Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Describe, don’t prescribe

Prescriptive grammar just punishes people for talking normally
Prescriptive grammar punishes people for talking normally.

This post follows on the 4 points I learned about people from the linguistic theories of Prof. Noam Chomsky. Please refer to “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Background” for a full introduction to this idea, and to the first in this series, “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Grammar is in every brain.”

2. We describe grammar, we don’t prescribe it.
Rules such as “no split infinitives” or “There’s no such word as ‘ain’t’” don’t exist in the linguistics that I study. Such rules are called “prescriptive” because they prescribe a particular way of speaking that goes against how people actually speak. The linguistic school to which I belong does not impose a certain way of speaking; instead, we aim to describe the way people actually speak. In this way, everyone who speaks a language is  valued equally in how he or she speaks.

Continue reading “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Describe, don’t prescribe”

Language and class in the US

Changing our attitude about language is the first step
Changing our attitude about language is the first step.

Americans carry a linguistic assumption that will ultimately hold us back.  As a society, we judge you based on one linguistic question: How good is your English?  Based on the answer to this question, we can begin to decide on your worth as a person.  The centrality of this question displays chauvinism and inflexibility, as it degrades any other linguistic abilities a person has.  More importantly, the question prevents us from learning and improving ourselves.  Until we recognize the linguistic abilities of those who might speak “bad English,” we will never take advantage of the learning opportunities standing right before us.

Here are a couple of examples that came to my attention this week.  I work in customer service, and our company has recently sent our help desk off-shore.  (I’m leaving out some identifying details, but the point can probably apply broadly.)  I spent many hours this week fixing problems that our help desk couldn’t help with.  When the help desk couldn’t help the customers, the customers called their boss, who called me.  When I talked to several frustrated customers, one problem kept coming up with clear anger, “And I could hardly understand what they were saying!”  The question refers to the perceived quality of their English.  Then I would hear about how the help desk is broken–of which their lack of quality English being a major symptom.  I heard clear disdain for non-native English speakers.

One of my co-workers is an intelligent, hard-working immigrant.  Because his English is clearly accented and he is soft-spoken, I hear frustration arise sometimes among those who communicate with him.  It breaks my heart.  Obviously, these frustrated people do not know that he possesses encyclopedic knowledge of poetry and music from his culture, writes about the grammar of his native language in his spare time, speaks about 4-5 languages, and heads a non-profit organization that aids development in his native country–all without a college education.  Moreover, the hardships he has endured has given him a depth of soul and feeling that I rarely see in people.  He has the mind of a professor, yet circumstances do not allow him to develop and use his gifts to that extent.

Neither one–the offshore helpdesk worker or the US immigrant–is respected for their knowledge because Americans perceive them through one particular lens: How good is their English?  As a result, the Americans do not realize their opportunity to learn; similarly, those who possess this knowledge do not perceive what they know as valuable.

These people are often seen as poorly educated and/or disadvantaged, in other words, lower class, despite their knowledge of multiple languages.  Their knowledge of another language means that English is not their first language, so they stand on a lower rung of the social hierarchy.  Sometimes they are treated poorly, such as what I hear about the offshore helpdesk workers.

You can only be multilingual and respected under one condition: your English is nearly perfect.  A Swede who speaks flawless English, or an American who speaks native English and learned Chinese–both are considered intelligent and educated.  But our public housing projects are full of multilingual people who do not speak “good English.”  The multilingual people who serve those non-English speakers in the projects do not get rich, either, in spite of their knowledge.

If the US wishes to perform an important role in the world and the global economy in the near future, Americans will have to understand how valuable knowledge is, even if it comes in another language besides English.  Every day Americans stand at the path to the global village, but they don’t take the first step.  We will never get there.  Our language teacher is on the phone already; our introduction to world language and culture is sitting next to them at work.  In the same way, the Mexican landscaper and Vietnamese nail salon worker who struggle with English bear valuable knowledge. Once our people see that they can learn from the interaction on the phone or at work can make them better world citizens, will be ready for a more cosmopolitan and multi-lingual future.  We will be people who seek to learn and understand people from other cultures and contexts.  Let’s change our question and ask ourselves: How good is our Spanish? Hindi? Cantonese? Tagalog?

What languages can your learn–even if just a few words–from the people you interact with every day?  I have “thank you” in Amharic on a sticky-note in my cube for when the Ethiopian maintenance worker comes by to empty my trash.  I also ask about the differences in regional Spanishes from the Bolivian and Nicaraguan I work with.