Academically Speaking

Mandi Strickland, Consultant

“Can you say that…more academically?” I hear myself asking a student and pointing to a specific passage. She is writing an analytical essay, and there is a shift in the tone of her writing. She has slipped from the learned, written language of the institution, into her own dialect. I am reluctant, because I do not want her to think that her ideas are not clear. But, I tell her anyway, knowing that she’d thank me for the better grade if it came to that.

Basic linguistic theory tells us that within the educational system, access and continued desire for access based on propensity for success is based on socioeconomic status, which is, in turn, based on the degree to which the social dialect adheres to standardized English. Basil Bernstein demonstrates this by evaluating the use of “elaborate” and “restrictive codes” in speech. Middle class children are more likely to use elaborate codes, which is the code preferred by the schools. Elaborate codes provide contextual information, while restrictive codes are context specific. Restrictive codes used by working-class children are judged by the educational system as inadequate; they do not provide the contextual information that the institution seeks, despite that they may be communicating the same information.

Linguistic problems are societal problems—the disparity between social dialects and standardized English reinforces social inequality. Bloomfield argues that social hierarchy mimics the linguistic hierarchy: “The higher the social position of the non-standard speaker, the more nearly does he approach the standard language.” The student is ranked based upon her capacity to adhere to standardized English, her fluency in the language of power.

MandiWith this knowledge in mind, I advise my student to make changes to her paper. I tell her, “What you have here is OK, and your message has been communicated. I get it. But, here, now and in your future as a student, you will be expected to speak ‘academically.’” I wonder, should I tell her that this is the language of patriarchy, or that speaking academically is active in the maintenance of social inequality? That she, as a minority, will have to adopt the language of the majority in order to be a social success?

Instead, I walk the fine line of helping the student to remain true to her social identity, while also doing the best that I can to provide her with tools needed to reconcile this identity with the language of the academy.

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