“Two fish are swimming along. One fish says to the other, “The water sure is warm today.”
The other fish says, “What’s water?”
For the one fish, water is so ubiquitous that it is invisible—hidden in plain sight, as it were. Language is very similar: we spend our days swimming in language and often unaware of that fact—unless you’re learning a second language, in which case, you’re VERY aware.
The languages we speak make arguments about the world around us. They, as Lera Boroditsky put it, guide our reasoning about events. They encourage us to see things a certain way. They both reveal and conceal.
In this essay, you will look at your own linguistic practices and examine how they shape the way you see things—that is, what “arguments” they make about the world around you. It is my hope that we (because I will be doing this, as well) are able to develop some meta-knowledge about how language shapes our perception and thinking.
Look at your linguistic habits and uncover the hidden “values” or assumptions within these habits. Also examine the ways in which you contribute to, shape, and participate in the construction of language.
As you construct your draft, draw from the essays that we read in class as well as the TED Talks to support and complicate your thinking about the topic:
Lera Boroditsky: “How Language Shapes the Way We Think” (TED Talk)
Fan Shen: “The Classroom and the Wider Culture” (Academic article)
Min-zhan Lu: “From Silence to Words” (Academic article)
John McWhorter: “Txting is killing language. JK!” (TED Talk)
Vershawn Ashanti Young: “Should Writers Use They Own English?” (Academic article)
Here are some suggestions about the various linguistic practices and habits that you can look at, but keep in mind that each person in this class is unique; thus, you will have to tailor your essay to your personal profile:
Polyglots: If you speak more than one language, look at the values embodied in the languages you speak. What contrasts do you see between languages? How do you negotiate these contrasts?
Dialects: Think about the various dialects you speak. What are the markers or features of these dialects? In what ways do these dialects come into conflict with other dialects? Which dialects are “preferred” by your educational institutions?
Identity: How do you use language to perform identity? To show belonging to various social groups?
Membership: What specialized language do you use as members of various groups, including professional, academic, technical, and so on?
Conflict: What sorts of tensions or conflicts do you experience in your linguistic practices? At what points have you felt frustrated or unable to speak? Felt powerless or silenced? Why? How do you negotiate these conflicts?
Participation: We all participate in and shape language in a variety of ways—by adopting (and thus “voting for”) new slang, by choosing which words to use and when, by “agreeing” or “disagreeing” with the rules that are presented to us. In what ways do you participate in language? Can you think of any examples of remixing and improvisation—moments in which you drew from preexisting linguistic structures and made something entirely new?
Slang: What sorts of slang terms do you use?
Generational: How do your linguistic practices differ from that of your parents?
Technological: Describe your use of social media and texting. How do these shape your linguistic practices?
Educational: In what ways has your educational experiences taught you to use language? How might this contrast with your “natural” ways of using language? How do you deal with these conflicts?
Acts of linguistic rebellion: How do you push back against the ways in which you are expected to use language? How do you use language as a means of resistance?
Swearing: What is your relationship to profanity? Do you swear? If so, what words, and why? How do you use them?
Art and entertainment: What kinds of language do you consume for fun? What sorts of artistic uses of language do you enjoy? (Examples include hip hop, books, podcasts, etc.)
Be sure to use specific examples from your linguistic practices to support the conclusions you draw.