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Educators Should Value and Empower Language Variations Among Their Students

Anne Charity Hudley and Karen Emmerley
Anne Charity Hudley took part in a live Q&A moderated by Karen Emmorey at the virtual AAAS Annual Meeting. | AAAS

It is more important than ever to be inclusive in educating students who speak language varieties besides standardized English, according to linguist Anne Charity Hudley.

“How do we really value students’ home languages, language varieties and cultural backgrounds and build on them while helping students learn the languages of schools in the United States?” asked Charity Hudley, who delivered a topical lecture on Feb. 9 at the virtual 2021 AAAS Annual Meeting titled “Talking College: In Sociolinguistic Pursuit of Black Student Justice.”

Charity Hudley, who serves as the North Hall Endowed Chair in the Linguistics of African America at the University of California, Santa Barbara, shared with meeting attendees her work and the work of her colleagues focusing on how college students’ acquisition and use of different varieties of African American English – which often uses phrasing and intonation to imbue additional shades of meaning and culture than are contained in standardized English – affects their lives.

“We really want to know how speakers navigate linguistic choices, what choices and biases are they facing and how do students perceive the role of African American English and standardized English across setting across their campus,” Charity Hudley said. “How does this manifest in a classroom, on an online space, in a dining hall, in a dorm room?”

Charity Hudley and colleagues conducted more than 100 interviews with students from a range of educational institutions – minority-serving institutions like historically black colleges and universities as well as predominately white institutions – to gather their stories and learn about their use of language at college: Were they praised or criticized for their language use? Did their use of language come into play as they chose their major?

The interviews revealed a wide range of experiences from students, some of whom were adept users of both standardized English and African American English. Others were well-versed in either standardized English or African American English and felt a deficiency in lacking the other; other speakers of African American English felt no need to adhere to “the dominant white norm” by speaking standardized English, said Charity Hudley.

Students demonstrated keen understanding about the significance of their use of language, such as the community college student who said their use of standardized English would help enable their success in transferring to a four-year institution. Another respondent spoke about encountering praise for their reading and speaking abilities. “Were you not expecting me to read with proficiency?” Charity Hudley quoted.

Charity Hudley quoted one student who discussed the exhausting necessity of code-switching – using African American English in many circumstances but switching to standardized English in formal writing, which the student described as “having to shut myself into a box.” The student was “very much aware of the implications of using different varieties in those writing situations where it’s going to affect their grades and their mobility,” said Charity Hudley.

“It is evident that Black students often face linguistic bias and may need additional support and guidance as they navigate the linguistic terrain of higher education,” said Charity Hudley.

A Systemic Approach

Yet it is important to not simply prepare students for higher education. Charity Hudley spoke of the importance of taking a more systemic approach by preparing institutions to be ready for a diverse range of students. Instructors should be asking themselves questions about the language and practices of their classrooms and their research efforts to ensure they are inclusive and accessible to people of all backgrounds.

To conduct linguistics research in a more inclusive manner, Charity Hudley offered a new framework grounded in “liberatory linguistics” – linguistics designed around the experiences of people from marginalized and racialized communities. She suggested that any linguist who conducts research in a community they are not part of should include a discussion of how they are including community members in the research process as well as a discussion of efforts to increase the participation of community members in your work, your department and your field.

"For me, this is a way for us to really help us fully include those people who represent the language, the cultures that are the object of our study," she said.

She also offered concrete advice for educators, especially those who are not Black, in creating an inclusive environment for speakers of varieties of African American English. Learn about those varieties and know about the different patterns and content you might hear from Black students speaking African American English. Consider how Black language and culture might affect a curriculum by, for instance, sharing the questions that Black scholars in your field are asking, she said. 

Said Charity Hudley, “There is no racial justice without linguistic justice.”

[Associated image: University of California, Santa Barbara]



Andrea Korte

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