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Missouri S&T Professor Sees Racism In Linguistics And Proposes Solution

Sarah Hercula teaches a class at Missouri S&T in this 2018 file photo.
Sam O'Keefe
Missouri S&T
Sarah Hercula teaches a class at Missouri S&T in this 2018 file photo.

The notion that there is a proper way to speak adds to racist views in modern society. Sarah Hercula, a Missouri University of Science and Technology English professor, has written a book on that topic. St. Louis Public Radio’s Jonathan Ahl sat down with her to talk about her ideas to fix the problem.

Sarah Hercula: Language is one of the most essential ways that we use to situate ourselves as humans. It’s a true factor in our identities.

People tend to view language differently than race or gender, because they claim that it can be changed.

You can’t change your race. You can’t very easily change your gender. But you can learn a new language, and all of us are equipped to do that.

So the argument is language is different. But the truth is, language is just as much a part of our identity as any of the other factors that we are born into. So that argument, about being able to change your language, is more complicated than it might seem.

First of all, because it’s such an important part of our identities, so asking someone to change their language is akin to asking them to change other major aspects of their identity.

But secondly, people have differential access to languages of power and privilege. So it’s not as easy as one might think to just say, “learn standard English or mainstream English, or some kind of English of power.” Especially if you are in an area or at a school or growing up in a place where that language is not widely spoken and therefore not widely accessible to that person.

Jonathan Ahl: Are you saying that through research and education, everyone needs to learn that different dialects are completely acceptable and have no reflection on someone’s intelligence, economic level or class?

Hercula: That’s the goal.

In the end, it would be great for us to see a linguistics-focused curriculum integrated into K through 12 schools, for example, that focused less on moving everyone toward some perceived standard that everyone needs to learn, and instead teaching folks skills like intercultural communication. That deals with how to talk to people that sound different from you and how to get good at that. How to learn how to talk to other people and to listen. Those are better skills than teaching everybody the kind of standard way of speaking and of writing.

There’s no way to flip a switch and make this happen suddenly. But I think developing a sense of better attitudes toward language diversity and also better skills with linguistic accommodations and intercultural communication would really benefit a lot of people and go a long way toward helping with language bias.

Ahl: That can be really tricky, though, because if someone emulates a different dialect, can’t that also be seen as patronizing or insulting?

Hercula: Absolutely. I’m not advocating someone necessarily emulate or try to speak a different dialect or different variety.

For example, in my book, I talk about my approach, in which students, who are not native speakers of these dialects learn about African American English, Chicano English and Appalachian English.

My goal in the class is not to make them fluent speakers of those dialects. Instead my goal is to help them learn, first of all, the principles of linguistics, which they learn by studying these dialects. But also to learn that these dialects are just as rule governed and systematic as the one that they speak, or as any other dialect.

Ahl: How do we overcome linguistic bias?

Hercula: It’s a question I’ve spent lots and lots of time thinking about.

I think that we are in a particular moment right now as we’re thinking about the Black Lives Matter movement and these moments where we have seen ordinary people kind of step up and say, “that’s enough” to some of these really long-standing systemic issues we’ve seen in society. So my hope is that as we continue to progress with things like gender equality and race-based equality and equality for LGBTQ people, I’m hopeful that there is a small group of us but a mighty enough group of us that can start to get language to be part of these conversations, too.

Sarah Hercula is the author of Fostering Linguistic Equality.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Jonathan Ahl joined Iowa Public Radio as News Director in July 2008. He leads the news and talk show teams in field reporting, feature reporting, audio documentaries, and talk show content. With more than 17 years in public media, Jonathan is a nationally award-winning reporter that has worked at public radio stations in Macomb, Springfield and Peoria, IL. He served WCBU-FM in Peoria as news director before coming to Iowa. He also served as a part-time instructor at Bradley University teaching journalism and writing courses. Jonathan is currently serving a second term as president of PRNDI ââ