Language clearly plays a major role in all aspects of society. The most obvious is its social role of allowing people to relate to each other in all facets of their lives: to share information, emotions and ways of life. We use language as a means of navigating our daily lives and it plays an integral role in most of our interactions. Perhaps for this reason, French is regarded as an elegant and romantic language, while German is considered to be guttural.
Additionally, ever since mankind evolved into different language communities, it is commonplace for people to adopt various attitudes towards the language(s) spoken by others, as well as towards the dialects of the language they speak. These attitudes are motivated by different factors, including pride in or shame regarding one’s own language, confidence or embarrassment about how one sounds, nationalism and a sense of personal dignity, one’s status and values as well as the prestige some languages are given in international interactions.
A well known attitude is the desire for foreign speech patterns; another is the rejection of certain dialects. People form impressions of your personality, emotional state, geographic origin, education, experiences, age or socioeconomic status from the language you use and the way you use it. We often witness the amusement of an audience when someone speaks in the creole, for not only does the system of sound evoke laughter, but the assumption that the speaker is an uneducated serf is then made.
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Ridicule and contempt for the vernacular, creoles and dialects are common responses from some members of society, even within the Caribbean society, where dialects are rich, strong and the first language. Dialects develop under various circumstances as well as geographical locations and are varieties of languages. A creole could be a dialect within a language. Because of our history, people of the region tend to place a high premium on the standard languages (the language of power and economic might).
Many people believe that upward mobility is largely dependent on one’s ability to fit in with the predominant socioeconomic class, and language is the main signifier of this fit. Many Caribbean writers have described scenarios of people who went overseas, were generally expected to return with a new command of the target language and often demonstrated their new found ‘status’ by emphasizing their foreign accent of ‘twang’. While some might be impressed by the ‘twang’, others view such pretensions with derision.
Attitudes to language may vary from one sector of the society to another and some people demonstrate self-conscious behavior when speaking the standard language. This is largely a result of the fact that in most societies one is often judged on the basis of the variety of language that one speaks. This is even more prevalent in societies with a colonial legacy, like the Caribbean, where certain dialects are associated with the institution of slavery or conquest.
Increasingly, educators are becoming aware that a person’s native language is an integral part of who that person is and marginalizing the language can have severe damaging effects on that person’s psyche. Many linguists consistently make a case for teaching native languages alongside the target languages so that children can clearly differentiate among the codes ( a term used synonymously with language or dialect but generally refers to a linguistic system of communication. A code can also be non-linguistic such as a dress code or code of conduct) and hence be less likely to mix the two.
This approach has been adopted in Haiti, where schools teach both Standard French and French Creole (Haitian) and children are expected to be fluent in both. Additional prominence has been given to Caribbean Creoles with the publication of Creole dictionaries and with the translation of the New Testament from the Christian Bible into French Creole in St. Lucia. A similar project is under way in Jamaica. While attitudes to local dialects have been slowly changing, many people still associate the use of Creole with negative images and believe that its use should be relegated to specific circumstances and occasions.
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However, the fact that non-standard language varieties are the most widely spoken in the Caribbean makes them the choice of persons trying to get information to large sections of the society. For example, many advertisers use the Creole language to ensure that their message appeals to most people. At the same time, because of the prestige attached to the standard language, it tends to be the language of choice on formal occasions, like church services. A language variety is usually chosen because of its perceived social functions.
You may have noticed that, the more formal the occasion, the more likely the use of the standard language, while for everyday interaction, popular music or emotional appeals, people tend to gravitate towards the non-standard varieties. You would have noticed that, even in a formal situation, non-standard dialect might be used for anecdotes, to inject humour or in a quotation. In the Caribbean, people switching from one code of language to another, often without thinking.
However, there are times when the use of standard langue would seem totally out of place and would even interfere with semantics. For example, folk stories, folk songs and proverbs seem to lose a certain essence when translated into standard. The role of language as a vehicle for sharing culture is indisputable. Caribbean writers, singers and oral poets have played a major part in fostering acceptance of the Creole languages of the region, by incorporating them into their work and exposing them to the world. Nonetheless, negative attitudes to these languages persist in the minds of many.