What if we treated language-minoritized children like gifted sociolinguists?

In a previous blog post I called for a moratorium on academic language and called for the development of a new conceptualization of language. In this post I seek to further develop what this alternative conceptualization of language might look like. In order to explore this new conceptualization of language allow me to present two different passages related to language contact, a major topic in sociolinguistics.

The first passage is from The Guidebook to Sociolinguistics by Allan Bell:

When languages come into contact, there are a range of linguistic and sociolinguistic repercussions. These depend on the kind and degree of the contact, and the social and linguistic relationship of the languages:

  • Language choice. When languages make contact, speakers have to begin making choices on which language/s to use and when.
  • Language stratification. Languages become socially stratified in relation to each other, for example through ‘diglossia’
  • Language change. Languages interfere with each other linguistically in different ways and degrees—they borrow words, lose or borrow structures.

Most readers would agree that this passage would count as academic language. It uses disciplinary-specific vocabulary such as ‘language stratification’ and ‘diglossia’ and includes complex sentence structures. Let’s contrast this with a second example from Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldúa.

Pocho, cultural traitor, you’re speaking the oppressor’s language by speaking English, you’re ruining the Spanish language,” I have been accused by various Latinos and Latinas. Chicano Spanish is considered by the purist and by most Latinos deficient, a mutilation of Spanish. But Chicano Spanish is a border tongue which developed naturally. Change, evolución, enriquecimiento de palabras nuevas por invención have created variants of Chicano Spanish, un nuevo lenguaje. Un lenguaje que corresponde a un modo de vivir. Chicano Spanish is not incorrect, it is a living language.

On one level this passage is very different from the first passage—the most obvious differences being its autobiographical nature and use of both English and Spanish. Yet, do these differences disqualify it from being sociolinguistics? After all, Anzaldúa is providing a concrete example of the general sociolinguistic phenomenon that Bell was describing in his text. In addition, Anzaldúa’s text is regularly read in academic settings. Indeed, I actually assign both Bell and Anzaldúa in my sociolinguistics class.

So instead of deciding whether Anzaldúa’s work counts as sociolinguistics a more productive framing would be to examine how these two different texts engage in sociolinguistics. What affordances for engaging in sociolinguistic thinking are made possible by the different rhetorical styles of the two texts? Why might the authors have chosen to adopt these contrasting rhetorical styles? What can we learn from them as we construct our own sociolinguistic texts?

This reframing of language offers a new perspective for understanding the language practices of language-minoritized children. Let’s continue with the example of sociolinguistics. Rather than trying to determine if language-minoritized students engage in the “academic” language of sociolinguistics a more productive framing is to determine how they engage in sociolinguistic thinking.

My research team has collected many examples of this. We have observed students discussion language variation as they describe the differences between the words “habichuelas” and “frijoles” as meanings of the word beans. We have also observed students engaged in discussions of pragmatics in debating whether “farted” or “passed gas” was more polite. We have even observed a student pondering the gendered nature of Spanish and whether the term “amigos” includes both boys and girls. All of these examples are of students engaged in sociolinguistic thinking.

So why isn’t everybody talking about language-minoritized children as gifted sociolinguists? This is because researchers and teachers remain trapped in a raciolinguistic framing of language as “academic” and “non-academic” in ways that presuppose that language-minoritized children inevitably come to school without a strong foundation in the academic forms necessary to be sociolinguists. This deficit perspective is so ingrained that even well-meaning teachers have few available discourses that could even imagine these students as gifted sociolinguists. It is time that we rejected this deficit perspective and recognized language-minoritized children for the gifted sociolinguists that they are.

What might it look like to position these students as gifted sociolinguists? In such a classroom the role of the teacher would no longer be to teach “academic” language. Instead, their role would be to engage students in metalinguistic conversations that support students in reflecting on the different ways that they currently use language to discuss particular topics as well as in exploring other ways that language is used to explore these topics. These metalinguistic conversations would provide students with opportunities to break down and analyze the language choices of speakers and writers to determine if and how they are using particular language forms for particular effects.

This language exploration would support language-minoritized students in becoming language architects who are able to apply the knowledge that they gained through their critical inquiry to design language in their own terms and for their own purposes. This shift in pedagogical stance may seem small but it has radical implications. Specifically, it moves away from efforts to sort language into academic and non-academic variants in favor of a more nuanced perspective of language that brings attention to the diversity of ways that one can explore a particular topic and the rhetorical and political effects of each.

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4 comments
  1. This was an amazing commentary. I really appreciate your real life experience viewing what your students are doing, combined with the theory that truly, there’s no need to separate ‘academic’ linguists and ‘student’ linguists, as they often have more direct experience with understanding and perceiving language differences. I also love that you assign them Borderlands!

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    • Thanks for the comment. I am glad that the argument resonated with you. I would love to hear if and how you bring these ideas into your own work!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting thoughts which contain several strands of ideas from which to comment. Firstly, the word ‘raciolinguistic’ (which in itself is a newly formed linguistics word and thereby cancels out its use as a term if one wishes to avoid academic language) has a loaded meaning presupposing that contact between languages always causes this event. The arguments for and against this line of thought are many indeed. It is a constant thought in linguistics why Celtic was subsumed by Anglo Saxon when the speakers of this language did not number more 30 000 migrants, according to recent genetic research. On the other hand this has raised the distinct possibility that maybe Eastern England was peopled by speakers of a non Celtic language when the Anglo Saxons arrived in larger numbers and were in fact welcomed as fellow language cousins. So is this an example of ‘raciolinguistics’ ? I think not. Closer to home perhaps some research could elucidate why Spanish became the dominant language in Latin America in spite of civilisations which were in many ways more advanced.
    Eubonics may be an example of where the gist of the article is going, the acceptance of another way of using English, but this has always been the case throughout the history of the English language, and why this language contains more words than any other through so called ‘raciolinguistic’ contact. And by this process, incidentally, contains probably a grammar structure that is simpler than other languages; contact does not need to be negative, just accomodative (sorry! this is also a new fangled construction but does project the meaning well). So where does this leave us? Acceptance, accomodation, but eventually you reach an end point. To communicate with clarity, with no possibility of ambiguity, everyone has to be on the same page. It has always been so from Alfred the Great and his attempts at literacy in Wessex, to Caxton’s efforts to determine acceptable spellings and writings, and to Webster and his dictionary aimed at streamlining and democratizing the English language for the new American citizens.
    Englishes come and go but for common communication purposes the world needs a common English language. It does not suggest that such an aim is racist or domineering, but that clear, concise, unambiguous, language is a necessity not a plan for some covert power grab.

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    • Thanks for your comment. My argument was not to avoid “academic language” but rather for us to examine the ways that students from racialized backgrounds are represented in the literature in ways that overdetermine them as not having academic language. My use of the term raciolinguistic ideology to describe this overdetermination is intended to describe the ways that language and race are often co-constructed in the US context in ways that marginalize racialized communities. I make no claims about raciolinguistics being a term that can be applied in other socio-historical contexts where race was not a concept that was used to sort the world’s population.

      I actually have an article where I also offer a different reading of Webster’s project then the one that you propose, which is certainly the one that continues to dominate descriptions of his dictionary. In my reading of it, it was very much a racial project in addition to a linguistic project and in this way can be understood as raciolinguistic. Here is a link to the article in case you are interested: https://www.academia.edu/5803353/Creating_Republican_Machines_Language_Gvernmentality_in_the_United_States

      Thanks again for your comment.

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