2017). Social Reproduction and Migrant Education: A Critical Sociolinguistic Ethnography of Burmese Students’ Learning Experiences at a Border High School in China. (PhD), Macquarie University. Retrieved from http://www.languageonthemove.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/LI_Jia_Social_reproduction_and_migrant_education.pdf

Piller, I. (2016). Linguistic Diversity and Social Justice: An Introduction to Applied Sociolinguistics. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. [for your chance to win a copy, tweet about #linguisticdiversity by Oct 10; details of the draw here]

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Tricia

    Thanks for sharing the slides from your keynote lecture, Dr. Ingrid, also for highlighting some examples from Li Jia’s interesting research.

    Language shaming really is prevalent wherever there are differences in linguistic practice and ideology. And that is practically everywhere! Also, it’s true that teachers have a vital role in propagating this malpractice. I was guilty of this myself. In retrospect, I used to be overly critical of my students’ “non-standard” ways of using English and took extra pains to correct every single “error” I noticed. I’m sure it pained my students more. Thank God I know better now. But I wonder how I could fix the damage I did in the past.

    I’m not sure if it’ll help but perhaps schools may consider including a policy against language shaming in their handbook. It’s for everybody’s protection.

    • Nadiah Aziz

      Hi Tricia,

      I love the idea of making a society in schools alarmed by the issue of language shaming (especially educators). Perhaps it’s a good start for schools to organise social events or talk, to increase the awareness of the public that non- native speakers of a particular target language are going through this issue or will have a possibility to encounter language shaming at some point of their lives, during social interactions. ^_^

      • Tricia

        Thanks Nadiah for affirming that suggestion. I hope maybe we could team up with other people in the group who want to fight language shaming in ways that can impact policy makers, especially in schools. This would be an exciting project! 🙂


    Thank you for an interesting post. I have never experienced language shaming, but I have witnessed it happened to some of my classmates, and to me it is such a “contagious disease” that spreads from teachers to their students. Some of my friends developed the tendency to judge other people’s intelligence based on their use of language.
    Personally, I am lucky to have never encountered language shaming, but I think I have had experienced ‘language learning shaming’ when I decided to learn another language other than English, the lingua franca, in my uni years. The common reaction I got was ‘why wasting your time on an unpopular language and not focusing on improving your English?’


      Hi Thao,
      Good to read that you bring this ‘language learning shaming’ in this discussion. I also have the same experience when I learnt English. Many of my friends and even my relatives asked me “what would you do if you majored in English?”, as many of them were more into accounting, business and the like, of those that looks to bring more income to our pocket. At first, their words hit me hard. But as I do my master now in Applied Linguistics, I feel so great about the things I learn and look forward to contributing to Indonesian education.


  • Ulfath Sadia

    Language shaming happened to me and many people I know as well. My experience is not only related to English but also our mother tongue as it differs from the dialect we use in my city. There had been many uncomfortable situations regarding my pronunciation. However, Speaking English was one of the toughest one, as I used to make grammatical mistake, so people used to laugh. This is also a strong reason why people do not practice speaking English over there. They do not want to be a subject of laughter.

  • 44209150

    Thank you for such a captivating post; especially the notion “Language shaming” really interested me in search of what it exactly means. The example of the teacher and student mentioned in this post just reminded me of the language shaming occurring to my close university classmate when we were the second year English major students. At that time, we attended a class Reading Comprehension conducted by a teacher who always wanted to show off and just took more care of “wealthy” or “good” students. After answering all comprehension questions of a passage in the textbook, she asked my close friend to read loud a paragraph of the passage to check pronunciation. The immediate feedback given to her was that her pronunciation was worse than the teacher’s daughter aged 5 and her intonation in English was compared as a road-roller. These disparaging comments not only made my friend lose face in public but also had deleterious effects on the group, which demotivated and gave rise to our self-confidence loss in error-making pronunciation. Personally, as a role of teacher, giving feedback without touching “language shaming” is one of the essential pedagogical skills so that the feedback will not “hurt” learners.

