Megan Figueroa: Hi, and welcome to the Vocal Fries podcast, a podcast about linguistic discrimination!
Carrie Gillon: I’m Carrie Gillon.
Megan Figueroa: And I’m Megan Figueroa.
Carrie Gillon: [Sighs]
Megan Figueroa: Woo-hoo! I mean, I don’t feel it. That was so painful. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. It’s been a March. It’s not quite finished but we’re getting close.
Megan Figueroa: It’s been a 2021.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah, I mean, things are moving along. You guys are now vaccinating everyone 16 and above. That’s good.
Megan Figueroa: We are. Arizona’s doing well in that regard.
Carrie Gillon: Meanwhile, I think my parents are eligible next week. [Megan gasps] Yeah, so. It’s much slower here.
Megan Figueroa: It’s so frustrating.
Carrie Gillon: It’s all right. I mean, for a long time, we weren’t getting any vaccines. Now we are, and they’re slowing ramping up. At least, I don’t really know how the rest of the provinces and territories are doing it, but in BC, it’s going every day another year lower. That means every year there’s more people, and so that means they’re slowing ramping up in terms of capacity. It’s still hopeful.
Megan Figueroa: It’s funny because someone tweeted at us that they were listening to a previous episode, and it happened to be when we were talking about the flu.
Carrie Gillon: Oh, yeah.
Megan Figueroa: A previous year’s flu. It happens to be that I said that I really was afraid of getting the flu that year. What a time capsule moment because I think we had mentioned, our January episode, how strange it’s gonna be to listen back to these intros during COVID.
Carrie Gillon: That was an intro from pre-COVID, so it was still weird.
Megan Figueroa: Right. To listen to pre-COVID and to be like, “Ooo, the flu.” Although, that can be very serious and very dangerous.
Carrie Gillon: Absolutely. We could have another pandemic that’s a flu instead of a coronavirus. In fact, it’s more likely to be a flu. So, yay. Hopefully, we’ve learned some lessons like, “Hey, maybe wearing a mask is a good idea if there’s something going around.” Maybe flu season we should just all wear masks.
Megan Figueroa: I mean, I have a set of super cute masks now. I’m not gonna just throw them away. I like the idea of wearing them if I have to go to doctor’s office type places where there truly are sick people.
Carrie Gillon: Yes, hospitals should require them from now on. It’ll be interesting to see just what small changes, what tweaks, we make after all of this is said and done, which feels like we’re getting closer, and so it’s like, “Oh my god, when is it gonna happen?” But, of course, we’ve got a long way to go because the whole world needs to be vaccinated before we’re really safe.
Megan Figueroa: But we’re getting safer. We talked about this too, I think, in the January episode how language is changing. I’ll be interested to see what sticks around. I think a lot of the Zoom stuff will stick around.
Carrie Gillon: Oh, yeah, for sure.
Megan Figueroa: Certainly, today I’m feeling a little Zoom fatigue, so I think that’s definitely gonna stick around as a term.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah, don’t love the Zoom. I mean, it’s very useful. It serves many purposes. It’s great. And yet [laughs]
Megan Figueroa: How many lovely people have we met during quarantine via Zoom for interviews for the pod? Thank you, Zoom, for that. [Laughter] I mean, it’s been so exciting the new interviews that we have coming out. We have so many in the queue that I’m so excited about that I just wanna tell everyone about.
Carrie Gillon: I know! I can’t wait.
Megan Figueroa: But before that, still speaking about the here and now.
Carrie Gillon: The same thing as last time – lots of anti-Asian racism this time. I mean, it was always there, obviously, but the fact that six Asian women – or women of Asian descent – were murdered at massage parlors, plus two other people, one white woman and one, I think it was Latino man?
Megan Figueroa: No, he was the husband, right?
Carrie Gillon: That’s right. There were eight victims and, obviously, the targets were the Asian women or women of Asian descent. So, that’s gross. The way that people have been talking about it, like – he tried to blame it on sex addiction, which is ridiculous.
Megan Figueroa: The mental and verbal gymnastics happening to not say, “hate crime,” have been –
Carrie Gillon: Even if, let’s say for the sake of argument, it wasn’t racist, how is it still not a hate crime against women? It’s just – of course, it’s racially motivated, of course. But even if you take that away, it’s still a hate crime. It bugs me so much that, I dunno, the way we talk about all these things is just so disturbing.
Megan Figueroa: It is. We have that pre-packaged statement that, “Oh, this is not who we are,” which is so disingenuous.
Carrie Gillon: [Sighs] I know. It’s kind of the job of leaders to say, “We’re better than this,” but, I mean, you’re right, it’s disingenuous to say that.
Megan Figueroa: It’s more aspirational.
Carrie Gillon: It’s aspirational. People should want their country to be better, but you have to admit that it’s not first. That’s the step that’s always missing I feel like.
Megan Figueroa: Absolutely. Asian American lawmakers, I guess it was about a week ago now, in the House Judiciary Committee, warned about a crisis point, and they mention language specifically. Representative Ted Lieu of California says, “I’m asking you to please stop using racist terms like ‘Kung Flu’ or ‘Wuhan Virus’ or other ethnic identifiers in describing this virus. I am not a virus, and when you say things like that, it hurts the Asian American community. Whatever political points you think you’re scoring by using ethnic identifiers in describing the virus, you’re harming Americans who happen to be of Asian descent.”
