Kids Can Be Sociolinguists, Too!

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  • A little metalinguistic awareness can go a long way towards creating a safe space for bilingual children in the classroom.
  • Sociolinguistic awareness, coupled with the gumption to tackle these issues with children, will go a long way towards the larger enterprise of designing pedagogy that is culturally (and linguistically) focused.
  • Consider designing curricula that builds sociolinguistic awareness.
  • This post shares the importance of considering linguistic bias language in education bilingual literacy.

Kids Can Be Sociolinguists, Too!

In an urban 4th grade classroom, Susan Baker is working with her students on third-person verb conjugations. Samuel (a bright, young Black boy) gets the right answer. “Ms. Baker it’s he runs, he or she runs to the park!” he squeals in delight as Susan feels a twist in her belly. Why had she expected Samuel to respond differently? 

These are questions she poses to herself in her weekly metalinguistic journal. “How come I expected Samuel to say “he run to the park,” but if a White student had replied, I would have expected a grammatically correct response? (Note: as linguists, we cringe at notions of grammatical accuracy…more on that below.) 

This level of truth-seeking and awareness reveals to Susan that she is forming micro-expectations about Samuel’s linguistic proficiencies based on her knowledge of his home dialect (African American Vernacular English) and the school register or Standardized American English. Her resolve to follow her philosophy to empower students led her to adjust her instructional approach for the following unit.  She decides to launch a sociolinguistics study, asking her kids to notice how they and those around them speak and to document in notebooks certain sentences and words that arose in conversation. 

Over time, the kids examine differences in their own idiolects that lead them to (a) feel proud of language variety and (b) generate insights about how people speak and note differences from speech to writing.

While Susan stands as an example of a linguistically self-aware teacher, far too many don’t have the support or the cognitive bandwith to reflect on these micro-moments of linguistic discrimination in the K-12 classroom.  Let’s look at what the research has to say about how humans (in this case, teachers) carry biases with them and how findings from neurolinguistics can help guide our interactions in the modern (linguistically-diverse) American classroom.

We are two linguists (Lillian works with teachers to examine their beliefs about language and Rachel works with neuro-physiological tools to explore how the brain processes language).

Linguists agree that linguistic prejudice is one of the last frontiers to discrimination, and if we can conquer that, we will have a much more just and equitable world. Click To Tweet

Our argument is that a little bit of sociolinguistic awareness, coupled with the gumption to tackle these issues with children, will go a long way towards the larger enterprise of designing pedagogy that is culturally (and linguistically) focused.

And the research is on our side!  Neurolinguists, like Rachel, have found that when we listen to someone speak, our brain is one step ahead of us. It is actively trying to predict what will come out of that person’s mouth next, based on the context of the conversation. We may not even realize we’re doing this predictive work which may reveal itself in developing some implicit biases towards our students!

Such biases can be visually-informed (e.g. how we treat others on the basis of race) as well as aurally (how we treat others on the basis of language difference).  In the vignette above, Susan predicted Samuel’s response as grammatically deviant or inaccurate, so it’s not unreasonable to wonder if her expectations of his academic achievement might follow a similar (deficit-type) trajectory.

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What is a well-meaning teacher to do about his form of implicit linguistic bias?

We recommend doing some noticing work, as Susan does above, in an effort to augment or bring focus to the way you interact with students from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds. It could be beneficial to keep a reflective journal to keep track of your metalinguistic awareness; heck, even encourage your students to keep one!

Listen to radio shows and podcasts that talk about language as it lives in the world such as A Way With Words and Spectacular Vernacular with your students. Encourage them to call in. They could end up on the air (just as this third grade teacher called with her student who had a question about a word (listen here: start at 6:41). Finally, consider designing curricula that builds sociolinguistic awareness. YouTube has some great educational sound bites as well that are geared toward a general audience, such as this episode from PBS Digital Series Otherwords, featuring Rachel helping to dispel some common misconceptions about African American English.

A blog post like this isn’t meant to finger-wag at teachers for perpetuating racial biases in the classroom.

The brain helps us do so many things linguistically, and predicting the ending of an utterance is one of them. But ultimately, linguists agree that linguistic prejudice is one of the last frontiers to discrimination, and if we can conquer that, we will have a much more just and equitable world. We hope the above examples will allow you to think more deeply about how biases show up in and through language so you may build critical awareness around language in your classroom and beyond.

About Lillian Ardell

Dr. Lillian Ardell has nearly two decades of experience working with emergent bilingual learners and the teachers who serve them. She began her career as a dual language teacher in the South Bronx, working in second and fourth grade classrooms. There she lead a team of curriculum developers to develop a Spanish phonics curriculum based on the latest research and best-practices for Spanish language development.

From there she transitioned to a literacy coach with a focus on bilingual writing assessment. She obtained her doctorate in Bilingual Education from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Education in 2020, where she became interested in teacher attitudes towards language and the complex ways these views inform their work with EBs. She currently works as a biliteracy expert for University of Chicago’s STEP Español reading assessment and as a content developer for Cornell Tech’s K-12 Research program. In sum, Dr. Ardell is a “language cheerleader”: all she wants to do is help teachers feel competent and confident talking about (and studying) language with their language learners!

About Rachel Weissler

Dr. Rachel Elizabeth Weissler is a Postdoctoral Scholar in Linguistics, Psychology, and Black Studies at the University of Oregon. As a scholar of African American English, her research focuses on how experiences influence perception and processing of American Englishes, using theories and methodologies from sociolinguistics, neurolinguistics, and psycholinguistics. Rachel is also a passionate teacher, an avid mentor, and the production assistant for the podcast and radio show A Way With Words.