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Language Is Not a Threat

If you want to upset someone, use a different language in front of them.

Before school let out for summer, at a district-wide meeting of people in my position (a sort of school-community liaison based in the school building), a woman shared about the situation when the school put out a flyer about a school activity, in both English and Spanish. She told us about the reaction of some English-only parents, who were angry about the school putting Spanish on the back of the sheet of paper. When parents reacted like this, they tended to talk about how people should learn English, and how English is what’s spoken in the US. But political and educational considerations aside (schools are not charged with enforcing any sort of language policy, but rather, responding to the makeup of their community), the parents’ reactions were, I would guess, stronger and more profound than even they would have expected.

The parents’ reaction may seem completely irrational or wholly reasonable, depending on where you stand, but given that the information was primarily provided in a language these people could understand, wouldn’t we assume there would be less frustration with the situation? The explanation for why that wasn’t the case comes from the discipline of sociolinguistics.

For some background, formal linguistics sees language almost mathematically. There are pieces, and the pieces are put together by rules and operations. To get from a statement to a question, the pieces in question undergo certain processes to get to the finished product. Formal linguistics explains why different versions of a given word or grammatical construct will be used in different contexts based on inherent meaning. Functional linguistics, similarly, discusses why different forms show up in different places by invoking function. These approaches focus solely on the language system–there are no explanations coming from outside the system, and all of the things that co-occur with language (like place, people, or even time of day) are not considered. These approaches have their benefits, but they also miss some of the picture.

Sociolinguistics, on the other hand, is concerned with language as a social system. Sociolinguists recognize that language doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and try to explain linguistic phenomena not only within language itself, but also as it relates to certain social constraints in the environment. Through this lens, someone may change their accent to be more like their interlocutor (the person they’re speaking to), or use “fancier” vocabulary to sound smart.

Sociolinguistics takes language as a reflection of and a contributor to our social selves. With language, we construct and show off who we are in the world. We define ourselves by our accent and dialect; we also judge others by theirs. If we’re from the southern United States, we have a certain way of speaking (some call it a “southern drawl”) that we either like to play up or down, depending on who we’re with and who we want to be in a given moment. Maybe we change our speech more permanently. Academic types in the United Kingdom might use the “Oxbridge” speech patterns to communicate success and knowledge. However you change your speech, we all do it, and we all find identity in it.

This brings us back to our original question. Why do some people get so upset when foreign languages are used around them? It’s because a person’s language is a person’s identity. Language isn’t just for communicating information as we see it. When we use language, we convey and construct who we are. So when another language is being used near us, one we don’t understand and that we can’t use, we have a tendency to feel threatened on a deeper level. It isn’t just that we don’t understand it, it’s that we worry that its use somehow diminishes us.

Of course, this isn’t the case. If we take a second and step back, we see that there is no threat in providing materials in another person’s language alongside our own. In some settings, like in a school, it may in fact amplify and stretch and grow our perception of self by bringing disparate groups together. Which, in the end, is not a threat, but an opportunity.

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