by Harmony Button
“Don’t lose your language. Don’t lose your culture. The written word is the most persuasive form of communication.” — Justice Sonia Sotomayor
Last week, the entire Waterford Upper School travelled to the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake to hear Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor speak in what turned out to be a surprisingly intimate atmosphere, given the hundreds of people who filled the arena. Justice Sotomayor quickly rejected the podium, abandoned the stage, and roamed the floor for a while before literally climbing into the audience to sit with various school groups, all while telling stories of her personal journey and dispensing thoughtful advice to her audience. While Sotomayor’s comments on language were in response to a question about learning to speak English as a first generation student in the United States, her perspective on language, learning, and writing in particular hit home with any student who has found themselves struggling to find space for their individual voice in the academic world.
Academic language is a language of privilege — it takes practice, coaching, and awareness to be able to participate in the kind of dialogue that we teach in schools. If you haven’t had that particular kind of coaching, you might feel as if your voice is not welcome inside the conversation: in some institutions, it is academic rhetoric that earns a student the right to speak, and to be heard. In school, we learn to speak in formal and academic ways because we believe that these ways will encourage critical thinking, and we see these styles of speech as successful in communicating ideas to a broad population. But we also know that these ways of speaking are recognized as symbolic of higher learning: therefore, the way you speak or write is a kind of signpost you carry around that sends a message about what kind of person (hypothetically) you are. This should not be surprising. We carry signs around with us in all kinds of ways: the way we dress, the way we look, the intonations of our speech patterns or the movements we make with our bodies. Some of these signs are under our control. Others are not. For example, I, personally, will never experience this world as a tall person. And yet, we (tall or short) must all navigate this world, wearing the signs that we wear. And, of course, the world responds to each of us differently, given our own particular assortment of signage.
In order to see how written communication is used as a signpost of identity, take a (careful, cringing, sideways) glance at the “comments” feature on any YouTube video or public post, and it won’t take you long to locate trolling jibes that reject an author’s idea via an attack on their identity, as communicated through their speech. “Bad” grammar becomes indicative of a lack of intelligence, and tone of voice becomes a way of measuring personal credibility. The personal attack lowers every conversation to the lowest common denominator: we’re all trying to figure out who we’re talking to, and if we should listen to them. Online comments are reduced to a performance of ego and ethos, rather than a space for intellectual engagement.
But of course, in order to be functional humans, we must make value judgements on who we trust and listen to, and why. Building these skills of rhetorical analysis and critical thinking is central to our project in the liberal arts: we want to develop our students’ ability to be open-minded yet discerning thinkers. As teachers, however, we shouldn’t mistake our emphasis on academic or formal writing for an attempt to eliminate other kinds of speech that our students might practice. Instead, we as teachers are coaches and guides in teaching children how to “code switch,” to make observations on rhetorical situation, and to respond in the ways that would be most effective and appropriate to the context.
Sometimes, in English classes, students make the mistake of confusing overly wordy or convoluted sentence structures for academic tone. They try to elevate their tone through what they think are sophisticated gestures, but which are actually vague or needlessly complex sentences. This desire to elevate tone is often where nominalizations (or “zombie nouns”) come from. In order to combat this tendency to become more wordy or needlessly circuitous, you can ask students to translate their own writing into more casual speech: “what are you really saying?” seems to be a surprisingly effective question, here. Sometimes, students can pick through the word-salad of terminology, buzz-words, and diction they’ve picked out of the thesaurus, and re-locate their original intention at the heart of the sentence. But if students can’t answer the “what are you really saying” question, then they might need to face the fact that they don’t know what they’re saying, or that they might be covering up for a lack of substance with a glaze of language that “sounds good,” — i.e., sounds intelligent and complex in nature.
There are plenty of times when you might encourage your students to write in ways that are not specifically for an academic audience. In fact, sometimes changing the audience forces your students to “get real” with the subject: they need to find ways of explaining complicated ideas to individuals or groups that do not share the same vocabulary and understanding (or implied value systems) as the speaker. This is the “explain how gravity works to your little sister” or “explain the concept of an economy to an alien who just landed on your planet” kind of assignment. By de-familiarizing the subject matter from the audience, the student has to examine the foundations of their own knowledge.
And then, there is the question of developing a personal “voice.” Although I continue to wrestle with these questions, myself, this is my advice to students: a voice is meant to be heard. If you can say what you want to say, while representing yourself in a way in which you want to be represented, then you have probably found your voice. Your voice can and should change, depending on the situation in which you use it, because the world is a complicated place and you are constantly readjusting your understanding of your place in it. When Sotomayor says not to lose your language, I don’t think she’s just talking about being bi-lingual. I think she means, don’t lose your range — your voice is a versatile instrument, and the more you stretch the range of your expression, the more confident and well-equipped you will feel to participate in any conversation, in any situation. There are some signs you have to wear, and there are some signs that you can swap in and out, depending on the situation. Your voice is a sign, but it a versatile one, and one that can carry you through a great variety of experiences. You can still be yourself, in various voices.
Even as we continue to model, teach, and coach students in the conventions of our own disciplines, it is part of our responsibility as teachers to acknowledge that our modes of communication are not the only modes of communication. Helping our students to see the versatility of their own voices will not only help them find ways to investigate and interact with our course content, but it will encourage them to build their awareness of rhetorical context, allowing students to identify appropriate and meaningful ways to interact with lots of different kinds of people in the world. As Sotomayor also said, “the key to understanding others is listening, and looking at the world from their point of view.”
And by the way — our students have much to teach us, when it comes to the ways of communicating inside different contexts. They are savvy participants in all kinds of different modes of communication. I was thrilled to see Waterford students jump on the Twitter hashtag #sotospeaks soon after our experience in the Huntsman Center, and they introduced me to Storify, an app that collects an assortment of individual online expressions (through word or image) in order to offer up an implied story. You can check out the Storify account of the Sotomayor speech here.