Language&Power.

I’m not sure I’m going to be able to properly articulate what I mean to say in this post, but I am going to try.

More than once in the last year, I have encountered the idea of language & power and how the two go hand-in-hand. There has been research done by Delpitt in the late 80s that is often referred to when the subject comes up. The idea is, essentially, that those who can properly use language have the power. There are rules to our society, particularly in academia, and when one learns to play by these rules they gain access to the “culture of power.” This can be as simple as what Cecilia blogged about the other week: if you mess up on citations, it doesn’t matter how good your paper is, you won’t pass.

However, there are deeper implications for this idea that go beyond writing a paper. The “culture of power” to which we gain access by skilled use of language,  is a very exclusive idea. What about the people that don’t learn the rules? What about the people that never become skilled at using language? ELA is the only high school subject that is required at all three levels. English teachers are “gatekeepers” as one professor put it. They get to decide whose language is appropriate or meeting the standard. In a nutshell, they get to decide who will be successful, who will get to become a member of the “culture of power.”

I don’t deny the research. I think it’s true. But there is something about it that deeply bothers me. The people who have studied this work by Delpitt and have written about it themselves are all people that are already a part of this “culture of power.” They have master’s degrees and Ph.Ds. They can explain what the “culture of power” is and how it is you gain access. But, what are they, or any of us, doing to change the system? Or, is the system being perpetuated by those who best understand it? Or, worse yet, is the system even changeable?

This is what got me thinking: just recently, I had a professor (who isn’t actually a professor of mine) explain this language and power thing. Then, we were shown an email that was sent to this professor, from a person pursuing their Ph.D. requesting to study under them. The professor then asked us to identify why she would disregard this email. We pointed out a grammatical error, the overuse of adjectives, and the overall organization as reasons why the sender of the email should not have the permission granted.

Wait, what?

I think the point of the exercise was to have us understand that the rules of the “culture of power” are incredibly important. The sender of the email obviously had not been informed of these rules, and therefore violated them. But this exercise wasn’t imagined, it was real. The sender of the email, solely because of their use of language, was denied their request. In that moment, the professor, who clearly understood the idea of language & power, decided to perpetuate the system. Permission denied. Barrier raised. Exclusion.

I am not unaware of the fact that the person pursuing their Ph.D. should have been well-versed on writing a professional email. They should have long been a part of this “culture of power.” Yet, there is something really unsettling to me about this whole situation. What about the kid who is raised in a home where a non-standard variety of English is spoken? Do they get to be successful? Will they be granted access to the “culture of power?” Or, will they be excluded? Worse yet, do we depend on this exclusion for the system to work? Do we set people up to fail?

Is this the system in which we live, operate and distribute power? Is it fair?

This is just one story, but is it actually every story?

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3 thoughts on “Language&Power.

  1. Pingback: I’m worried about my grammar… « kailee brennan : a portfolio

  2. You are asking very important questions, Kailee. And very personal for me, too, as English is not my first language. People tell me I am pretty good, but how good exactly is pretty good? It just does not happen that I write something without being conscious of the fact that it may sound awkward and different. I don’t speak without later on replaying what I just said and thinking – did I pronounce that word correctly? or: I think I screwed up the grammar there… (pardon my Latin). Even writing this I am thinking – do I sound awkward to ‘them’ (as in Canadian students)? Have I made any mistake? Would they want to see me for coffee and talk to me, or would that be difficult for them to understand me?
    It took me a long time after coming to Canada (even though I spoke fluent English) to get a proper job. Two years almost. Was that the language? Was that the fact that I am not Canadian? I seriously don’t know…

    However, I had a more worrying thought when I was reading your entry: language varies in different economic classes. because of what we learn from our parents and their community, we usually have problems with going up in the class system. So if I am born poor in an uneducated family, the chances are that even after being able to go ‘up’, I will use a similar language, phrases, gestures. There will be something different about me that educated people whose parents had books and money to take them to museums and galleries will find off. Or even primitive. I know people like that. They are great, educated (as in graduated from schools and universities), but you can still hear it when they speak. And subconsciously I treat them differently. You just made me realize it.

    How many students like this will you have in your classroom? How can you help them to be flexible with their language?
    No, wait!
    Maybe I am just asking the wrong questions? Maybe the question is how to make ALL of your students aware of the differences and make them ‘unlearn’ ostracism?

  3. Hey Kailee. Your prof sounds pretty great… Understandable and everything though. A PhD candidate should probably write like a PhD candidate. That just makes sense. But I agree that the overarching idea of language determining power determining success really puts some groups of people at a disadvantage. Lord knows it isn’t fair, but that’s something that in our culture is valued and power is attributed to it. Economically, that can be the stick used to measure potential which brands people and funnels them into certain classes, jobs, etc.

    I really don’t have an answer to most of your questions, but your job as an educator will probably have a lot to do with it. Will your own classroom culture and practices do more to reproduce those problems or provide solutions and alternatives for students? How do you do that, or can you even change the current model, as you asked? That’s a way bigger question than I know how to answer. Hopefully someone else comes up with something, and I’ll check back.

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