Which, I mean, 100%. He was saying this to Representative Chip Roy of Texas. This is ridiculous. Chip Roy says that, okay, so he says, “My concern about this hearing is it seems to want to venture into to the policing of rhetoric.” Then, he goes on to say that “We need more justice and less thought policing.”
Carrie Gillon: [Pause] Oh…
Megan Figueroa: I know, I know, I know.
Carrie Gillon: Is he also the one who was like, we should basically get a long rope?
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. There’s an old saying in Texas about find all the rope in Texas and get a tall oak tree.
Carrie Gillon: Way to invoke lynching for a crime that I bet he would say has nothing to do with race. C’mon. The whole thing is just layers of grossness.
Megan Figueroa: The thought policing, the policing of rhetoric. We see different versions of this all the time against black women, other people of color, indigenous people. I can’t even believe anyone wouldn’t agree or give Ted Lieu the benefit of the doubt because he’s speaking as a member of the community that’s hurting. Just to say quiet for one second, instead of being actively malicious in what you’re saying back to someone who’s hurting, is just so inconceivable to me. So cruel.
Carrie Gillon: I mean, that’s the thing. I think for people like us, we struggle to understand why people would go out of their way to hurt someone. I understand better people accidentally doing it because we’ve all done it and we all say things that are unkind that we don’t mean. But to actually go out of your way to be cruel to another human being is really hard to understand, I think, for people like us who are not actively malicious.
Megan Figueroa: And our listeners. We’re talking to people that are accidentally saying things that might be hurtful, just like you and me. We can all learn things that are related to language. But we’re never gonna get across to people that are maliciously using language, purposefully gaslighting people using slurs because they wanna feel powerful.
Carrie Gillon: It’s really hard to actually get through to people like them, which is why I don’t bother. Because some people might be able to get through to them, but I just don’t think that, unless they’re a relative of mine, maybe – maybe, in that case, but not necessarily – maybe I might be able to get through to them. But if we’re strangers, I’m not the right person to tell them.
Megan Figueroa: Obviously, we, as non-Asian American or Asian-Canadian or of Asian descent, I don’t know what to say besides I will continue trying in the ways that I can.
Carrie Gillon: We’ll keep fighting against, I guess, the more casual forms of racism that people might slip into. That’s where we can fight the best is to remind ourselves and other people that being careless with language can help lead to these kinds of outcomes where people are murdered. The words themselves don’t kill, but they allow for other people to think it’s okay.
Megan Figueroa: I think that sometimes people might think we’re being hyperbolic when we say that certain language is harmful or dangerous. I mean it literally. This is dangerous. There’re some times when it’s very, very dangerous. I think this is a perfect example.
Carrie Gillon: Nazi right rhetoric is extremely dangerous. Fascist rhetoric is extremely dangerous because it lays the ground for fascism. This is a very similar type of thing – letting racist ideology run free. Anti-sex worker rhetoric, anti-women rhetoric, all of it in this toxic soup, it all allows for someone to say to themselves, “Oh, it’s okay for me to kill these people.” Then, there’s the gun access issue.
Megan Figueroa: At least you’re in Canada now. Lucky you.
Carrie Gillon: It’s a whole complicated thing. I’m really upset and I’m thinking of everyone who’s indirectly or directly affected by this violence.
Megan Figueroa: Me too. I hope those of us who aren’t will be thoughtful about what has happened and think about how we can do better or help or do better or all of that.
Carrie Gillon: We all need to be trying a little bit harder, I think. Anyway. Today’s episode, we wanted to get this out now because their book is coming out. Kind of excited to have this come out around the time that their book comes out. It’s about standardized language, standardized language ideology, in higher education. It’s a little bit more niche, maybe, but it still applies to everybody. If all these ideologies are still maintained in higher ed, then what does it tell us about the rest of the world? So, enjoy!
Megan Figueroa: Enjoy!
Carrie Gillon: Today we’re happy to have two guests. We have Dr. Gaillynn Clements, who’s a Visiting Assistant Professor in Linguistics at Duke University, and Dr. Marnie Jo Petray, Associate Professor in TESOL and Graduate TESOL Program Coordinator/Director in the Department of Modern Languages and Cultures at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania. They are the co-editors of Linguistic Discrimination in US Higher Education, changing prejudice and the impact of language and dialect on university campuses. Welcome!
Marnie Jo Petray: Thank you! Happy to be here.
Megan Figueroa: I saw the title of your edited volume and, of course, my first thought was this should’ve happened so long ago. Not on you, but these issues have been so relevant for so long. So, I’m so glad that ya’ll did this.
Carrie Gillon: Let’s begin right with why did you want to edit this volume?
Gaillynn Clements: It came out, actually, of a panel through the Linguistics and Higher Education Committee of the Linguistic Society of America. We had come up with this idea and really wanted to do something that we saw happening on the higher ed campus, but also, something that many of us had experienced. Myself and other colleagues have said, well, you know, “as a Southerner,” or “as a woman,” or “I’ve seen students, and I’ve witnessed that with them and other professors,” and it would be really nice if we could address that and have a variety of different people who’ve done some different work on that.
