“It’s weird to read something about myself that I’m not sure I’ll understand,” my partner admitted after reading a critical analysis essay I had composed about one of Richard Wright’s short stories. It mainly focused on transgenerational trauma within the African-American community, of which I am not a member.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
I know him to be a brilliant writer and trust his feedback, so at first the reason for his hesitation was lost on me. He leaned back in his chair, set the paper down, and looked up. “I mean the language used to describe my people. Some of them probably wouldn’t even understand parts of this and it’s talking about stuff we experience.”
He was referring to the jargon typical to academic writing, and the language I had become accustomed to using in all my schooling, a highly revered language to which many people are denied.
I sat there on my bed, checked.
Quickly after, I entered into one of those “duh” moments. I know, my recognition of this issue should have been way higher. It’s not like it was the first time I’d touched on it either.
But, when you grow up loving to write and you have been given the resources to allow you to master all types, the depth of an issue can slip past you sometimes. One’s privilege isn’t always an easy thing to spot and doesn’t always become fully real until you’re sitting across from someone you love who’s on the opposite side of it.
After we spoke, I felt his wariness trickle into my awareness while teaching. I couldn’t help but wonder how often my students felt that language disenfranchised them or made them feel a lack of agency over their own voice.
Right away, I could think of students who may be feeling “othered” by society’s adherence to this standardized, “white” way of speaking or writing. There was Kyla*, who often expresses hesitance to write because she thinks she must mimic the writing of the famous white authors she reads. And Allie*, who likes to use more flowery language in her essays and who I once advised to create more succinct sentences in the name of clarity.
Looking back, could I be sure that all of my suggestions were truly in the name of clarity? Or, were they just preferences I had learned to have? I started to think: How could I challenge my own learned ideas about language and how could I better help students think and talk about it?
Ironically, I found some answers in an academic essay titled “Language Difference in Writing: Toward a Translingual Approach” by Burce Horner, Min-Zhan Lu, Jacqueline Jones Royster, and John Trimbur. In this essay, the authors speak of two keywords that all educators should know: monolingual and translingual. Monolingual refers to “linguistically homogeneous” writing that typically ends up being “Standard English or Edited American English.” Translingual “encourages reading with patience, respect for perceived differences within and across languages, and an attitude of deliberative inquiry. Likewise, a translingual approach questions language practices more generally, even those that appear to conform to dominant standards.” The authors name “difference in language not as a barrier to overcome or as a problem to manage, but as a resource for producing meaning in writing, speaking, reading, and listening.” Now this was something I could get behind.
Truthfully, I am not saying we need to throw away everything that has been built in terms of writing when we are talking about academic jargon or varied word choice. Sometimes, clarity is clarity and vagueness is vagueness. Sometimes certain forms of writing are more helpful in certain types of situations. However, that doesn’t mean that language does not evolve. It always does and it always will. So, I decided that, as I teach, I will start to prompt more discussions with my students about how there is not one end-all-be-all approach to communicating effectively–especially within essay writing.
Horner, Lu, Royster, and Trimbur remind us that “all speakers of English speak many variations of English,” which means there is ultimately no one “right” way to speak or write.
Though, if we don’t explain language as fluid and evolving, those who speak outside of the respected norm may continue to feel like they aren’t entitled to even cover issues that concern them. Students should feel that they have a right to their own culture in their own words and should not feel they will only be taken seriously if they use the American Standard English.
My partner told me later on, “Barriers of elitism need to be put down if you really want to educate people.” I agree with him. Academic jargon is effective, but not always the best choice. Imagine how much more agency a young student could feel if they knew their unique voice matters and has power regardless of the “rules” or the jargon. Imagine Kyla taking risks and claiming her own authentic voice with her fiction writing or Allie creating a more engaging way to write an essay that really gets people excited. Imagine, even, challenging a writer who thinks they have no need to improve since they speak in the American Standard English and have the academic essay “template” down pat to become more, dare I say, innovative.
So, fellow educators, I challenge you to deepen your knowledge about the disparities language instruction can cause and to speak frankly about it with your students.
*Names have been changed