Language matters

“People without a voice are often people without a shaping role in the world” (Johnstone, 2002, p. 112).

Language shapes, and allows us to shape, who we are in the world. We use language to position ourselves, and to position others, in relationship to cultural expectations (Olsen, 2006).  Language constitutes, and is constituted by, our interactions with other people and the world (Fairclough, 1995, 2001; Gee, 1996, 2005; Halliday, 1978; Halliday & Matthiessen, 2004; Johnston, 2004; Thompson, 2004). Therefore, language plays a central role in social development, because it is the primary way culture is transmitted (Haliday, 1978).

Right about now, some readers are probably wondering where this post is going. Why the academic treatise on language and discourse? Well, because one of the things at stake in the current monologue about education is the language we use. Do I mean that the English language is under attack? No. I understand (and teach) that language is dynamic and that to try to fix (as in “fasten (something) securely in a particular place or position“) language in a  particular context is a futile endeavor. Meanings shift, slip, and alter over time. That’s how languages work.

For many people, language just is. My experiences teaching hundreds of college students over the years has taught me that many people do not view themselves as agentive language users, because our educational system has taught reading and writing (in particular) as tasks to master. Our historical emphasis on creating educational environments dedicated to transmitting receptive knowledge (see “liking kids is not enough” for more on this topic) has created legions of people who think of themselves as users not creators of language. Therefore, language is something many people don’t consider: “the more frequently and fluently a medium is used, the more ‘transparent’ or ‘invisible’ to its users it tends to become” (Chandler, 2002, p. 3). Asking people to think about language is like asking a fish to see the water in which it swims (not a new, but very apt comparison). Taking this metalinguistic leap–step back from language to see language–isn’t for everyone (I believe people are capable, just perhaps not interested and/or willing), and it doesn’t occur to everyone to pay attention to how language shapes who we are and how we operate in the world. (Obviously, I’m not one of those people…)

Exposure to particular language usage over time renders it seemingly neutral and invisible (Kress, 2003). Often these habitual discursive practices convey a sense of permanence and as being beyond question (Kress, 2003). Chandler (2002) suggests that the very fact that some categories, ideas, and/or sign systems have been granted a priori status requires that we question them, their origins, and who benefits from their normative status. That’s what I’m trying to do in this blog.

I want people to realize (or remember) that language is never neutral. Power is embedded, and embodied, in all discursive transactions (Foucault, 1982). The way we use language provides insight into how we as speakers perceive ourselves (Rymes, 1995). Our choices reflect our capacity to draw from language-as-a-resource “for… making the representation that we wish or need to make” (Kress, 2003, p. 82). Attending to language use can reveal the ways in which our discursive choices reveal our perceptions of ourselves in relationship to others (Alvermann, Young, Green, & Wisenbaker, 1999).

What happens if we don’t pay attention to language? We limit our ability to participate fully in the conversations that matter to us.

For example, let’s consider our current national conversation about education. Gee (2005)–who likes to use capital letters to draw distinctions–defines a Conversation as an on-going largely metaphorical discussion within a group, culture, or society about issues that matter: “one big grand conversation” (p. 49). In the rest of this post, I’ll use the capital C when discussing big-picture conversations about education.

Recently, the Conversation about education (particularly “education reform”) has reached more and more Americans. While there are more voices –for better or worse–in the Conversation, the language we’re using (even the collocation of education and reform seems “natural”) remains largely unexamined by the general public. This taken-for-grantedness has serious implications.

Teachers have historically not been as vocal as other participants in the national Conversation about education, despite the expertise and authority they possess. Unlike other professions, teachers are often (some might argue systematically) excluded from shaping the policies by which they must live. Instead, policymakers turn to so-called experts without actual teaching experience (and for the record, owning a company that trains teachers is not teaching). Similarly, as the locus of control over education has shifted away from local classrooms, schools, and communities, teachers have had minimal say in defining what it means for them to be highly qualified or for students to be considered proficient. Without a say in how they’ll be judged, teachers become easy targets. (Just look at Wisconsin, where teachers’ unions are being blamed for budget deficits.)

A recurring theme in our national Conversation is that teachers are defenders of the status quo who want nothing more than to reap their generous salaries without having to be held accountable for test scores, I mean: students’ learning. (Don’t believe me? Watch this montage of opinion about teachers put together by The Daily Show.) Given the vitriolic tone of our Conversation (which Diane Ravitch actually calls a monologue), I think it’s time think about words. In particular, I think it’s important to think about seemingly neutral words like education, reform, and transformation.

