How to Cultivate Greater Linguistic Diversity

A. W. Strouse, whose students represent a planet’s worth of distinct backgrounds, offers guidance on how to encourage them to speak up in their own way.

September 8, 2017

In an earlier essay, I argued for the need for greater linguistic diversity in the university. In this second piece, I offer some methods for fostering that diversity -- methods that developed from my teaching and personal experiences as a speaker of an off-kilter English dialect.

At Hunter College, I teach working-class youths from across the globe. My students represent a planet’s worth of distinct backgrounds. And most of my students insist upon their own uniqueness, so an American love of individualism refracts their vast cultural diversity into a kaleidoscope of personalities. Class discussions showcase a melting pot of English dialects: from Sofia, who flagrantly cusses with an outerborough braggadocio; to Jazmine, who drops forms of “to be” from her sentences; to the prim Jennifer, a graduate of an Upper East Side prep school.

My students often seek mobility through education, but many of them also belong -- however uneasily -- to strict families, ancient traditions and ethnocentric communities. This creates some linguistic tensions: my students want to master academic English, but many of them live with parents and among neighbors who speak dozens of languages (and as many different varieties of English). During my office hours, students sometimes confide:

  • “My grandmother makes fun of me for not speaking Chinese, so I’m studying abroad [in China] next year.”
  • “I had to rearrange my schedule because my father is forcing me to study Arabic.”
  • “I’m learning Italian since I’m the only Greek in my [predominantly Italian] neighborhood.”

By providing English instruction, I may unintentionally exacerbate some of these fault lines.

You say that I’m projecting? It’s true: my own folks speak a twangy, Appalachian English of “y’ins” and “daresn’t.” My early teachers taught me to shun my parents’ speech and to use “correct” grammar instead. During my adolescence, my parents could not understand my vocabulary, and I viewed their speech as stupid. We did not speak the same kind of English.

Teaching with firsthand knowledge of linguistic alienation, I understand that education can enflame parent-child rivalries, pique a sense of assimilation guilt or provoke psychic dissonance. So I try to ease these tensions through several methods, which I discuss below.

Adopt and Mimic

In the classroom, I adopt my students’ vernaculars, because embracing linguistic diversity creates a friendly rapport that advances learning. For example, my student Albert recently announced to our class, “Beowulf is kind of a dick!”

Another student, Alesandro, debated the point: “Beowulf is just a man of his time!”

Frankly, the cliché is as intellectually offensive to me as the slang. And as an instructor, I must lead my students toward articulating their insights with more precision. At some point during the conversation, I asked my students to clarify: “Can you find a more sophisticated term for ‘dick’?”

But first, I adopt my students’ own language. I said, “Albert and Alesandro have proposed diverging arguments, from which we might craft a thesis question: ‘Is Beowulf a dick, or is he simply a man of his time?’” I wrote this phrase on the board and announced to the class, “This is an intriguing title for an essay: ‘Beowulf: A Dick, or Man of His Time?’”

By redeploying students’ vernaculars, I generated linguistic solidarity and cultivate an environment wherein students may speak freely, from the top of their heads. But this approach has more to offer than simply appeasing foulmouthed bad boys.

As the conversation unfolded, the class developed a deeper sense of what makes someone a “dick” in historical context. By permitting some code-switching between vernacular and academic Englishes, students can approach the material, both in their day-to-day speech and also in the more scientific style of university discourse -- in order to integrate disparate parts of themselves in relation to their studies. By adopting students’ speech patterns, I clarify that students do not need to jettison their own language in order to learn. Otherwise, I would run the risk of shutting students down by being pedantic.

Ask Students to Write in Their Own Vernacular

Recently, one of my students, Anne, began laughing in class. Anne said, “I’m wondering how I’m going to explain this to my boyfriend.” The class had been reading a particularly raucous portion of Chaucer’s “Reeve’s Tale,” in which the Reeve luridly describes a miller who farts in his sleep.

I took her concern seriously. “Yes, Anne, how would you explain this to your boyfriend? That’s a great question. For homework, I’d like everyone to write a letter to a loved one and tell them about this passage. Write in the voice that you would ordinarily use when addressing this person.”

Instructors familiar with “Writing Across the Curriculum” pedagogy likely already use this sort of exercise. Students often write best when they write to a particular audience. And students internalize new concepts more easily when they use their own voices. (Actually, Anne’s letter to her boyfriend about the farting miller was an amazing piece of criticism.)

Professors can also encourage their students to read outside their specific disciplines. Political scientists, for example, could ask students to read Zen koans in conjunction with excerpts from the military’s Counterinsurgency Field Manual -- a mesmerizing collection of mystical aphorisms. By training students to approach our subjects through multiple voices, we enable students to develop deeper relationships with the material.

Model Enthusiasm

To negotiate between my own education and my wood-hick background, I have learned to revere all words as objects of beauty. In the classroom, I perform my love affair with words. Recently, for example, when a student called a literary character a THOT (“that ho over there”), I dramatized my interest. “This is a new word for me,” I explained to the class, “and I need to write it in my notes and learn the definition.”

By expressing my evident pleasure in offbeat words, I model for my students how they might greet unfamiliar lingo with excitement. The educational process needs to work in both directions. I teach my students jargon like “asyndetic parataxis.” They teach me about THOTs. My experience has been that students respond to this approach by becoming as genuinely excited about esoteric linguistic concepts as they are to gossip about THOTs: my pleasure in their slang helps to build a relationship that enhances their pleasure in my jargon.

Admit That Language Is a Problem

A while ago, I told some colleagues about a study that investigated meth addiction. This study proposed that women’s and men’s brains process meth differently. My colleagues -- who misheard me, and who believed that I was discussing math -- immediately expressed their concern.

English professors don’t necessarily test empirical questions -- like scanning meth-addled brains -- but our work delves into how subtle linguistic differences may bear upon our reality. A sensitivity to language allows us to see how, in some cases, language poses obstacles to communication. I therefore talk with my students about how prejudices about language influence our relationships.

Sometimes, such discussions take an empirical form. (For example, I share with my students a study that shows how listeners often misperceive speakers as having accents based on race.) Other times, those conversations might take a more anecdotal form. (For example, I share with my students my anxieties about speaking across sociolinguistic divides.)

Foregrounding such issues helps students grasp how their preconceptions influence their relationships with language, because language, in fact, is a problem for professors as much as for students. Owning up to this can help to break down some of the barriers that inhibit real dialogue. Ya heard?


A. W. Strouse is a poet who teaches medieval literature at the City University of New York and at the New School.


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