You might think linguistic diversity equates to different languages people speak. However, I urge you move toward a more nuanced understanding, one where our linguistic background involves both our variable linguistic repertoire (the resources of a language we use or have access to) and our sociolinguistic competence (our ability to interpret social uses of language and use language in socially meaningful ways). A linguistically inclusive classroom, then, would include nuanced understandings of linguistic diversity. To help you intentionally move toward linguistic inclusion, I provide seven tips below.
- Learn a little about language. Language is a resource we utilize for a variety of purposes (e.g. prestige, power, recognition, etc.). For instance, you might use language perceived as “more proper” to be identified as educated or professional, or use more colloquial language to fit in with peers. Thus, before you engage with language in the classroom, make sure you can differentiate the facts from the myths (to start, see Richard Nordquist’s post about Language Myths).
- Get to know your linguistic background. Have you thought about how you use language? If not, you might be surprised by how your own language varies (from how much -ing vs. -in you use to your speech in formal or informal situations). Taking some time to get to know yourself as a language producer and perceiver will help you come to terms with your linguistic identity.
- Get to know students’ linguistic backgrounds. No matter where you teach, you will surely come across language variation. Recognizing this will help you understand students and how they use language. Students come from different linguistic backgrounds and bring different language experiences (with different associated norms). I get to know students by having them talk about where they are from on the first day of class, but mostly this work requires listening for clues enabling you to differentiate between, for instance, dialectal features (e.g. “ain’t”) and mispronunciations.
- Become aware of linguistic assumptions. Though it is not always easy to talk about, we all have linguistic biases. These might surface as pet peeves (see Weird Al’s parody “Word Crimes” for some examples), stereotypes (e.g. that “southern”-sounding speakers are “lazy”), or assumptions (e.g. thinking there is an objectively “right” or “correct” way of talking). Acknowledging and addressing these biases will help you see language more objectively and address language in the classroom more dynamically.
- Know how linguistic assumptions affect the learning environment. Regardless of whether you teach a course that discusses language or not, you are in a position to set rules and expectations about language. As such, it is important to consider what you tell students about language. Language assumptions can lead to linguistic profiling. They can make students linguistically insecure, or feel they are somehow linguistically inferior. Make sure you’re creating classrooms flexibly, accommodating multiple and diverse language uses.
- Be willing to accommodate. As a result of individual linguistic backgrounds, students’ language behaviors might not map to your expectations. Some students might not have experience writing essays, but might be profound bloggers, tweeters, or novelists. Some might speak different languages or come from backgrounds where there are different cultural norms surrounding language use (e.g. the use of silence, turn-taking, interruptions, etc.). Before jumping to conclusions, ask yourself if a student comes from a culture where language use is governed by different rules. Be flexible, willing to accommodate, and work together toward where you all hope to go. Start by defining culture- or dialect-specific terms in course content and assessments; vary assessment types to accommodate different communication preferences; and grade based on content, not grammar (unless grammar is the focus of your class). Grammar-based grading privileges native-English speakers and students from certain educational backgrounds.
- Recognize linguistic diversity as a resource. Some assume classrooms should run under cultural norms expected by a given region, country, or community. However, as sociolinguist Carmen Fought (2006) points out, “…interactional patterns from different ethnic groups might enhance learning and ultimately provide all participants with a wide range of skills.” Seek to understand ways the inclusion of several different interactional norms and behaviors might benefit learning environments. Some communities, for instance, encourage a “collective orientation […] group harmony, and the avoidance of conflict” in classrooms. Though inclusion of this orientation can be viewed as problematic, it could also be used to teach concern for others, humility, and an ability to work cooperatively (pp. 193-4).
If we aim to make students feel seen and heard, we must question what we really listen to when students communicate. We have an opportunity to co-construct an inclusive curriculum, classroom, and community built out of diverse linguistic resources.