Language and the World: CJC ELL Symposium 2018

By Loh Lin (19A01D)

The study of language may seem like a perplexing choice to many who are unfamiliar with Linguistics as a subject — after all, why is there a need to focus on and examine something that serves only as a tool for communication? What can linguists do with their knowledge beyond academia? What is their role once they move beyond the classroom?

The ELL Symposium held in CJC on 28 May wryly acknowledged these questions, and forwarded a response in its overarching theme: Forging An Inclusive Community. Having conveyed a certain sense of responsibility that both linguists and linguistics students alike are due to bear, the stage was set for the two speakers, Dr Joe Bennett and Dr Gareth Carol, both lecturers in Applied Linguistics and Psycholinguistics in the University of Birmingham, to broaden the audience’s understanding of the multiple ways in which language interacts with society, and how we could use it in a way that “[betters] ourselves for the good of others”.

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Dr Bennett and Dr Carol discuss prescriptivism vs descriptivism

In their introduction, both Dr Bennett and Dr Carol explained how language can be wielded more consciously and effectively in three ways: to challenge prejudice, benefit people’s health and raise awareness of political persuasion. Before they began their respective lectures proper, they urged the audience to consider how language works in the real world — with all its social dynamics and interactions — in order to ask important questions and provoke conversations.

In his first lecture, Dr Bennett addressed the prescriptive attitude that people tend to adopt towards language. The “prescriptive approach” — a term linguistics students should be sufficiently familiar with — refers to the view that language possesses a set of rules that rigidly dictates way it is being used. For instance, Singapore’s Speak Good English movement espouses standard prescriptive grammar rules as the norm that everyone should aspire to.

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The Speak Good English Movement encourages “grammatically correct English that is universally understood”.

However, in its dismissal of language variation that is shaped by one’s culture and social cluster, such an approach reaps social ramifications that breed greater stigma and discrimination against already marginalised groups. In other words, when people are perceived as lesser on the basis of the language they speak, they are likely to be treated as lesser. This arises because of the differences in the prestige being accorded to the standard vernacular and the variation respectively, where the prescribed language would inevitably be perceived as the ‘superior’ or ‘official’ language, and any deviation therefore implies a lack of exposure to the ‘correct’ language and by extension, a lack of education or civility.

Dr Bennett reinforced this with an example that was closer to home for him: children in Britain “learn about prescriptivism early on”, and “are aware of stigma on a fundamentally cognitive level”. They adapt to this by rejecting their local accent and trading it for the Upper Received Pronunciation, which is the favoured standard vernacular in Britain, despite there being a multitude of social groups with different backgrounds that shape their accents.

Here, it is the job of linguists to intervene and defend the use of language variation as modes of communication that are just as capable as standard vernacular in conveying complex ideas logically and effectively.

“[Language variation] is every bit as logical, every bit as rational, every bit as good.”

Admittedly, linguists are unable to entirely eradicate all prescriptive attitudes, they are still responsible for and capable of checking prescriptive arguments against their knowledge of how language works, investigating social implications and consistently challenging ill-informed attitudes. In redefining the concept of “proper” language, they challenge the harmful dictum of language as a reflection of worth, which is the first step in changing the way standard vernacular outliers are being treated by society.

Dr Carol took over from there, and introduced clinical linguistics, another branch of applied linguistics that had previously rarely been considered by most of the students present, judging from the confused murmurs that rippled through the audience when it was first mentioned.

We later find out that beyond enabling communication and acting as a social advocate, language — or more specifically, clinical linguistics in this case — can be used to better treat patients and their medical conditions.

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Application of Clinical Linguistics

It investigates special needs individuals’ response to the circumscribed language cues. For instance, individuals with autism interpret and respond to social cues differently, as they are cognitively unaware or unable to adapt to them. Having understood that they experience difficulty  processing and adapting to the pragmatic levels of language, linguists can help parents or teachers “find other ways to support communication”.

Finally, Dr Bennett took the stage one last time to analyse politics through language, which he claimed was necessary in order to “have democracy”. Political communication is built not only on ideas alone. The identities people are invested in, who they find convincing and who they admire all have a stake in determining who they have a greater inclination to listen to.

Dr Bennett examined politicians’ employment of synthetic personalisation in relating to ground sentiment and bridging the distance between them and their audience, all of which aid in garnering political support. He raised Trump’s trademark discourse marker (“Believe me!”) as an example of how inclusive language humanises the politician, allowing him or her to be perceived as a reliable and trustworthy figure who is in touch with ground sentiment and would therefore be capable of addressing the needs of the masses.

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US President Trump’s discourse markers

Overall, the symposium undoubtedly addressed the queries that most linguistics students possibly had to field regarding the relevance and utility of their choice of study. Many people may write language off as a facilitator of communication and nothing else, or to dismiss linguistics as a impractical field of study, but the breadth covered is proof of the dynamic role of language in society.

After all, the social world is constructed by what we say and how we say things. By deconstructing our words and the motivations behind them, we are better equipped to challenge and raise awareness of internalised bigotry and bridge gaps between people, all of which are crucial steps towards forging a more truly inclusive community.

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