Linguistic Justice Listening Project

Linguistic Justice Listening Project

Anabel Sanchez

BA, Lead Author,
University of Texas Permian Basin, US.

Maximillien Vis

MA, Adjunct Instructor,
University of Texas Permian Basin, US.

Rebecca Day Babcock, Ph.D.

Director (Writing Studies) Global Listening Centre.
William and Ordelle Watts Professor, Department of
Literature and Languages at University of Texas
Permian Basin, US.

Listening allows for a deeper and more impactful relationship to develop based on a form of mutual understanding and respect. With a bit of effort, we can begin to understand those who speak other languages and dialects, but only by listening with an open heart and mind. While a lack of listening to those who don’t speak in a way that adheres to White Mainstream English (WME) or other standardized varieties may be attributed to ignorance of linguistic science—that no dialect or variety is superior or inferior to any other—these attitudes nonetheless perpetuate harm. The sentiments surrounding closing one’s ears, heart, and mind to those whose speech is different do not go unnoticed by those who speak different languages and dialects. For example, after winning the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film in 2020, Parasite director Bong Joon-Ho stated in his acceptance speech, “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of the subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” His speech is indicative of the need to overcome this avoidance of what is not familiar. The quote illustrates how limiting this mindset becomes as an unwillingness to listen brings along several restrictions in how one may interact. While the example in Bong’s speech focuses on language in film, the approach he suggests encourages the audience to listen (and read) rather than use the excuse of a lack of understanding to avoid listening.

Despite the push for speakers in the United States to speak WME, the nation itself does not have an official language policy. Therefore, one would think there is no issue with respecting and listening to different languages or dialects. Unfortunately, this is not the case, as linguistic prejudices permeate the mainstream media. Writer Viet Thanh Nguyen discussed in his op-ed for The Washington Post the film Minari being submitted to the Golden Globes as a Foreign Language Film which eliminated its chances of being nominated for Best Picture. While Korean is spoken for most of the film, the film was directed by Lee Isaac Chung, an American, and the family portrayed in the film is Korean-American. Nguyen illustrates linguistic prejudices by noting that those who are of Asian descent, regardless of how they speak, will be regarded as “foreign” in some way, which is what resulted in the issues with Minari. Nguyen writes, “But to many Americans, someone who is of Asian descent might seem ‘foreign’ if they speak another language, or speak English with an accent (or sometimes, if they speak it with no accent at all).” This provides a demonstration of discriminatory attitudes impacting how listeners may react to a speaker depending on how they appear or present

Lest readers think we are only concerned with American English, global varieties of English are also sometimes targeted for closed ears and minds. For example, the varieties of Chinglish and Singlish among others have recently come under scrutiny. Across the internet, Chinglish is referred to as “poor English” or “poorly translated Chinese” rather than giving it the respect it deserves as a variety of English. A. Suresh Canagarajah writes that Global varieties of English (which he calls World Englishes or WE) should not be restricted to their various home countries but can travel into various contexts and speakers of American English (and we would add, British English) should be prepared to interact with them. He argues that “English should be treated as a multinational language, one that belongs to diverse communities” and that this allows for “multilingual speakers of English to challenge the traditional standards and language norms of ‘native speaker’ communities” (1619). International business and even the Internet will bring speakers of various varieties of English together in communication. Canagarajah argues, “In order to be functional postmodern global citizens, even students from the dominant community (i.e., Anglo-American) now need to be proficient in negotiating a repertoire of World Englishes” (1620). This will involve listening, patience, and a positive attitude. Linguists have shown that our brains will put up a defense when we have a discriminatory attitude toward someone. A famous example is the experiment where students were played an identical audio lecture and when shown a photo of a white woman, they had no problem understanding the lecture; while being shown a picture of an Asian woman, they complained they couldn’t understand the lecture due to her accent (Rubin). We have also heard about students failing to listen to math lectures because the instructor was Asian and the students claim they “can’t understand” the person’s accent.

In the next part of this article we explore the cultural example of people making fun of or belittling others for speaking African American English1. The cultural commonplace (and one we do not agree with) is that by speaking non-mainstream varieties of English— especially those historically associated with African American communities–one is limiting oneself both economically and socially. John Baugh in “Linguistic Profiling” explains that Many of our fellow African Americans either cannot or will not attempt to adopt standard English…thereby making them vulnerable to…linguistic profiling…. I am not suggesting that speakers of AAVE must embrace Standard English if it is not their personal desire to do so. (159) Baugh also explains that we feel comfortable with those who speak like us: “Just as linguistic diversity has been used to accentuate differences among us, it also unites us into the bundles of linguistic enclaves that reinforce our heritage and pride in our ancestry” (163).

Many people equate speech with intelligence, as the folk often do. (Hixson and Franklin). This relates back to listening in the connection to language attitudes—that people equate non-mainstream varieties such as African American English with lack of intelligence, so they don’t listen, but rather put up a filter that says, “Everything you say is stupid and incoherent” when the interlocutor is speaking AAE or other dialects (Young). It should be noted in educational and professional contexts many African Americans desire to learn the standard “White Mainstream English” (Hixson and Franklin). This is not cause for abandoning linguistic justice, however. People, especially educators, can respect and celebrate students’ own dialects—and even teach them to analyze its grammar—alongside teaching Standard American (White Mainstream) English. For additional information, see “The Demand for Black Linguistic Justice” published by the Conference on College Composition and Communication (“This”).

