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 discussing 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.