After the panel, actually, an editor from Routledge came up and said, “Hey, really interested in this. Can we meet?” It just kind of came about really organically that way. But I think one of the reasons we chose the topic in the first place, particularly for me as not only have I witnessed other people but, certainly, as a Southerner myself and as a woman, the higher you go in things sometimes you get that prejudice against you and the way you speak, or people ask you to repeat yourself. It’s out there. Students have it.
Of course, in the news, like you said, there’re so many stories about people having to sue their employers or incidences at universities and things like that where we see these things happen. It’s a fine line because universities can require a medium of instruction or a language. We’re looking for professional language, and we’re often talking about things like a “written form” or “Academic English” and things like that. Sometimes, that’s fine to require those things, but when we become biased against only those and only preferring those, that’s when we see people being treated differently or not given the opportunities. Maybe they didn’t get that promotion or that student didn’t get that internship opportunity or things like that.
Actually, after the panel and talking to Mr. Sudry at Routledge, Taylor & Francis, I came home and a university in North Carolina, two weeks later, had a particular incident about students speaking Chinese in hallways and, you know, kind of in the common rooms of a particular program, and they were told to stop. They were told that that wouldn’t look good, and they should be practicing English as much as they can. They weren’t given a space to communicate with each other in a way they felt comfortable. It just reiterated that fact that we really needed to get this out there.
Carrie Gillon: What do they mean, “doesn’t look good”? Doesn’t look good to who? Who’s caring about this?
Gaillynn Clements: In that particular situation, there were some professors. You can look this up on CNN. It actually was responded to by the Chinese Education Minister. He likened it to what if American students came to Chinese schools, and we tell them they can never speak English. It’s the same thing, right. The professors went so far as to go into the graduate office of that particular program and ask to see the pictures of the students in that program so they could identify – so if the students asked them to write a recommendation later for an internship or a study opportunity, they would know who to say no to.
Megan Figueroa: Oh my god. Carrie, what’s my face doing. I’m so upset.
Carrie Gillon: I think both of us are shocked. Normally, I’m not as shocked as Megan, but today, I’m as shocked as Megan. [Laughter]
Marnie Jo Petray: It’s ludicrous. Gail’s anecdote is about higher education, but the history of students not being able to use another language besides English in the classroom, for example, suffering – I mean, not just verbal types of bias – but actually being beaten or, you know, the history of people being forbidden to use their language at home has a long history in our country, unfortunately.
Megan Figueroa: Oh, yeah. My dad was beaten for speaking Spanish in kindergarten in Arizona. Absolutely. A lot of people didn’t actually know that. When I brought that up a couple times in my PhD program, people were shocked. It’s happening still in some ways, even corporally. It’s awful.
Carrie Gillon: Even though that’s illegal.
Megan Figueroa: Illegal, yeah. The anecdote that I was – so that was at North Carolina University, you said, or where was this?
Gaillynn Clements: Yeah, it was a higher ed in North Carolina.
Megan Figueroa: I remember the kind of – I guess I didn’t look into too deeply, which surprises me – but I thought it was this quote-unquote “benevolent racism,” basically, where they’re like, “No, don’t do that because we want you to succeed.” But for them to actually be like, “I’m not gonna write you a recommendation letter.”
Carrie Gillon: That’s putative.
Megan Figueroa: What a turn.
Gaillynn Clements: It seems very subversive, right. And, like I said, it is this weird tight rope. I’ve mentioned that to Marnie and used that same picture for other people because our job is to make sure our students succeed. We want them to succeed because we care about them. We care about their futures. We’re also being assessed as professors. So, to make sure our students succeed, we wanna give them all the tools. That means linguistic tools, too. We want to make sure they have access to Standard English and can use that and can write that.
But when we equate that with the only way to speak our write, that’s really the issue. It’s saying that, in all times, you have to do this and, if you don’t, you’re less than. You don’t deserve an opportunity. Someone can be Southern English, New York English, speak Chinese English, or Chicano English. They can speak whatever they like. They might be the best person to do that chemistry lab with you or to study whatever it is.
That’s the thing is when we say, “Just because of your language, you shouldn’t have this opportunity.” We’re not just trying to help our students at that point. At that point, we’re really practicing linguisticism or linguistic discrimination, which is part of racism and sexism and classism as well.
Marine Jo Petray: That’s where the disconnect is. People outside of linguistics don’t think of language as being part of racial, gender, whatever identity we would bring to bear. They don’t think about language being a part of that. It clearly is. In the anecdote of another language – this is certainly maybe more obvious, but one of the things that we’re happy that the book was able to do was shed light on how other kinds of language are also subject to discrimination.
For example, the chapter that’s on standard language ideology with respect to American Sign Language. The D/deaf community suffers very much the same kind of discrimination because of people’s uninformed biases about what it means to be a user of sign language. For example, students complaining that a sign language interpreter in a classroom is distracting them. Even sign languages users being forced or bullied into using types of sign language that’s not necessarily dialectal. It’s the idea of standard applying there as well. It cuts across all facets of identity from ability status to gender in addition to race and ethnicity.