  • Eleonora Beolchi

    Hi Nadiah,

    I completely agree with you when you say that teachers or lecturers play a big part in helping students overcome their language shame. It is such a delicate role to correct students when they mispronounce because as a teacher you know that you may be affecting their self-esteem if correction happens in the wrong way. It is deleterious for students’ self-confidence to keep correcting mistakes, whether syntactical, lexical or grammatical and that is why teachers tend not to correct mistakes as per the worldwide spread communicative approach. I guess all the language students are sooner or later exposed to language shaming, but what is important is to take any correction as objective as possible (though it may be hard in the adolescence period) in order not to scar our self-esteem. Non-native language teachers will have an advantage here because in memory of their own language learning experience, they’ll be able to behave appropriately with their students.

  • JZzzz

    Thanks for sharing the inspiring thoughts on this interesting topic! I can emotionally echo the example in the post where a student is scolded by the teacher for writing mistakes since it used to be quite common in my primary schools. Luckily when I entered secondary school, my Chinese teacher didn’t give me any feeling of language shame. She appreciated my essay writing very much although I made a lot of mistakes in writing Chinese characters. I still remember one sentence she wrote on the feedback, which is “瑕不掩瑜” (flaws cannot obscure the splendor of the jade). This has influenced me a lot for keeping on Chinese writing. I cannot imagine if the teacher picked on my mistakes but overlook the content and thinking even if Chinese is my L1. Therefore, as a (future) EFL or ESL teacher, it is important to avoid any kind of “language shame” since the loss of self-esteem and confident in learning could be devastating.


    Language shaming is a common experience for many multi-lingual. On one hand, multi-linguals are satisfied with the fact that they are able to speak more than a language however, it is also stressful when using L2 with native speakers. Growing up in a different province, (place) I had to learn how to use another language to feel included. Learning L2 was through immersing with native speakers. In the process, my accent changed to suit L2 and I lost my L1 accent. Language shaming has been experienced ever since my accent changed at the tender age of 7. To date, I am a multi-lingual with a strong accent of L2 and still experience language shaming when people would question where are you from? My accent is typically from L2 my physical attributes are distinctively different to those from the L2 context.


    What a thought provoking article it is. Personally, I think that the idea of shaming, especially exemplified in this article, is due to teachers’ cognition about what schooling/education should be about. It might be the case that in several countries in which immigrant family bring together their children to immerse themselves in a native language, the education still rotates in grammatical focus but not the content. From my perspective, as a future TESOL practitioner, I want to embrace those L2 learners to be excited about learning the language, and not feel ashamed as they are practicing their speaking or presenting in front of the class/ in public.

  • S. J. L.

    Thank you for the insightful article. I think language shaming is an important concept that people should know because bullying can be related with the language shaming. Often a person, who is not good at a target language and lives in a target culture, can be a target of bullying. Also, when it comes to a language is a part of a speaker’s identity, language shaming is a kind of damage on one’s identity. Personally, language shaming can encourage potentially international conflicts as a person who has experienced language shaming becomes a strong antagonist against the target language speakers. So I believe that language shaming must be a social issue to prevent potential frictions.

  • Min Wu KIM

    The language shame can be originated from external circumstances as exemplified as above, being scolded by a teacher, but also originated, I think, from internal linguistic standard set by the language learners themselves, which sometimes happens to me. In a circumstance where I use English, as a second language, I often feel shamed or dissatisfied not because of other people, but because my English proficiency was not as same as before or it did not meet my expectation. Though my interlocutors really do not care about the level of proficiency as long as the communication does not break down, it was me who wanted to save face, resulting in being reluctant to be actively participating in the social practices. It can also be related to language ego that formulates the characteristics of a target language speaker. The point is that, I think, whether it is from outside or inside, when examining speakers’ language shame phenomenon, we should look into both sides, the inner and the outer.