Education is a noun formed by the affixation of -ion (which means action or condition) and the verb educate, which derives from the Latin verb educare. Briefly, the root -duct- means to carry (think: aqueduct, conduct, deduct). The prefix ex- means out of or away. In the case of the word educate, the prefix ex- was assimilated to ease pronunciation. Try saying exducation and you’ll begin to understand the phenomenon of assimilated prefixes. For more information, see Words their way (Bear, Invernizzi, Templeton, & Johnston, 2008; 2011) or Vocabulary their way (Templeton, Johnston, Bear, & Invernizzi, 2010). So, education–at its root–means to carry out.

Reform is a verb, which when it has an object, means to “make changes in (something, typically a social, political, or economic institution or practice) in order to improve it” (Oxford University Press, 2011). The word derives from Middle English and Old French. If we look to its etymology, we learn that re- is a prefix which means back or again, and form is a root which means exactly that: form (shape, create, build). So, reform means–at its heart–to form or make something again. Let’s see what happens if we replace the prefix re- with trans-, which means across or beyond (think: transcontinental, transport, transfusion). To transform means to make something completely or thoroughly different. What if we talked about transforming education instead of reforming it? Would that make a difference? Maybe. Maybe not.

What if we embarked on an etymological exploration to find a word that actually and accurately describes what some people are suggesting as “solutions” to our “problem”? First, let’s recap the problem: According to some, the problem of education is really a problem of “bad teachers”–not poverty, class size, or parental involvement–just bad teachers. Solution? Fire the “bad teachers.” OK, what’s next?

The problem of education is that our students don’t score well on international tests. Well, actually, American students in low-poverty areas scored comparatively well on those tests, but that’s a fact often overlooked in the Conversation. Another overlooked (or just plain ignored) idea is that education should be about more than just test scores. Nevertheless, the problem is that our students don’t do well on those tests, so we narrow the curriculum to test preparation.

Next problem? Once we get rid of the “the bad teachers” and greatly reduce our focus to test preparation instead of education, we increase production. In recent opinion piece, Bill Gates (who is an education expert because of what???) suggested that we “get more students in front of top teachers by identifying the top 25 percent of teachers and asking them to take on four or five more students.” Increasing the number of students receiving the transmission from the “good teachers”  will surely solve all of our problems, economic, civic, and other. Sure, there’s extant research, which outlines  a relationship between class size and achievement. But, since that research was probably conducted by people who work in colleges of education –the last bastion of “insipid or marginally relevant theorizing and pedagogy” (–we can safely ignore it, right? OK, so we’ve gotten rid of the “bad teachers”; we’ve increased class sizes; we’ve narrowed our curriculum to focus on test prep. Now what? We still need to ensure that no child gets left behind. Let’s provide teachers with scripts and teacher-proof the curriculum.

Let’s be more precise in our language choices.

The word dismantle comes to English from Old French and Latin. The prefix des- means removing (or taking away) and mateler means fortify or cloak in Latin. So, denotatively, dismantle means to remove fortifications or uncloak. Its meaning has evolved over time to mean to take something apart. That’s what the so-called reformers seem to be recommending: identify and fire “bad teachers”; rescind autonomy through demands that all teachers in a grade level are teaching the same thing at the same time regardless of the needs of the students in the room; disregard the influence of poverty; increase class sizes in order to make anything other than the transmission model of education possible; narrow curriculum to test prep; and reduce opportunities for students to engage in creative expression (bye bye, music & art!). From where I sit, the so-called reformers should really be called dismantlers. They don’t seem particularly interested in remaking public education, but taking it apart piece by piece.

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6 thoughts on “Language matters

    • Wow. Getting schooled on my own blog. Didn’t see that coming.

      Unlike Mr. Schwartzman, I’m not a linguist by training. I am an armchair language lover (with a doctorate in something else), so I’m always looking to learn more.

      The point of the post–which seems to have escaped Mr. Schwartzman–was that language choices matter, which is why I referred to the Oxford University Press dictionary from which I drew the etymology. Here it is:

      “Origin: late 16th century (in the sense ‘destroy the defensive capability of (a fortification)’): from Old French desmanteler, from des- (expressing reversal) + manteler ‘fortify’ (from Latin mantellum ‘cloak’).”

  1. I’m always happy to encounter language lovers, whether in armchairs or elsewhere. The original Latin mantellum ‘cloak’ was a noun,’and as far as I can tell Latin had no corresponding verb. (Old) French later created the verb (em)manteler ‘to cover or protect in a cloak.’ In general, I’d recommend the etymologies in The American Heritage Dictionary, which you can find at

  2. Pingback: Educare — to lead out « Just Scribbles

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