Fall 2017: Why a Forum On Linguistic Diversity?
“There is a certain way of speaking that has been considered the acceptable way of speaking. And because of that this is the type of language you speak when you’re out in the world. If you want to speak Spanish at home, that’s fine. If you want to speak black with your friends that’s fine. But don’t insult someone else’s ears by making them listen to it.” (phone in-caller, Oprah Winfrey show, 1987).
“I have read articles in which the writers object to the use of the phrase ‘English as a second language.’ The argument …[is] that English is the greatest language on earth, and therefore second to none.” (proponent of bilingual education for Texas schools so that Spanish-speaking children can be initially taught English using Spanish as the teaching language [ a more efficient and successful strategy than forced immersion]: 1992).
These quotations are material from an analysis of Standard-English language ideology, published in 1990. 1 We cannot simply assume that progress beyond these attitudes has universally occurred or that they will not return. 2
Language, it seems to me, is something English Departments should talk about in still more ways than they already do, which is why, together with colleagues from the Reid Committee, I proposed a Mullarkey-Reid Forum on Linguistic Diversity in English.
In a multilingual society, what should students of English, who work with a dominant and prestigious language, know about English and about language at large? Their literary experience provides complex models and approaches to language, and their training in Composition provides them with rhetorical and stylistic knowledge, but, especially given the relative complacency of monolingual anglophone culture about the ‘global nature’ of English and the decline in foreign language acquisition, is this enough? Do our English majors leave intellectually equipped to rebut white supremacist arguments for the primacy of English and the redundancy of other languages in America? Some of our students take History of the English Language, but do all students need to know a little linguistic history and something of the phenomenology of English?
Conversely, what do teachers of English literature need to know about the language(s) of their students? For all its varieties of English (diachronic and synchronic), an English degree can be a fundamentally monolingual education. What do we need to understand about the position of students for whom English is a second language or one of several languages. Languages grow, enrich, and change through linguistic contact: how can the bi- and multilingualism of our students become a resource for classes conducted primarily in English?
I am very grateful to the speakers who agreed to contribute on ‘Linguistic Diversity in English’; and to Sarah Gambito for co-organizing the Forum and leading the Reid discussions; and to Julie Kim for her thoughtful and cogent chairing of the panel. The speakers have generously allowed their papers to be posted on this website, where we hope they can be a resource for discussion and further thought about English Departments and language.
After my own introductory outline of some basic points about English as a language, Daniel Contreras discusses the literature and the stigmatization of Spanish in America. Rebecca Sanchez gives an eloquent analysis of a Deaf poem, showing the extraordinary enrichment Deaf perspectives can bring to our reading. As she also chillingly shows, incomprehension and hostility to sign languages can be a matter of life or death for Deaf people. Lea Puljcan Juric offers some wonderfully helpful and thoughtful ways in which heightened awareness of linguistic diversity can and should affect our classroom teaching Chris GoGwilt raises the question of ‘language justice’ in representation.
The Mullarkey-Reid Forum concluded with collective reading of the 2017 Reid book, Rigoberto Gonzalez’s superb English and Spanish-language prose poem, Autobiography of My Hungers. For an introduction and teaching resources for this Reid book, see the Teaching Reid Books site.
Thomas F. X. and Theresa Mullarkey Chair in Literature,
1Lesley Milroy, “Standard English and Language Ideology in Britain and the United States,” in Standard English: The Widening Debate, ed. Tony Bex and Richard J. Watts (London and New York, 1990), pp. 173-206. On teaching in students’ first languages, see Susan J. Dicker, Languages in America: A Pluralist View (Clevedon and Tonewanda: 2nd edition 2003), using research and experience in the South Bronx.