Paja Faudree is associate professor of Anthropology at Brown. Her research interests include language and politics, indigenous literary and social movements, the interface between music and language, the ethnohistory of New World colonization, and the global marketing of indigenous rights discourses, indigenous knowledge, and plants.
Language and Social Justice: Teaching About the “Word Gap”
Contemporary work in sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology is increasingly taking up social justice as an explicit framework, building on historical scholarship that laid the foundation for understanding how language use is tied to social inequality. In such efforts, educational contexts are crucial settings for intervention, sites where sharing scholarly insights about language can provoke effective public conversations about the roots and contemporary manifestations of social inequality linked to language. Inspired by this work, we suggest that conducting such language-related educational efforts within our institutions of higher education can make crucial contributions to the advancement of social justice.
In this talk, we describe our efforts to offer workshops on language and social justice for students involved in service learning, as part of the Swearer Center co-curriculum. We discuss in detail a workshop that focused on the topic of the “word gap”: research on disparities in how children perform in school that is based on the notion that the vocabulary of children from low-income communities lags behind that of their more affluent peers. This research claims that by the time they enter kindergarten, low-income children display a 30 million word deficit when compared to higher-income students. Narratives about this so-called “word gap” are among the most pervasive discourses about language and social inequality in the United States today, and have inspired programs around the country designed to illuminate this disparity—including, here in Providence, the 5 million dollar initiative Providence Talks. However, such interventions, and the research on which they are based, have also been the target of substantive critiques by linguistic anthropologists and sociolinguists. We suggest that teaching students and others about the word gap” debate can help them gain a deeper understanding of how language works to uphold and continually reproduce social inequalities, while also inspiring them to think about how language can be used as a tool for challenging these injustices.