Megan Figueroa: I think that Tik-Tok is helping introduce a lot of linguists, or reminding us, that there’re two modalities we could be speaking of – sign and spoken language – the fact that there’s this amazing community of Black ASL, reminding us all it’s the same in sign. The same thing is happening, and I think that’s really important to remember when we’re talking about these things. I think we often erase sign. Which I’m learning. Yeah, we definitely do. I learned this through my friends on Twitter.
Carrie Gillon: Including one of the co-authors of that exact article, Dr. Jon Henner.
Marnie Jo Petray: It’s been an education for us as well. I mean, a very welcomed education. I really appreciated the opportunity to have these issues more obvious so that I could consider them and think about what my own unconscious biases were.
Carrie Gillon: You brought up standard language ideology. What is that?
Marnie Jo Petray: Standard language ideology is a type of abstract reference to the notion of an ideal. Lippi-Green’s book, English with an Accent, has been very influential both for this book and other work in linguistic discrimination. We adopted her definition of that, which I’ll read, “A bias toward an abstracted, idealized, homogenous spoken language which is imposed and maintained by dominant block institutions and which names as its model the written language, but which is drawn primarily from the spoken language of the upper-middle class.” It’s this notion of an abstract ideal that we should all be moving towards and definitely reflective of a notion of what is considered to be the prestige form of communication in a given setting. For the particular book that we’ve put together, it’s that of higher education.
Gaillynn Clements: Of course, there’s a standard in a lot of different things. There’s medical terms and terminology and jargon. There’s “Legalese,” right. We have all of these different things higher language uses as its base of communication, this standard language, which of course we know historically was just a particular dialect and accent pattern that was chosen because it was used by people in power and by people that had economic ability and were able to choose.
Of course, then it’s reinforced not just by universities but by the media and by K-12 and even by parents. So many things where it is just, “Oh, that’s not how you should say it. You should say it this way,” or “Don’t use that particular terminology or syntax here. You should do it this way instead.” We should be able to figure out a way to say, “That’s great. I love the way you express yourself. Sometimes, though, we need to make sure we’re doing things to where lots of different audiences and people with different kinds of Englishes will also understand us.” There’s got to be a way to bridge those two things in a way that’s comfortable and that honors people and their speech.
Megan Figueroa: What can we do besides burning the whole system down – which is basically what I wanna do – which is kinda what we have to do at this point if we wanna get away from this standard language ideology? But at this point, we’re basically having to – I mean, saying that what you bring to the table is perfect; I’m gonna add something to your toolkit by this other way that people are expecting you to speak. I’m sorry it’s this way. Is that a stepping stone toward us getting a place where people start perceiving people differently, which is what I think we need to be doing, where we can one day get away from having to force people to code switch?
Gaillynn Clements: I think so. I mean, I think we can see that in K-12. We’ve had dialect readers for years. Rickford and Rickford did that many years ago and showed you can transition students and maybe their home dialect and the way that might be structured in a story into a Standard English, just to give them that access, so if they want to code switch, they can. Then in situations where they don’t need to, they don’t have to.
But it just seems like there’s always gonna be this tension. Often, people in higher education, because we care about our students, we don’t want them to miss out, we feel the need to assess their use of English – not just in English class but in every class. We feel a need to comment on what they say or how they say it or how they present themselves in an oral presentation or in an essay for a class. It’s something that is rooted in a necessity because we all – an English speaker from Nigeria versus one from China versus one from Russia or here or from Canada – we all want to be able to communicate and be intelligible to each other.
At the same time, it should be okay, and we should recognize that you might say it a little bit differently than I do. As long as we can still understand each other, that’s okay. But we have this very heavily focused institutionalization of testing, of meeting certain benchmarks, of presenting ourselves in certain ways and presenting our students in certain ways. Standard English is just a huge part of that.
There are examples, absolutely, where we could take Former President Barrack Obama or Former President George Bush or Former President Bill Clinton and say, “They made it to the highest office in the land,” and sometimes, not always, but sometimes would still use African American English, in the case of President Obama, and use features or traits of that. Sometimes George Bush Jr. would certainly sound like a Texan in certain speeches and when giving answers.
We can say, “Well, it was okay for them, so it must be okay elsewhere.” But they were being judged by the entirety of the US – people that sounded like them and some people that didn’t. On university campuses you’re often judged by one professor or, if it’s a masters or dissertation, a group, a few, a committee. Those people, as with the situation that happened at the university here, might be the people that are the ones in the position of power to give you that internship or recommend you for a research opportunity. Or those are also the people that are going to vote if colleagues should be given tenure and a promotion.
We do have to figure out a way to say, like you said, it’s good to have Standard English in your toolkit, and you might wanna trot it out at some times, but it shouldn’t be the only way that we judge each other for opportunities in education.
Marnie Jo Petray: One of the points we make in the conclusion of the book is that standard language ideology is one discourse, but there are also counter ideologies as well that can hopefully combat the notion of that or educate people if they happen to not be informed, and so we’re optimistic. The question about whether or not we wanna burn down higher education in –
Megan Figueroa: Not higher education, but the standard language ideology.