  • Xi Yang

    Thank you for this inspiring post! Before reading this article, I have not recognize or understand what ‘language shaming’ is, but now I am clearly with the concept. As a international student in Australia, I have (perhaps inevitably) experienced language shaming from my teachers and friends when I first arrived in Sydney. During the first few months in Sydney, I struggled to communicate with others both inside of the class and outside of the class since my English proficiency level was relatively low. I can still remember the first conversation with my English teacher in college, basically she was asking my preference on my major and why I choose the units that I have chosen. It sounds like very easy question to everyone (to me now), but it was quite difficult for me to answer at that time because I was scared to speak English. I was scared that she might laugh at my accent which my friends have did, also I usually answered others questions by saying ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘I don’t know, sorry’, I was incapable to speak in sentence. When my English teacher ask why I choose certain subjects, I struggled to state my reasons as I find it extremely difficult to put my words in sentences (although I can explained my reason thoroughly in Chinese). I responded with many of ‘eh….em…’, ‘interesting’, ‘good for me’ and I was so nervous. And then the teacher started to giggled and I can never forget the words that she said to me. She said that ‘how did you pass your IELTS exam, you can’t even speak English,did you cheat in the exam?’. I was totally humiliated by her and I was ashamed of myself because I could not even speak English in sentence. Although my English proficiency have improved significantly due to her harsh comment (it kind of motivated me to prove that she is wrong), I still believed that if she was more supportive and encouraged (avoid language shaming) to me, my English learning process at that that would be much more enjoyable and pleasant.

  • Thi Lam Tra DINH

    After reading all your postings, most of my peers have stated their experience of language shame in L2 learning. I myself had language shame experience even with my mother tongue. I once join in a recruitment of volunteers for a cultural festival. One of the eligible criteria was the local accent. I hadn’t realised that until I spent two-week training. I was really upset not because I wasn’t selected but because I might have spoken English during volunteering. So why was the local accent preferred?

    To tell the truth, I learnt to be silent when I was exposed to some so-called preferred accent communities as I thought I would have sound odd. My friends teased on my accent although we shared the same language. However, thank to the mobility of the population and the emergence of mass media across the country which provide more public awareness of intra-ethnic communication, I haven’t felt anxious any more when I start a conversation. Luckily, my children haven’t suffered as I used to.

  • Thi Lam Tra DINH

    Hi Em,
    I think your students would be very lucky to have a teacher with sensitive and tactful consideration like you. In fact, as an L2 learner, no matter how proficiency they are, they may still have certain mistakes. Mistake correction is still important to L2 speakers. However, as you have mentioned, it is much more important that how constructive the comments are. Thanks.

  • Wonghoi

    Language shaming, another new term I have learnt from you, which reminds me of my own story of learning Chinese during Middle school. The Chinese teacher I had in that time, who is a middle aged lady from Shandong province. She gave me a lot of instructions on how to write Chinese essay. Once upon a time, I made a mistake about a work in Chinese. It should be written into 归宿, which means the final place that you can come back to, normally it indicates your home or a place. Somehow, I have made it like 归缩 in my essay. This teacher loved my writing style and she always admired me, but this time she laughed me about it in front of everyone in the classroom. I remembered my face turned into red for the whole 45 min class. It was super awkward and frustrated, but I have learned a lot from it. To some extent, it helps me to know that academic rigor is also very important. To see from this case, I think sometimes language shaming is a good thing, and it makes you grow up and finally make some contributions on your language study!

    • X_C_X

      Hi, Wonghoi. It is so glad and inspired to see that you could think positively of your teacher’s behaviour towards your mistake in Chinese learning. I assume most students will view such kind of experience as a nightmare which jeopardizes their progress in learning foreign languages or second languages, including me. I had the similar story when learning Chinese (my mother tongue) in grade three and I would never get rid of the scene that when the teacher asked me to stand on the classroom platform to read the incorrect vocabulary I wrote in my homework from my memory. Honestly, since then, I started to not show interest in writing and Chinese class which led to the terrible results in Chinese exams. What a teacher says and does in helping correct students language errors really influences the potential learning of students in a long run. Considering L2 or FL education, pedagogically, an effective educator will be more aware of showing students respect, avoiding language denigration, developing their confidence, as well as motivating them maximally.

