Surprised by language

Walt - Raleigh, North Carolina
Entered on June 28, 2008
Age Group: 65+
Themes: immigrant

Language is something we take for granted—kind of like the air we breathe? Who needs to believe in language? But not all air is the same–and some is downright polluted. As I child, my language was polluted. I was born during WWII—of German immigrants who spoke German in the home. Their limited English portrayed their German heritage the minute they opened their mouths. The German language represented Nazi oppression. The neighborhood kids played war games and all the kids wanted to kill the German Nazis. I died many deaths. I was ashamed, humiliated, and wanted to escape my heritage. I wanted to be American, speak English, and be a part of American culture. So I assimilated the language and culture of my English-speaking, working-class North Philadelphian peers. I thought I was liberated—until I realized that the dialect of English I learned was also polluted by comparison with those who came from more privileged backgrounds and middle-class neighborhoods. In fact, I remember a 12th grade locker-room conversation with a football player after I visited Princeton University on a recruiting trip. My teammate, who was repeating 10th grade for the third time, knew nothing about my academic ability. But he laughed at the idea that I might go to Princeton. When I asked him why he laughed, his comment was, “Because you talk dumb!”

As I struggled during my college years to speak more fluent Standard English, I seized on my aptitude for speaking other languages and dialects and headed towards a career in linguistics. Now I was scrutinizing the precise, structural details of language and dialect. And I was surprised by language. The more I studied the dialects of different social and ethnic groups, the more respect I developed for the detailed and intricate patterning of all languages and dialects. It seemed so simple and fundamental. But it was ironically contradictory to what I had learned, thought, and been taught. Linguistically, all languages and their dialects are created equal, like their speakers. And I came to believe in the inherent sanctity of all languages and dialects. The rest was simple for a linguistic researcher and professor. I had to spend my life practicing my belief—to teach, train, cajole, and challenge others to understand that one of the basic attributes of language was as obvious as the air we breathe. That doesn’t make it less worthy of belief; in fact, it makes it more critical—to believe in what should be taken for granted.