Marnie Jo Petray: Right. Yes, yes, yes. We try to take a big tent viewpoint with this book and let the chapters speak for what they are able in terms of putting out the data that’s there and making the argument that they do, but then leave open what people are comfortable with doing with respect to their own belief systems, starting with the individual.
One of the points we raised was – Vincent Leitch has this term called, “intimate critique.” It invites people to be very self-reflective about their own unconscious internal biases. Maybe they’ve never examined those particular ideas before because they’ve never had an opportunity to. We’re hoping that the book at least starts that discussion. Certainly, as co-editors, we were in that situation of being educated by our authors’ pieces. We hope that that will happen as well beyond.
Then, because changes happen, we’re optimistic that change can happen and the way that it’s gonna happen is gonna be up to the way that the institution decides to react. We hope that language can be added to the roster of things for which discrimination is being fought. We’re not there yet. We’ve got a ways to go. We hope in the future that that will come to pass.
One of the interesting things I learned being – my university’s in Pennsylvania. There’s actually a 1990 Act, Act 76, called the English Fluency in Higher Education Act. It requires state universities in Pennsylvania to certify a faculty member’s fluency in English. There’s no context for which English they’re talking about. There’s no definition of what fluency is. And there’s no guidelines for who would be the expert to actually determine whether or not this faculty member is or is not fluent in English. It’s obviously there as a reflection of the notion of what it should be.
Hopefully, these kinds of things – because I’m sure Pennsylvania’s not the only state that has this kind of measure in place – hopefully, this kind of book can open the door to more discussions about why this should be reconsidered or at least be better informed in terms of what it’s trying to achieve.
Carrie Gillon: I had to do something like that except for the TAs at ASU. I was the one who was like, “No, they’re fine. I can understand them.” And the other people would be like, “No, the parents will be upset if we let this person TA.” And I was just like, “Boy, this is a mess.” One of the things that came to mind is, okay, yes, obviously, higher ed is the focus but, you’re right, it’s not just higher ed, it’s everywhere. We often don’t value other varieties even ones that are just as prestigious.
For example, this comedian was making fun of the Scottish pronunciation of – well, I say /skoʊn/ – but the Scottish pronunciation is /skan/. She was just not having it, and she was just like, “No, that’s garbage. No one should pronounce it that way.” I was just so upset that this is a thing that we can pooh-pooh so readily and it’s totally acceptable. I had to stop following that person on Twitter.
Gaillynn Clements: It’s one thing to joke about our dialects and our accents and point out the differences in them. It’s another to then shut it down and say, “No, you shouldn’t say that.” Because all the different dialects are here because of all of the historical differences – migration patterns, and who settled this area, and what languages they came into contact with. And, of course, most of us would be like, “Oh, we love the Scottish dialect. It sounds so great. It’s so wonderful.” There’re a lot of great Scottish comedians and British comedians and all other kinds of things. The great thing about them is that they sound so wonderful because they sound so different. Of course, they all talk about each other just like American comedians talk about them.
There’s this great bit where Eddie Izzard says something about English and England versus the United States.
[Excerpt from an Eddie Izzard sketch]
Because, yeah, language. They do say Britain and America are two countries separated by the Atlantic Ocean. And it’s true. [Laughter] They say two languages separated – two countries separated by a common language. It’s an Oscar Wilde line, I think.
And we do pronounce things in a different way. Like, you say, “caterpillar,” and we say, “caterpillar.” And you say, “a-LU-minum.” We say, “alu-MIN-ium.” You say, “cen-TRI-fugal.” We say, “centri-FU-gal.” You say, “LEI-sure.” We say, “Lie-jur-ai-eh.” You say, “BAY-sil.” We say, “BAH-sil.” You say, “ER-bs.” And we say, “HER-bs.” Because there’s a fucking H in it. [Laughter and applause]
Megan Figueroa: Can we talk about intelligibility real quick? Because you’ve mentioned it. I think the problem that I see is that we’re not even talking about intelligibility most of the time. People are shitting on the things like double negatives. Like, “You shouldn’t do that.” That has nothing to do with intelligibility if you ask me because you understand what this person said, you just don’t like it.
Marnie Jo Petray: Or make a judgement about their intelligence, right. That’s another form of – because someone speaks a different variety than you, they’re dumb, or they’re not educated. That’s not the case at all. There’s no connection to be made there but people jump to that conclusion.
Gaillynn Clements: That’s a great example. I was in between classes at Duke the other day, and I went to the restroom, and the light was off. That particular building doesn’t have the lights that automatically turn on. In my head, I said to myself, “No one’s done turned the light on all day.” That’s how I sound in my head to myself. Then I was like, “They ain’t done this either. And nobody’s done this.” I was using multiple negatives. I was sitting there, and I was washing my hands, and I went back to class, and I was like, “I’m gonna tell my students I just did this. In my head, this is what I said. That’s okay. I’m gonna use it as an example of double negatives.
Everybody, whether they were from the South or other parts of the United States – one student from Canada, several students from overseas – everybody got it. Nobody was like – everyone says, “Double negatives make a positive.” We know that’s not true. It’s just emphasis on how negative or how, “Nobody isn’t going to do that,” or something like that. It is not an issue of intelligibility, like Marnie said, like you’ve said, it’s just an issue about trying to put someone else down, to say that they’re not smart enough, that we know better than they do, and they should’ve said it this way, and it should’ve been that way.
