Language Is…

Language is a technology, a doorway, a weapon, and an agent of change and hope. As it shifts both form and function, the metaphors that describe it change too.

Language is a technology that has shaped our brains. Ted Chiang’s novelette The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling (a Hugo nominee last year) particularly struck me as revolving around the same complex issues — how important language and particularly writing has been to the human psyche. Language changes the way we think — it is a tool that can be both used and misused to great effect.

Language is a doorway, and sometimes a cruel one.

Though I am a high-school science teacher during the regular school year, last summer I was working with much younger ones (7-9 years old) on reading. These children in particular had been identified as having increased difficulty with reading and/or writing standard English. The reasons vary widely, ranging from learning disabilities to interrupted schooling to status as recent immigrants to the United States. In all cases, however, I had daily opportunities to experience the bits and pieces of how language and perceived language ability tie in so intimately with a child’s identity.

Starting in the third grade or so, children make a profound shift. They transition from “learning to read into reading to learn”, as the saying goes. Without the basic skills to decode meaning from text and encode meaning into text, students will be hard pressed to stay on track in all content areas. Because written language is the basis for nearly all academic knowledge in our society, the ability to read and write academic text in the dominant language of one’s country is almost non-negotiable if one desires academic success, access to college and jobs, and informed participation in democracy and civic life.

Kids know this, in a deep and visceral way that we perhaps find hard to imagine. One of my third graders, who exhibited no cognitive impairment or oral language deficiency but simply had a difficult time decoding certain consonants, had already begun to internalize his otherness. His attention has begun to focus on how he is not “normal”, and like many of us he will not realize until much later in life, if ever, that normalcy is socially constructed. Reading is tiring for him, so he begins to fall behind his peers. He associates academics with failure and struggle. The connection between effort and success, which seems so natural to many of us, does not form in a reliable way. It is not so much that inability to read will directly cause future delinquency in some sort of deterministic way, but that being on the outside of something so central to community as language can exacerbate any preexisting or future prompts toward alienation.

Language is a genocidal weapon of mass destruction.

Because the keepers of the dominant language hold such automatic and inherent privilege above those who cannot read, speak, and comprehend like a native, language is a potent and often subconscious weapon. In my story, Remembering Turinam, the politics of memory are laid bare through the relationship between a grandfather and his grandson. Both are members of a way of life that have been decimated by an aggressive program of physical and cultural colonization.

“You, my grandson, study your own history in the Rytari language, the language of the people who destroyed your history. Do you see? We do not have a history anymore. This is what it means to be a footnote to someone else’s story.”

In our age of instant Google Translate, there is a temptation to conceive of languages as mutually interchangeable and equivalent forms of expression, differing merely in the integral sounds and grammatical rules. Perhaps science fiction has added to this misconception — our tropes of babel fish and universal translators have been enabling pan-galactic empires and interplanetary trade for as long as the genre has been around.

But real language does not work that way. Even within one species, one language, and one nation, the subset of people who speak American English can hardly agree on dialect, slang, idiom, connotation, body language, or facial expression. Some universal micro-expressions aside perhaps, the apprehension of meaning requires some overlap between the parties involved in our construction of the word. On the galactic scale, C-3PO may claim to be fluent in over six million forms of communication, but with those stiff movements, unblinking eyes, and complete lack of facial movement, I am skeptical that emotional intent of his speech ever gets across.

The point is, language is much more than a set of sounds and grammar rules. It is integral to the way we perceive the world and conceive of ideas, inseparable from our conception of ourselves and how the self relates to the universe, and impossible to disentangle from our biology and social evolution. One language cannot simply replace another without also subverting these latter human elements. Sometimes this invasion is done intentionally, as has been the case for many colonized peoples the world over. Other times, it is subtle, a side-effect of good intentions.

Many of my students speak Spanish, Haitian Creole, or Cape Verdean Creole as their first language. Even as I provide them with language instruction to help open the doorways of opportunity for them, a part of me wonders, at what cost to their previous selves? Very few people would claim that enabling greater access to education is damaging to an underserved child, but we must accept that the very nature of such instruction comes with some danger of erasure.

Even aspects as simple as correcting dialect and choice of vocabulary prompt value judgments in all fields about what constitutes the “real” language, and these judgments are bound up in our conception of the Other. Why is it so hard to convince institutions that African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) is a language with its own self-consistent grammar, and not an unrefined slang that requires correction? Why is Haitian Creole not considered a Romance language, despite the strong influence of French? In our efforts to educate, at what point are we guilty, despite sometimes noble purposes, of aiding deculturalization?

Language is an agent of change and hope.

Near the climax of one of my favorite musicals, Ragtime, anti-hero Colehouse Walker knows he is about to die for his cause, justice and racial equality before the law. Before walking out to his doom, he exhorts his followers to carry on the struggle. His words are sung in the script, but I will render them here as if they were prose to highlight their meaning:

Your sword can be a sermon, or the power of the pen. Teach every child to raise his voice, and then my brothers, then… will justice be demanded by ten million righteous men! Make them hear you! And when they hear you, I’ll be near you again.

The exclusive use of the male pronoun notwithstanding, I am inspired by this line. Here Walker understands that words can not only influence the world, but serve as a form of sorcery as well. If his message spreads as he hopes it will, his physical death will not mean the end of what he stood for. His ideas will become a kind of immortality, summoning his memory and spirit to whatever time and place they may be needed.

So what does this all mean for how we should use language? To me it is a reminder that language matters, and that what we end up saying cannot be separated from how we say it. Language is salvation and a loaded gun in one. So let us use it carefully, compassionately, wisely, and always with an eye towards what we share as sentient beings.

Language could be liberation, if we tried.



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