I have been thinking about addressing the topic of language as a tool of power for many months now. This has been percolating for quite some time. Finally, I have an inspiration to put down my long-overdue thoughts on paper. I’ll use my Ukrainian directness and share this post is in response to how Dr. Nelson Flores challenged all of us to have a “moratorium” on academic language term of which he wrote here. Before I go any further, let me just make some things clear. If what follows is not making sense, please read the blog by Dr. Nelson Flores. I do not wish to recap his writing because I worry that his original writing will be misinterpreted by my efforts to recap his critique of the teaching of academic language. I think it’s about how we frame the teaching of academic language. If it’s framed in the deficit mindset as “those kids don’t have the skills and therefore, we have to teach them”, then, it’s problematic. If we teach language as a tool that we all use to achieve different purposes, but many language users are unaware of how they use language to their advantage, and making language explicit, gives students power to access and act upon the established power structures, then I disagree with Dr. Flores and insist that, indeed, language is a tool that needs specific attention. I will try to support my claim with a few examples.
We use language to achieve our own purposes on a daily basis in a very skillful manner, whether we are aware of it or not. The key here is that many of the skillful users of the dominant discourse are not aware of the specific language choices that they intentionally make. This happens because to them, this process is highly subconscious. Unless you are a linguist like me who analyzes language choices on the menu and discourse patterns among two people talking in an airport, you go about your day using language for various purposes without thinking and over-analyzing it. However, speaking from personal experience, I grow weary from constantly having to figure out the hidden rules and the language used to participate in a conversation successfully. Because I have the metalinguistic strategies and metalanguage to analyze language, I can pull a conversation apart and tell you how many sentences it takes to make one request in the Midwestern style of communication. However, communication for me (both written and oral) in the Midwest is never without an effort.
Here are a few examples. I have a doctorate degree, but on the phone to a banker, I am an immigrant with an accent. This happened years ago when I had to make a call to a bank to postpone a mortgage payment when I was home with a baby. I remember making a very conscious effort to use both language choices and prosodic features such as confidence in the cadence of my speech, a deeper voice, and other devices known to me to sound persuasive and intelligent. I don’t remember the outcome of that conversation, but I remember the effort I had to put into choosing specific language for this purpose. Whenever I need to question the power structures or gender dynamics at a car garage, I pull out my linguistic resources to achieve my purpose.
Another example is from the sociocultural components of communication which occur in discussions in the Midwest. This journey at times can be exhausting. A huge learning curve for me was to accept the idea of small talk. Of course, I contest the whole notion of small talk which to me means we need a warm up because we aren’t ready to discuss the issue at hand. I can contest the cultural norm of small talk 24/7 but when I need to build relationships with people I meet in the Midwest and not to ostracize a quarter of the population in the US , I need to engage in small talk despite my despise of it. I have to re-write my emails which usually consist of the “straight down to business” communication approach. Whenever I ask questions directly without “I’m wondering….”, it comes across as rude. When I re-write of my emails, I do the Midwest sandwich approach by starting with “It was great chatting on the phone with you the other day. I hope you trip back to Minnesota was uneventful. I am following up on …. then the issue is presented here, followed by another part of the sandwich which is something like I look forward to hearing from you soon.” All of those are linguistic choices that I am uncovering on my own in every email I receive, read, and have to use when I write a response. It’s a never ending journey.
In my first 10 years of my life in the United States, I had so many faux pas, that half the people who met me or read my written communication but didn’t know me personally, thought that I was one of those rude abrasive people you don’t like. Just ask my husband. 🙂 But if you knew me and my story and my communication style from my Ukrainian upbringing, you would know that in Ukraine, communication is direct and white lies are considered lies and not niceties. Decoding the communication norms of specific speech acts or communities is challenging to do one one’s own. I have benefited greatly from my patient teachers, my husband and my host family. But now I am my own teacher because I have learned how to analyze the interactional norms of various speech communities by studying pragmatics of communication, systemic functional linguistics, and having many conversations with my husband who reasons at the same linguistic level with me. He adds his own examples of language used in banking and describes it as “a new way of using language”.
Whatever you may call the language students need to be successful in school, in their undergraduate work and beyond, academic language, the language of schooling, etc, I invite you to think of it differently, not framed as deficits but as opportunities. Not to treat it as this ambiguous, unattainable power other people have, but as malleable, flexible, dynamic tool that they can hold, manipulate, change, shape, and be shaped by.
Do we teach our students that language has power? They already know it. They know that some language has more power than their own dialects or ethnolects or vernaculars they use in their communities. Do our students recognize that they possess the power to use language to question or problematize the language established ideologies in our society?
“Language is a political institution: those who are wise in its ways, capable of using it to shape and serve important personal and social goals, will be the ones who are “empowered”… : able, that is, not merely to participate effectively in the world, but able also to act upon it, in the sense that they can strive for significant social change. (Halliday, 1989, p. x)”.
What pedagogy should we embrace? A critical pedagogy which “recognizes the power of language in the production and reproduction of society” and talking about language as power in explicit ways.
“A critical pedagogy recognizes the power of language in the production and reproduction of society, and helping students be “wise in its ways” depends on having ways of engaging them in explicit conversation about how language works in different contexts of use.”
…“reflective” literacy enables students to treat norms of knowledge and norms of discourse as changing and changeable. Reflective literacy means both recognizing the semiotic resources that construe knowledge and reflecting on how those resources also construe ideologies that can be challenged. Knowing the resources one has available to make meanings allows one to act with them and analyze those acts.” (Hasan, 1996).
Marginalized students who are navigating their way through the dominant discourses of our society often remain marginalized if they don’t have the tools to manipulate language to their own advantage.
Achugar M., Schleppegrell M., Oteiza, T. (2007). Engaging teachers in language analysis: A functional linguistics approach to reflective literacy. English Teaching: Practice and Critique. (9)6:2
Dr. Ruslana Westerlund is a self-taught linguist (with a few courses under my belt), teacher educator, and an English language researcher who looks at language through the “looking glass” constantly.