This is not new, of course. You can watch that old Great American Tongues from, what was it, the 1980s or something. People are doing the same thing there. Here it’s 2021, 40 years later, and we have the same issues, right, with people talking down to someone else because they sound a certain way. It’s not about intelligibility because most of the people in my classes, most of the people I meet on the street wherever I am, I can understand them, and they can understand me.
That’s really the crux of the issue is judging someone for their different language, and then either opening up opportunities to them because they speak a certain way or closing off opportunities. In higher ed, we can do a lot. Marnie was talking about using this book is a way to reflect. Reading the chapters and saying, “Have I done that with a student? Have I treated a colleague this way? Have I paid attention to how I’m thinking about linguistics and language features and my students’ ways of speaking?”
Certainly, we need some administrative and larger institutional buy in. We need administrators to make linguisticism or linguistic discrimination part of diversity week. We need to train people in diversity and equity offices. We need to train faculty and staff and admins. We need to tell students, give students the opportunity to share their language experiences and how it’s affected them and things like that as well.
Then, once we do something like that, like two of the chapters talk about – Christina Higgins in Hawaii and Walt Wolfram at NC State – once we begin to do those types of things, we can have that larger discussion of, well, how do we grade? What is the most important thing? How can we begin to change people’s needs or perspectives or ideas about this? Like Marnie already said, it might be institution specific, absolutely. But it seems like we can begin to take these ideas presented in the book and move them forward, hopefully, within ourselves and within our departments then in the larger institutional setting as well.
Megan Figueroa: In your head, who’s holding this book and you’re like, “Yes, I’m glad it got to you”?
Marnie Jo Petray: I would say administrators, the folks who are responsible for diversity policies and considering ways to be sure that the university that they’re stakeholders at will be adding this to their list of things to consider with respect to new policies to be sure people are not being disenfranchised to be sure that people have the same opportunity, that it’s an even playing field. That would be one. Certainly, most folks within the realm of linguistics already know these things. We’re such a niche part of academia.
I was just even thinking about the double negative thing. It’s true within the science of linguistics that many things about language are formulaic but certainly the mathematical equation of two negatives equal a positive does not apply.
Carrie Gillon: Well, it sometimes does. But it’s very obvious that it does. I would say that it’s actually the opposite. It’s still mathematical. You’re multiplying – or you’re adding – it’s one or the other with multiple negatives. They’re both logical.
Marnie Jo Petray: Yes, right.
Megan Figueroa: You mentioned that Lippi-Green was someone who inspired you. She’s definitely inspiring our book, too, that we’re writing. I think she said something like this was the last acceptable form of discrimination. Carrie and I have said it, too.
Marnie Jo Petray: The last back door, yeah. There’s different ways of saying the same idea but, yeah, hers was “the last backdoor to discrimination.”
Megan Figueroa: I mean, I’ve pondered this idea for so long, and I’m like, is it because of this idea of immutable and immutable characteristics? Do people think we can just flip a switch and change the way we speak as if it’s not part of who we are? I think that some people must really believe that. It’s not like skin color – we can’t change our skin color, but we can change the way we speak. Do you think that that’s one of the things that makes people feel like it’s okay to judge people on or to tell people to change?
Marine Jo Petray: I think her metaphor of the sound house really works with respect to a metaphor that speaks to the way that someone’s accent is built from early on and asking them to change it is a very complex request that might be achievable by a very small fraction of individuals who have that affinity. But, by and large, it’s not gonna result in anybody’s real transformation.
Carrie Gillon: You brought up that they do that show, American Voices, from the 80s. You also talk about back in 1974 they already were trying to fight standard language ideology. It’s almost 50 years later – that makes me feel very old – and yet here we are still fighting the same fight. I feel frustrated that we’re still at the same spot, basically. It’s a little better now than it was, but what can we do to keep pushing this forward, to open people’s minds?
Gaillynn Clements: It seems like one of the best things we can do is constantly call it out. We can say, “Hey, that’s not okay.” There was a story – I don’t know if you guys saw it – it was on the NBC news the other day. I’ll pull it up quickly while I’m talking. There was a county councilwoman in, I think, Maryland. They were doing a virtual meeting. Members of the public were on there – things like that. She happens to be a Hispanic woman. At one point, she pronounced a certain word some way, and people then started talking and putting the chat about what she had said and, “Oh, isn’t that cute. She pronounced that wrong.” Things like that.
She just came back. The word she said was – one of the men on the Zoom I guess that laughed at her says, “I heard the word ‘hologram’ and thought that was interesting.” Another woman was like, “So cute.” She says we still have situations in public where people are constantly pointing out that we don’t sound like they do – we have the accent, whereas we know everybody has an accent and a dialect. What she did was she went onto some local stations and she said, “I want other Hispanics to be proud of the way they sound, and I want people to like their accents.”
If it happens to you, coming back and responding to it has got to be one of the best things we can do. Although, again, probably for 50 years people have been doing that. That’s why we feel the buy in from administrators and department chairs and heads and deans and things like that is so important because we can’t really change the culture of a university or of many areas if we don’t have that larger support and buy in.
