College is a wonderland of openmindedness and the conscientious exchange of knowledge!

Just kidding!

I had the weirdest experience in class today. The lecturer had split us into groups and assigned each group to define a term in preparation for the final. Easy enough. My group’s word was linguistic insecurity. This is an idea put forth by William Labov in the 1960s; basically it means the awareness that the way you speak is not the “right” way. In this country, it would apply to anyone who speaks any dialect other than Standard American English.

Anyway, the girl next to me already had her 25 pages of typed notes in front of her; she flipped to the relevant page and began rattling off definitions of linguistic insecurity and the accompanying concepts of hypercorrection, misrecognition, and Standard Language Ideology (the state-propagated belief that linguistic homogeneity is beneficial to society).

The other two women we were working with nodded dumbly at the stream of jargon we’d just been subjected to. Yeah, that’s the definition all right.

I said, timidly, “You guys don’t want to translate this into layman’s terms? For the benefit of the class?”

“Actually, this definition is exactly what SHE said,” said the 25-pages girl, pointing with an odd mixture of reverence and accusation at the lecturer sitting 5 feet away.

As we moved on to the next part of the question, I saw my chance to inject understandable language into the conversation. Why is linguistic insecurity important? I offered a very straightforward sentence about how the concept perpetuates stratification by subordinating anyone who doesn’t speak Standard American English.

“That’s beautiful,” said the girl. The other two nodded dumbly, again. The first girl took down my humble sentence word-for-word. And added it to her canned definitions, for a result that was about a paragraph long. When she proudly recited said paragraph to the class, the lecturer laughed in nervous, half-hearted approval.

It was so depressing and frustrating to work with this girl who couldn’t seem to function outside the world of buzzwords. College should be about understanding, not regurgitation. But we’re so apathetic that we faithfully take down every word on the PowerPoint without allowing it to reach our brains. In the Information Age, God forbid we should actually process information; just accumulating it is apparently sufficient.

Gotta love that this took place in a linguistic anthropology class, though.

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