Additionally, there have been cases where African American English was wrongfully attributed to merely being the slang of the younger generation rather than being listened to and understood as a dialect of its own. This is present in the rather infamous Saturday Night Live sketch “Gen Z Hospital.” The skit parodies TV medical dramas with the punchline mocking what is identified in the skit as the slang of the younger generation and its perceived absurdity in dire situations. The humor of the skit largely hinges on the use of AAE by the hospital staff and the patient’s relations as the cast simply throws out phrases like “gang, gang,” “sus,” and “stan.” The appropriation of AAE by non-native speakers isn’t challenged within the skit as the joke doesn’t focus on misuse or the lack of understanding toward AAE as a dialect of its own, nor does it recognize the nuances of the dialect. Instead, the AAE dialect is structured as a source of mockery, associating the language with a lack of intelligence and a part of the cringe-inducing behavior of youths. The skit is guilty of failing to listen and recognize dialects that deviate from White Mainstream English.

Following the release of “Gen Z Hospital” it was largely criticized as viewers acknowledged the lack of listening on behalf of Saturday Night Live for its limited perspective on dialects that do not adhere to WME. It hearkens back to students, particularly Black students who may naturally speak AAE, to be undermined for their manner of speech as educators or those who internalize racist ideals to not truly listen to what it is students have to say as they write it off as speaking “improperly.” In an email to Insider, John R. Rickford, a professor of linguistics, explained, that using AAE in this type of comedy, “negates the powerful, positive ways in which African American English is used in everyday life and by writers, preachers, singers, etc., to capture the vicissitudes and aspirations of everyday life” (Mendez II). This instance further demonstrates the need to listen in order to combat racist ideology including in the use of language.

In the film Freedom Writers the character Erin Gruwell, played by Hillary Swank, is portrayed as a teacher who listens to her students. Rather than teaching her subject matter only, she asks her students to write about their lives. Apparently, no teacher had ever listened to these students before and through her attention to their voices, she encourages them to succeed. Whereas Freedom Writers engages students’ voices through narratives, teachers today are not challenging the appropriation of student voices to better engage and under- The Global Listener DECEMBER 2023, ISSUE 9 1 2 stand their students. However, teachers are finding new methods of engaging their students which may seem cringe to the extremes of the pedagogical spectrum of conservativism and innovation. Despite political efforts within the United States to reduce or eliminate the use of TikTok, teachers are now sharing information, experiences, and pedagogical approaches on social media platforms. From this, some teachers have taken it upon themselves to learn their students’ vernacular and transform their lessons to be more easily comprehended.

Everyone has a story, and many times in school students are not encouraged to have a voice or to express themselves. After 20 years of teaching, Babcock has noticed students who want detailed instruction on exactly what to write, treating writing as a deliverable for a grade rather than a process of discovery. Especially now that AI computers can produce writing, what we need most is the human voice and story. Listening can be metaphorical. It is through metaphors of speaking and hearing that we describe writing. But as Erin Gruwell did in Freedom Writers, we can have students read their works aloud to truly listen to their voices and stories. Through Linguistic Justice we can embrace the home languages and dialects of writers as they express themselves in their own varieties and vernaculars.

Alice Horning argued that writing is nobody’s native language and learning to write is a second language for everyone. It is our educational philosophy that the teacher engages with students where they are at. There is a marked “deficiency” within newer and upcoming generations of students who have faced fatigue from a variety of societal factors, such as socio-cultural, economic, and political dilemmas as well as the (post)pandemic classroom. If educators continue to uphold white supremacist standards which heavily influence linguistic and compositional aspects in the classroom, how are students expected to succeed when the world has evolved rapidly whereas education has not? 1 Over the years, linguists and others have referred to this variety as Black English, African American English Vernacular, Ebonics, Black Language, etc. Although some of these terms are loaded for some speakers, we do not imply any value judgement by the use of these terms. We also do not imply that all African Americans speak this variety or that the variety is spoken only by Black Americans.


Works Cited

 Baugh, John. “Linguistic Profiling” In Black Linguistics, edited by Sinfree Makoni, Geneva Smitherman, Arnetha F. Ball, and Arthur K. Spears. Routledge, 2003, pp. 155-168. Bong, Joon-Ho. “‘Parasite’: Best Motion Picture: Foreign Language – 2020 Golden Globes.” YouTube, uploaded by NBC, 5 Jan. 2020, “Gen Z Hospital – SNL.” YouTube. 8 May 2021. Canarajah, A. Suresh. “”The Place of World Englishes in Composition: Pluralization Continued.” In The Norton Book of Composition Studies, edited by Susan Miller. Norton, 2009, pp. 1617-1642. Hixon, Mamie W., and Godfrey Franklin. “Your Dialect Could Place You on the Wrong Side of the Intelligence Bell Curve.” The Negro Educational Review, vol. 50, no. 3-4, 1999, pp. 89-100. parentSessionId=4qnZeQAL2lB03ofiukHJhjIChSlsmttm4J%2FGsC09bPk%3D&pqorigsite=summon&accountid=7137&imgSeq=1 Mendez II, Moises. “’Saturday Night Live’ Faces Mounting Criticism for ‘Appropriation’ of Black Vernacular in ‘Gen Z Hospital’ Sketch.” Insider, 10 May 2021, Nguyen, Viet Thanh. “‘Minari’ is About Immigrants Who Speak Korean. That Doesn’t Make it ‘Foreign.’” The Washington Post, 24 Dec. 2020, /2020/12/24/minari-foreign-american-language/ Rubin, Donald L. “Nonlanguage Factors Affecting Undergraduates’ Judgments of Nonnative English-Speaking Teaching Assistants.” Research in Higher Education vol. 33, no. 4, 1992, pp. 511–531. “This Ain’t Another Statement! This is a DEMAND for Black Linguistic Justice!” CCCC, July 2020, Young, V. A., (2010) “Should Writers Use They Own English?”, Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies vol. 2 no. 1, 2010, pp. 110-117. doi:

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