One of the things we are encouraged by is the very quick adoption of asking people, “What’s your pronoun?”, and putting it maybe with your email or asking students, “If you want to be called a certain thing, let me know in an email or after class or on a notecard if I give it to you.” But really letting people know. A lot of people in the university system – because it’s not just language. It’s language and gender. It seems easier to adapt to that. When we’re just thinking about language in the classroom, we don’t always consider the other ways in which we might be – the term in the book is “raciolinguistics” – how we might be calling out students or not expecting much of them because of the way they sound to us or how we don’t give them the same time and attention because we don’t think that their dialect makes them, in a sense, worthy.
That’s really terrible because, as you said, it’s really part of our identity. What we’re doing when we attack the way someone speaks or attach certain stereotypes to the way they speak is we’re putting those stereotypes on the person. We’re putting those ideas on our students or on our colleagues or on people just that we meet in the street. It’s a very negative thing. Lippi-Green is mostly right in the fact that it’s not okay to body shame anymore. It’s not really okay in the wider public to say things about people’s race or about their gender. And when people do, they’re often called out and called down.
We can still make a lot of fun of the way someone talks, or the way you talk, or the way I talk. It’s done a lot, and people don’t say, “Hey, that’s not okay,” because intelligence is attached to the way we sound and the words we use and how we present ourselves through speech and through the written medium. There’s this attachment that says, “Oh, well, you’re obviously not smart enough. You don’t need this.” But it really does matter for people to speak up and speak out.
It’s been 50 years since the Four C’s, and NCTE adopted those, really trying to recognize home languages, and trying to be understanding of students’ dialects in the classroom. Even they walk that fine line because they say, “We need to transition students to Standard English so that at least for the classroom they have that ability. Elsewhere, it shouldn’t matter.” But we see that elsewhere it does matter for so many people. Just kind of inserting yourself and saying, “Hey, that’s not okay.”
It’s difficult, though, because the power relationships at universities are often very stark. Someone’s a student, and someone else is a tenured, distinguished professor. And the professor comments on the way that you said something – not what you said, but how you said it. How is that student, then, supposed to react? Probably, the student’s embarrassed. Maybe they’re frustrated. Who do they go to? The professor who is going to grade them, right. There’s a lot of skin in the game there.
Megan Figueroa: We get into the issue of the Pygmalion effect then where, okay, if the issue of raciolinguistics – Jonathan Rosa and Nelson Flores, who came up with that – the idea that the way you look, you’re gonna speak a certain way, and so I’m gonna have these assumptions when I walk into the classroom about you. Then all of a sudden, I’m not gonna expect much of you. You might then perform poorly because you’re like, “This person doesn’t give a shit about me.” These are real, tangible consequences. These show up in grades. They absolutely follow the student, right, and how does that make them feel about themselves. You could be the most badass person in the world and wanna say that things don’t affect you, but these things affect you.
Marnie Jo Petray: Very much in the same way, all the research about other kinds of discrimination have revealed it’s the very same type of dynamic. We were talking about who do we hope actually reads this book or is influenced by it, besides administrators, clearly professors. Even if they start small and start to craft assignments where they permit students to explore and use whatever their home varieties of language are, and also to even remind people about the fact that using a written standard for spoken English really doesn’t matter – I mean, talk about logic, right. That doesn’t make a lot of sense. They’re two different delivery systems.
It’s fine to have standards. There’s no problem with that. But when it starts to represent who a person is and it starts to denigrate somebody else because they’re not part of that circle, then we have a problem. Gail knows this better than I do, but the example of the dissertation that was rapped a few years back – to sort of expand genres in such a way that other varieties besides Standard English can be used is a really good idea.
We also hope that students who’ve experienced this kind of discrimination can somehow read about other people’s experiences so that they can identify that, “Oh, that’s what that was,” rather than feeling bad like it’s only on their shoulders, to realize that there’s a much bigger power play going on here that they’re not responsible for.
Carrie Gillon: I have a friend here who oversaw a masters project in language revitalization. The student did the project completely orally. It was a completely oral masters thesis, and it was all done in his community. His supervisors had to go to the community and watch. It was a very different kind of thesis. Obviously, the fact that it was in a different language was more acceptable because of the nature of it. But still, that is very unusual. We do need to break out of our very boring written Standard English way of thinking.
Marnie Jo Petray: Imagine an argument built on call and response that’s used in Black English Vernacular. That would be such an inspiring set of ideas to listen to.
Carrie Gillon: One of the last things that we wanted to touch on was the fact that at least in some ways higher ed is pretty liberal, pretty progressive. It’s not always – but it’s pretty. Why is language discrimination still occurring in an environment that is definitely more liberal than some other parts of society?
Gaillynn Clements: It seems like there’s this – when we have an idea about disseminating knowledge and being the gate keepers of some set of knowledge, whatever you program and department is, there’s this idea that that knowledge then needs to be given back to you in a very specific way. Talking about A. D. Carson’s – I think he was at Columbia – he wrote a rap record for his thing. The research is all still there, the understanding is all still there, but giving that back to us or giving us an oral dissertation in the community in which the dissertation is about and making it a really interesting new thing.
