Course Meeting Times

1 session / week, 3 hours / session



Motivation for the Course

I am very excited about this new seminar because it brings together three topics that I am passionate about and that I think should be of utmost importance, not only to linguists, but also to the world at large. These three topics are linguistics, education, and social justice.

So I’m hoping that you too will be interested, as I am planning much of this seminar as a “sandbox” for designing the foundations of socially-engaged research that can have practical impact in the lives of the people whose languages we so love to study.

Our point of departure will be these three related observations:

  1. We linguists take it for granted that all languages, including languages in the Global South, are worthy of study in our investigation of Universal Grammar.
  2. Yet some 40% of children in the world are prevented from studying in, and valorizing, their home languages—including some of these very languages that we linguists study with such fondness. (Incidentally UNESCO estimates that 43% of the world’s ~6,000 languages are endangered.)
  3. And so much of our research in linguistics and the benefits thereof remain inaccessible to the bulk of the very speech communities whose languages we study.

Now consider this three-way gap between:

  • our own egalitarian ideals in point (1) above about the universal worth of the world’s languages;
  • these discriminatory practices, in point (2), that exclude too many languages in classrooms (and even courtrooms) throughout the world, especially in the Global South, where these languages are most needed for universal access to quality education (and to justice);
  • the, often inadvertent, elitist and exclusive nature of academia, as in point (3), which risks alienating these very speech communities whose struggles for liberation, justice, and economic opportunity stand to benefit from our research in linguistics.

Now here’s a key question for us:

Is it our responsibility, as linguists, to analyze and try to narrow this three-way gap?

Some of the reasons for the sort of linguistic discrimination mentioned in (2) have to do with colonial history and white supremacy writ large.  A full analysis would take us too far afield as it would require forays into history, sociology, political science, critical race theory, etc. 

Our goal this semester will be more modest and more in line with our discipline, though we will certainly need to keep the above disciplines in mind throughout our discussions.  At the very least, we need to unveil the often hidden role of ideology and various “normative gazes” in deciding what sorts of questions, in the first place, are even worth asking among linguists.

Our Approach to the Topic

In this seminar as a “sandbox”, we will look at efforts by linguists and educators making their research more inclusive, accessible and hospitable, and trying to reduce that three-way gap between: (i) linguists’ egalitarian ideals; (ii) linguistic-discrimination practices in various communities worldwide; and (iii) the (perceived) elitist attitudes of academic linguistics. 

Our initial case study will be the Global South community that I’m most familiar with, namely my native Haiti—which is a rather spectacular case study whereby most Haitian children are prevented from learning academic subjects in the one language (Kreyòl) that every Haitian fluently speaks while they are forced to learn these subjects in a language (French) that most have no opportunity to learn at home. And most Haitian intellectuals, even (or especially?) some familiar with linguistics, still seem to adhere to the hegemonic belief whereby Kreyòl is “naturally inferior” to French as a language of instruction and as a language to express science, law, and most everything else—outside of popular culture artefacts like songs and theater.  This is the sort of hegemonic belief and practices that I myself grew up with and that I’ve learned to unlearn while confronting somewhat related beliefs in certain quarters of linguistics.

To stimulate and inspire discussion and projects, we will cover topics and invite speakers that engage work on linguistics for social justice in various areas of the world: Alaska, Cabo Verde, the Caribbean, Ireland, Mauritius, the Netherlands, New York, New Zealand, Seychelles, Shetland…

Our starting point in the first couple of weeks is Haiti, as we look at the MIT-Haiti Initiative in the context of #BlackLivesMatter writ large.

Student Participation and Class Requirements

My hope is that each participant will bring in a particular language or language area that instantiates community-wide linguistic discrimination—one that linguists can help solve. In the ideal scenario, these case studies will lead to specific projects that linguists can concretely contribute to.

Class requirements will thus include:

  • lively participation in discussions, including written questions on readings—these questions will be submitted in advance;
  • a prospectus for a (preliminary) project that addresses a specific instance of linguistic discrimination and its redress;
  • in-class presentation of an analysis or action plan;
  • a write-up of this presentation as a final paper—perhaps the draft of a policy paper grounded in some linguistic aspect of the relevant community.

The overall goal is to have us, all together, sketch models of how linguistics can contribute to the betterment of some speech community.