MDCC Presents: Can We Talk About Linguistic Justice?

Colgate students enjoyed a productive talk and discussion about linguistic justice led by Professor of Writing and Rhetoric Jenn Lutman and organized by Professor of Africana and Latin American Studies April Baptiste and MDCC Commons on Wednesday, Feb. 24. Lutman’s talk centered around the concept of linguistic justice in the face of discrimination, surrounding the ways in which people speak and write in English based on their culture, community and race. Although there is no official language in the United States, there remains a continued sense of expectation and ignorance about the way Americans talk, even among immigrant communities and speakers of widespread dialects.  

Lutman became passionate about linguistic justice in graduate school when she read the work of Geneva Smitherman, Lisa Delpit and Rosina Lippi-Green. Scholar Lippi-Green’s work especially influenced her and made her think about educators’ biases towards a “standard” idealized language imposed through dominant institutions. Lutman explained that she is privileged to have not experienced real linguistic prejudice herself. Still, she became aware of her Virginian accent with family influences from the Northeast when she went to graduate school in the Midwest. This experience led her to think about how her accent and speech reflect her personal story and heritage, though no one has ever criticized her accent.  

Lutman showed two videos that discussed the importance of linguistic justice. The first video, “Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity and Pedagogy,” explores Dr. April Baker-Bell’s work on dismantling prejudices when it comes to English in the Black community. Baker-Bell advocates for accepting Black language with her students in Detroit, explaining how dialect means power and pride. Her goal is for students to be proud of how they speak and counter linguistic racism in the classroom and in society. 

Lutman then showed “Embracing Multilingualism and Eradicating Linguistic Bias,” a TedTalk by Karen Leung. Leung discusses her experiences growing up in America with immigrant parents. Her parents, who immigrated from Hong Kong, taught her and her siblings Cantonese as she faced expectations for “standard” English in school. Leung discusses how some Americans consider accents an inferior standard of English and discriminate against accents based on race.  

Lutman then opened up the discussion to students, asking how linguistic justice and linguistic prejudice have affected them in their lives and at Colgate. First-year Sofia Gaitan Wolfe talked about how people expect her to have an accent or speak like Sofia Vergara when they learn that she is originally from Columbia.

The question of race came up as Lutman discussed how the standards for Former President Barack Obama’s English were a lot different than Former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, explaining the concept of code-switching a dialect or accent to fit into a society or be perceived differently. Baptiste explained how people sometimes assume that English is not her native language since she has an accent and was not raised in America. She often receives offensive comments such as “your English is very good” while it is actually her first language. 

Colgate is a linguistically diverse institution that still grapples with the issue of linguistic prejudice in the classroom. As the head of the Writing and Speaking Center, Lutman shared how students continue to raise concerns over issues surrounding “standard” formal English and writing for Colgate classes. It can be a complicated task for faculty to uphold an academic institution’s English writing conventions while upholding linguistic justice. Lutman herself avoids referring to “good” English and instead specifies that her assignments call for standard English. She does not penalize students if they have a reason to write in a certain tone or dialect. Lutman explained how she attempts to address linguistic justice in her own classes.

“I myself teach the conventions of Standard Edited U.S. English and ask my students to use this variety when a writing situation calls for it and when they wish to answer that call, or meet those expectations… But still, I speak of Standard Edited English with them as a form or code writers can choose to switch into, fully or partially, depending on the rhetorical or artistic purpose they wish to achieve in a text. I never speak of Standard English as ‘pure’ or ‘good’ English, and I never conflate Standard English with ‘writing’ — in this sense, I have never once met a Colgate student who ‘can’t write.’ What I have met, instead, are some students who quite understandably experience challenges in learning and applying the conventions of a very particular language variety, academic English, which I might even dare to call a dialect,” Lutman said.

The event concluded with an open discussion in which students shared their thoughts on measures for addressing these problems. There was a general consensus that the school should adopt a mission statement surrounding language in the classroom and linguistic justice. Passionate as always, Lutman hopes to continue the conversation on the issue and change how people look at language and English in particular.