It’s because institutions of higher learning are so grounded in all of these very specific modes and very specific parameters. This is how it’s always been done, so that’s how we’re still going to do it. I think if we go back to what I said earlier where educators really want their students to succeed, and we know, for the most part, to go out there and get that job and impress that hiring manager, you need to dress the part and you need to talk the part. If you use African American English or Southern English or, I don’t know, Italian New York English or Valley Girl from California, you might not sound the part. Someone’s listening to you and they’re saying, “I don’t know if I want this person representing my company,” or “Is this professional-sounding?” “Is going to get people to want to be a part of me?”
There are certainly a lot of companies and institutions that have been able to play up on the fact that they use a particular dialect. That has really served them well. But for the majority of college students, that’s not particularly the case. If you wanna go work at a bank, and you did finance as a major, they’re gonna expect you to be able to talk to all different kinds of people. They want you to have that more standard-sounding accent or dialect so that way everyone can understand you, and they’re hoping, of course, you’ll be able to understand everyone else.
It really is about that, kind of, we’re the gatekeepers for these degrees. We’re the gatekeepers of knowledge. There’s a way that I was taught, and I’m gonna teach you in a similar way. Or even if we teach in new ways, we often assess students in very similar ways back. If we tell our students, “You can use whatever communicative style you like – whatever mode, whatever variety – on campus,” and then they get out in the real world and they see that’s not the case, have we then done them a disservice? Have we not prepared them?
There’s a lot of fear there. We’re worried about how they will fare when they leave us. Even if we want to be liberal and progressive, we know everyone else isn’t. We have to say, like Megan said earlier, put this in your toolkit because you really might need that. You might need it here, and you’re certainly gonna need it when you leave here. I think most people realize that higher education is this bubble, and the rest of the world is not that way.
Many of us still use Standard English in class. I use my own Southern English as examples for my students, but I don’t generically talk to my students that way. I use Standard English. It’s what’s expected. It’s what the students are expecting. I give them what they expect. Maybe I’m part of the problem, right? It’s this cyclical thing. It’s really hard to get off. Because if you get off and you let your students do something different, maybe no one else will. They’re gonna be downgraded elsewhere or not given those opportunities.
We just stay with the system and the status quo that we’ve got because it seems – what are we gonna do for a generation of students? The same thing’s being questioned in education about the pandemic. What are we doing with these students in online? Are they gonna be able to catch back up? Are they progressing properly? If we do the same thing with language and just said, “Free for all! Do whatever you want,” in colleges, is that the best thing for our students? That’s a hard question to say definitively 100% yes to because they’re gonna leave us and go elsewhere and be judged.
Megan Figueroa: I’m thinking about the status quote is not working right now for many students. I can’t help but think of the example of Yamiche Alcindor and Tucker Carlson where Tucker Carlson, on his show, played a clip of Yamiche, who is a black woman, and he said something like, “I couldn’t even understand her,” or something. By all accounts, she was speaking Standardized English – Mainstream White English, even. So, it goes back to the raciolinguistic concept that we see her, and we just expect her to not be speaking a certain way.
Gaillynn Clements: Or you don’t want to accept that person, whether it’s economics, whether it’s race, whether it’s class, whether it’s region of the country, different political views. You automatically are shutting the person down on all of these, and then you use language as an extra way to shut them down.
Marnie Jo Petray: It’s like profiling. It’s a way of profiling.
Carrie Gillon: It’s just an excuse, even when there’s nothing there like in this case. There was nothing there for him to pick up on other than the way that she looked.
Gaillynn Clements: There’s plenty of research that demonstrates that people’s inherent biases play into what they think they perceive or understand as opposed to what is actually comprehensible. That idea of intelligibility is not necessarily – it’s not an objective measure. There’s a lot of subjectivity to that. If we can somehow manage – I mean, the change should come from within. It should change from individuals. It should change from the top down as well. That would be great. I don’t think that’s gonna be likely the way it does happen, but if we can just get people to understand that difference is not deficient.
That’s one of the themes in our book is that difference is difference. It’s not deficient. Allowing different types of expression within certain contexts is actually to the betterment of all of us. It actually enhances things as opposed to taking something away. Does it mean you’re throwing out the baby with the bathwater?
Carrie Gillon: All right. Well, we always leave our listeners with one final thought –
Megan Figueroa: Don’t be an asshole.
Carrie Gillon: Don’t be an asshole. [Laughter]
Marnie Jo Petray: Thank you for having us.
Gaillynn Clements: Absolutely.
Megan Figueroa: Thank you so much for being with us today.
Carrie Gillon: Thank you.
Carrie Gillon: We would like to thank our newest patrons, Jacqueline Mogle, Jacob Bloom, and Kathryn Remlinger. Thank you so much. If anyone else wants to join us at patreon.com/vocalfriespod, that would be great! We have stickers and we have bonus episodes once a month. Join us at patreon.com.
Carrie Gillon: The Vocal Fries podcast is produced by me, Carrie Gillon, for Halftone Audio, theme music by Nick Granum. You can find us on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @VocalFriesPod. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our website is vocalfriespod.com.