The Power of Language

A few weeks ago, I attended a symposium on “The Power of Language” sponsored by a linguistics and language education research center. The speakers included

  1. Session Overview – Dr. Donna Christian, Center for Applied Linguistics (president of CAL). Language, Diversity, and Learning: Lessons for Education in the Twenty-first Century
  2. Dr. Sonia Nieto, University of Massachusetts.Language and Opportunity
  3. Dr. John Baugh, Washington University in St. Louis. Changing Misconceptions About Dialect Diversity
  4. Dr. Walt Wolfram, North Carolina State University

Dr. Nieto spoke about how the US population is increasingly diverse and how, in many ways, we in education are not realizing the full impacts that will be seen 10 and 20 years from now, when the US will likely LOOK and SPEAK quite different to today. She focused on the “problem versus promise of diversity” and encouraged those in attendance to think about how not effectively teaching the many bilingual children in our schools is, in sum, a “waste of our national language resources.”

To close her session, she presented an interesting quote from Paulo Friere:

“Why not call it ‘upper-class dominating English’ rather than ‘Standard English’? That authentic naming would reveal, instead of obscure, the politics of power and language in society.”

Dr. Baugh began with a list of the various linguists and educators who had influenced his career, many of whom were in the room (Shirley Brice Heath!)–this was, after all, a celebration of 50 years of CAL just as much as it was an academic symposium.

He then talked a bit about his conceptualization of “linguistic profiling” and “cultural profiling”; he mentioned studies done into housing or job discrimination, for example, that happened solely based on the applicant’s phone call and subsequent placing into a certain racial/ethnic/socioeconomic group.

Dr. Wolfram’s talk too k the place of Dr. Tannen, who wasn’t able to attend, unfortunately. Although he’s the chair of CAL’s board of advisors, I had never really interacted with him or heard him speak. He was QUITE dynamic! He spoke a lot about his efforts to maintain and learn about various North Carolinian dialects/language communities through a partnership with his university and the museum of the outer banks (among other organizations). He has been involved in the creation of many documentaries on language, and we got to see a few clips of interviews with residents in different language communities–for more info: They have created an entire social studies curriculum that focuses on learning about diversity, particularly diversity in NC. One thing that was interesting, to me, was his aside about how they chose the level they did (I believe 7th grade? not sure on that) because that was a year without state testing in social studies, and that was the only way they could get teachers to partner with them in developing and then using the curriculum–at the other levels, the teachers were too pressed to cover the material on the state social studies exam to work with his team.


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