  • Kyungmin Lee

    This new term, ‘language shaming’ can be observed in majority of language classrooms especially in Korea. ‘Testocracy’ rooted in confucianism cultrue made pedagogy in Korean public education system conservative and sometimes de-motivating. Back in my elementary school, I was quite keen to learn how to write a good essay and enjoyed writing classes a lot. However, as time passed, I was disappointed at where teachers focused largely on. Once, students were forced to write as we learnt and our sheets of feedback paper from our teacher were full of corrected words written with red pens. To make it worse, some students were called quite openly and had to remain after school to do extra work as a punishment on their poor results. For some, the experience related to language shaming could be helpful as long as they can see themselves as someone who would end up progress. However, for others, it will only give feelings of shame lacking their actual growth in literacy proficiency. I think, therefore, language teachers should apply this double-edged sword appropiately and much more cautiously.

  • Hanne Houbracken

    This concept of ‘language shaming’ is recognizable and relatable for many second language learners, as it is to me. Every time I speak a non-native language, I feel judged, even though I know my native friends do not judge me. When my English-native friends correct me (“Hanne, it’s not chances are big but chances are high”), even with the sweetest intentions, I do feel a little bit ashamed.
    This concept can thus not only be seen in professional or educational situations but in everyday life. Not always in the same degree but in some way or another, we are all ‘guided’ to use one particular form of language.

  • salmat

    I agree – reading this article has encouraged me to reflect on how I give feedback to my students. I work with migrant students in Singapore. When I started I had the opportunity to observe the other teachers and was taken aback by how direct and pedantic their feedback was. As a result, I have tried to mimic their style, and therefore give very detailed feedback and pick up on as many mistakes as possible, even if the student is successfully achieving their communicative goal. I have been encouraged to do this, as it’s ‘the only way they’ll learn’, even though I can see how embarrassed the students become when I correct them in front of their peers. I will now try to re-consider my approach and bring it back into line with my initial instinct which is to be more encouraging and focussed on how well the students are getting their message across.

    • Thanks, Salmat and all, for all these reflective comments!
      There is, of course, a place for error correction in teaching. A good way to get around any demotivation and even shaming associated with error correction is to praise in public and to correct in private.
      Also, pointing out errors in general for everyone’s benefit (“a common mistake is to [xxx]”) is a good way to address the error but not pin it on an individual. Ingrid

  • Phoebe N

    Thank you so much for this such insightful article. It can be said that “language shame” is not a strange thing to me as it has been taking hold in my case and I has still struggled with it since I came to Sydney for my further education. In my country, English is just a foreign language that we have been trained in school to use for employment and communication purposes. However, in fact, due to limited time allowance for an official English lesson, there is more emphasis put on grammar and vocabulary session rather than improving learners’ oral communication skills, I did not have much chance and contexts to practice it on a daily basis. As a result, when first entering university, I was shocked, even did not dare to talk and engage in discussion with other classmates as I was afraid that I would be a laughingstock and they might make fun of me due to my not-properly-English speaking, especially with my strong accent. Also, I always had the feeling that I was at low level of language proficiency in comparison to my friends. But then one day, my flatmate told me that “never give up, if you don’t try, you never know if you can”, this changes my mind and motivates me significantly to overcome this such shame and become more confident to learn to achieve target goals.

  • Brendan Kavanagh

    These teachers have a very prescriptivist view on language. The extreme is when English teachers perpetuate convention myths with no basis such as “don’t split an infinitive” or “don’t end a sentence with a preposition”. These stifle expression and creativity.
    Having said that, conventions need to be recognised depending on the audience and purpose. When writing an application for a job or a government grant, a slight deviation from the rules can send a strong message about your character and lead to negative consequences.
    Shaming should never be encouraged.

  • Hayu Austina

    Thank you so much for bringing the concept of “language shaming” in this article. I can actually reflect my experience as both an English learner and an English teacher while reading this. I realize that being a teacher has a big responsibility, especially in developing students’ confidence in learning a foreign language. The students need constructive feedbacks but the teachers have to pay attention on the way they correct the students.