By Alan Chavoya, graduate assistant in the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion
Marquette on Sept. 19 and 20 hosted its inaugural Linguistic Diversity Symposium featuring renowned linguists Dr. Kim Potowski and Dr. Walt Wolfram. Organized by Dr. Sonia Barnes, assistant professor of Spanish, and in collaboration with Dr. Steve Hartman Keiser, associate professor of English, this two-day event increased awareness of and celebrated linguistic diversity at Marquette.
“The symposium was created to shed light on an often-overlooked aspect of diversity — language,” Barnes says. “Language and identity are intertwined, and although there are many efforts to foster a more inclusive environment for different aspects of our identities, there is no explicit declaration around linguistic diversity in our campus. Not only was this symposium designed to raise awareness of linguistic diversity, but it also demonstrates how universities are often culpable for dismissing and putting down linguistic diversity.”
Wolfram, distinguished professor of English at North Carolina State University and executive producer of the documentary Talking Black in America, presented “The speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. and sociolinguistic justice.” While there are extensive studies focusing on King’s eloquence and rhetorical strategies, Wolfram’s talk instead analyzed the sociolinguistic variables in King’s speech.
Whether inspiring the Civil Rights movement at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., in front of thousands of people from various backgrounds, formally accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway, in front of a predominantly white audience, delivering a sermon at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, to a majority African-American audience, or doing an interview on the Merv Griffin Show, Wolfram found that despite slightly shifting certain aspects of his speech depending on audience and purpose, King’s speech consistently embraced his African-American and Southern identities.
These findings suggest that King, arguably one of the finest orators of the 20th century, spoke like a Southern black man. If we are to ask why King was such a captivating speaker, we must acknowledge the importance of his African-American and Southern identities, Wolfram says.
Wolfram’s findings were supplemented by a screening of the documentary he helped produce, Talking Black in America. This film traces the unique circumstances of African-Americans and their impact on American life and language. Speech varieties from different African-American communities reflect the nuances of a hybridization of African language systems and influences of British and Southern American dialects.
The documentary clarifies the significance of language in the creativity and resilience of people resisting oppression and fighting for social justice. Along with celebrating the richness of African-American speech, the documentary challenges a “purist” understanding of English and demands for an approach to the way we talk today that integrates various ways of speaking.
Potowski, professor of Hispanic linguistics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, led a faculty workshop titled “Myths about Spanish and English in the U.S.” — it addressed the linguistic diversity of Latinx students and recommended best practices for creating an inclusive linguistic environment in classrooms and on campus. She also debunked certain myths about Spanish in the U.S.:
- Myth: The U.S. ranks below Mexico, Spain, Colombia and Argentina in terms of population of Spanish-speakers.
- Truth: Once the U.S. accounts for the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants who are Spanish speakers and the 2.8 million non-Latino Spanish speakers, the U.S. becomes the second largest population of Spanish speakers — trailing only Mexico — with just under 49 million Spanish speakers.
- Myth: U.S. Spanish has a lower status compared to Spanish from Spain or Argentina.
- Truth: La Real Academia Española, the official royal institution of the Spanish language, has accepted the word estadounidismo to refer to Spanish words that are used differently in the U.S. Thus, U.S. Spanish’s validity is recognized by the authority of Spanish language. Perceptions of U.S. Spanish as inferior are analogous to perceptions of U.S. English being inferior to British English.
- Myth: U.S. Spanish is ungrammatical.
- Truth: What does this statement even mean? Potowski drew an analogy from taxicabs to explain her point. If you are driving a taxicab, it is impossible to violate the laws of physics. In the same manner, if you are speaking a language in a way that you acquired naturally within a community of speakers of that language, you cannot violate the laws of grammar. Speakers of any language naturally and subconsciously develop an internal, grammatical blueprint for how their language works. U.S. Spanish follows a set of internal grammatical rules, meaning U.S. Spanish is far from ungrammatical.
Regarding best practices in classrooms and on campus, Potowski urged instructors to cultivate an environment that embraces the students’ ways of speaking. If students are told not to speak Spanish or that their Spanish is “incorrect,” they are more likely to abandon Spanish altogether, she says.
Potowski encouraged instructors to help students take pride in their ways of speaking Spanish. Rather than telling students their Spanish is “incorrect,” Potowski suggested using the terms “formal” and “informal.” The difference in ways of speaking Spanish, as Potowski compared, is analogous to outfits worn at a beach or a wedding. At the beach, it is perfectly acceptable to wear chanclas (sandals) and shorts, but such an outfit would be deemed informal for a wedding.
Her comparison did not signify a dismissal of U.S. Spanish within the classroom, but was instead indicative of a similar phenomenon amidst English speakers. Most English-speaking students know not to write informalities like “ain’t” or “gonna” in an academic essay, but they must not be told to completely abandon U.S. English and use British English instead. U.S. Spanish, like any other language, contains many informalities, but that does not justify its denigration, Potowski argues. Faculty and staff are gatekeepers of language in universities, and if a university is to become more inclusive and diverse, faculty and staff must not prevent languages like U.S. Spanish or African-American English from living in a university.
Celebrating diversity and inclusion at Marquette University