How about we actually bring the art of language into Language Arts?

Schools often teaches courses called Language Arts. Yet, little actual art happens in most of these classrooms. Instead, language is often treated as a static set of prescriptivist rules that children are expected to master and mimic back to their teacher. This is not an exploration of the art of language. This is linguistic oppression.

But there is an art of language. It is present in the work of literary writers, musicians, poets and public speakers. It is also present in how we engage in language with one another on a daily basis. We sometimes engage in the art of language by inventing new words. Some of these words may only have local meanings that never extend beyond our family and close friends. For example, when I was a kid, I decided to call a jelly sandwich a jelly panmi, which I can only imagine came from the fact that bread in Spanish is pan and I was trying to be cute by putting the mi at the end. To this day my family still calls them jelly panmis with my husband even using the term now (and yes, I still do love a jelly panmi from time to time—don’t judge me). Some of these terms may eventually extend beyond the local community. This can be temporary in the form of slang that often gets played out after a brief moment of popularity (like the term played out, which unfortunately for old people like me is played out). But it can also lead to more permanent shifts like terms associated with social media including emoji.

We also sometimes engage in the art of language by creating new meanings for existing words. This project done by one of my students in my Introduction to Sociolinguistics in Education class provides some excellent examples of this with the two interlocutors developing local meanings of the terms “five” and “six.” Local meanings can also get taken up more broadly such as when everybody started to “slay” when Beyonce’s Lemonade album came further popularizing a meaning of the term prominently used to highlight somebody successfully competing within the queer ballroom scene for decades prior raising questions about cultural appropriation as privileged people use words utilized by marginalized communities in ways that give them cache while doing little to challenge the status quo. The point is that we are constantly reinventing language at the local and more global level to better reflect our personal experiences as well as our changing times in ways that simultaneously challenge and reinforce existing social inequities–and navigating that contradiction is art!

But even when we are not inventing and reinventing words, we are constantly engaged in the art of language through the ways that we strategically use language to fit our context, audience and goals. Language, including in forms perceived as static and homogenous such as standard or academic language, is inherently heterogeneous. As language artists we are constantly making choices about how to use language in ways that simultaneously connect us with particular traditions and communities while bringing our unique voice and perspective. We continuously reinvent existing linguistic forms and invent new ones in order to more effectively represent ourselves to others in a changing world—and navigating that creation of a unique voice is art too!

What might it look like to bring this art of language into Language Arts? Let’s think about this in relation to the visual arts. All of us have general sensibilities about visual arts including what we find to be aesthetically beautiful and how to represent that in a range of different forms. Visual artists extend this general sensibility into professional expertise through becoming socialized into specific artistic techniques. But the goal of a visual artist is not to simply apply a specific technique but rather to innovate that technique and bring their own spin to it. In a similar vein, all of us have general sensibilities about the art of language including what we find linguistically beautiful and how to represent this linguistic beauty in a range of different forms. Bringing the art into language arts would seek to extend this general sensibility into professional expertise through socializing students into specific linguistic techniques used by professional language artists. But the goal would not be to simply apply these specific linguistic techniques but rather to support students in bringing their own spin to it based on their existing language artistic sensibility. The goal would not be to master standard or academic language but to experiment with linguistic techniques in ways that transcend homogenous linguistic categories through a focus on choice and style—that is, through a focus on the art of language.

When I think of art, I typically think of efforts to critically examine the human condition. Good art challenges us to look at ourselves in the mirror and recognize the good, the bad and the ugly of our own humanity. Great art challenges us to critically interrogate the limits of current conceptions of the human in the hopes of creating new more inclusive futures. This is not what is happening in most classes that call themselves Language Arts. There is very little examination of the human condition let alone efforts to imagine new possibilities. Instead, most Language Arts classrooms convert one of the most dynamic and creative aspects of what makes us human into something boring and dead. The cruel irony is that students often see little relevance of Language Arts in their lives despite the fact that they engage in the art of language in every utterance they make and every line they write.

4 thoughts on “How about we actually bring the art of language into Language Arts?

  1. So true! To me language is beautiful and there are certain words that trip off my tongue just as brilliantly as a stroke of the brush by DaVinci. My best “made-up” word that my family uses is “pendufus” a combination of “pendejo” and “doofus”. I just love that word. Here’s to all the creative uses of our language repertoire! I enjoyed reading your article very much.

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  2. One of the phrases that keeps me awake at night is the “science of reading,” which has caught hold in the language arts curriculum in the district where I teach. What disturbs me most is the seduction of calling reading a “science” in a way that calling it an art does not have. The “art” of language is a hard case to make when so much of language arts as it is taught today is tied to how it will be assessed in high-stakes testing and access to the language of power and opportunity.

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  3. When my eldest was little she took one sip of bubbly water and said “agua pica”. We started calling bubbly water, which is so ubiquitous now especially, “aguapica”. It became a word our entire family to extended family and their children use now. Reading the comments I would have to agree that the Art of Language seems to be the antithesis to the Science of Reading. Let’s get Art of Language to stick.

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  4. Bravo!!
    Here at home we say that if it’s a thumbs up, it’s good. But if it’s double-thumbs up, then it’s goodísimo!

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