The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

New seminar by DeGraff! Linguistics and social justice: Language, education & human rights

Michel DeGraff is inviting colleagues and students, with interest in linguistics for a better world, to visit his new seminar.  You are welcome to visit any and all sessions on Tuesdays 2-5pm (see schedule of themes and guest speakers below). Please forward far and wide to all those who might be interested.

Linguistics and social justice:
Language, education & human rights
24.S96, Tu 2-5PM
In person — in Room 32-D461
Via Zoom and Facebook Live @MITHaiti — please email degraff@mit.edu for link and for further details

Here’s Michel’s course description:

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 well, 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 (1) about the universal worth of the world’s languages;

• these discriminatory practices, in (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 (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 of (2) 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.

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 world-wide; 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 un-learn while confronting somewhat related beliefs in certain quarters of linguistics.

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

To stimulate and inspire discussion and projects, we plan to cover topics and welcome speakers that engage work on linguistics for social justice in various areas of the world:

Tuesday, Sep 14, 2021: Linguistics & (in)justice: The case of Creole studies from a Haitian perspective

Tuesday, Sep 21, 2021:    Linguistics & Social Justice: The MIT-Haiti Initiative as a case study

Tuesday, Sep 28, 2021: The Right to Read and Write: Language Activism in a Diasporic Haitian Creole Space (Guests: Wynnie Lamour & Darnelle Champagne)    

Tuesday, Oct 5, 2021: Seychelles’ language policy for “leveling the field” (Guests: Penda Choppy & team)

Tuesday, Oct 12, 2021: A language that binds/a language that divides: the Kreol paradox in Mauritius (Guest: Nicholas Natchoo)    

Tuesday, Oct 19, 2021: Resistance and revitalisation of French Creole in Trinidad & Tobago and Venezuela (Guest: Jo-Anne Perreira)    

Tuesday, Oct 26, 2021: Language Rights & Justice for All in the Caribbean (Guests: Hubert Devonish and team)    

Tuesday, Nov 2, 2021: From definiteness to poetry: doing linguistic work with and in Ch’ol (Guest: Carol Rose Little)    

Tuesday, Nov 9, 2021: Decolonizing Iñupiaq Language Curricula (Guest: Annauk Denise Aulin)    

Tuesday, Nov 16, 2021: Language from Below: Grassroots efforts to develop language technology for minoritized languages. Case studies from Ireland and New Zealand (Guest: Kevin Scannell)    

Tuesday, Nov 23, 2021: Beyond linguistic repression at 60°N: Growing acceptance of diversity in Shetland (Guest: Viveka Velupillai)    

Tuesday, Nov 30, 2021: Cabo Verdean in Education: Access, Equity and a Basic Human Right (Guest: Marlyse Baptista & Abel Djassi Amado)    

Tuesday, Dec 7, 2021a: Language Friendly Schools and children’s rights to their mother tongues (Guests: Ellen-Rose Kambel & Deena Hurwitz)   

Tuesday, Dec 7, 2021b: Linguistics and social justice: The perspective of Haiti’s Ambassador at UNESCO (Guest: Dominique Dupuy)