Linguistics and the teenage mind

Jean Melek discusses the surprising benefits of teaching linguistics in a high school classroom where students are struggling to bring about a better world.

Melek globeI teach high school English at an international school in Muscat, Oman where the students hail from 60 different countries and count 48 different languages as their mother tongue. The instruction is in English but, as you can imagine, most students have a complicated relationship with language. One young man in my class, whose mother was born in Italy and father was born in Lebanon, spent his pre-school years in Qatar. He later attended a French school where he studied Spanish as a second language before enrolling in school in Oman. He’s a truly global kid, but he’s certainly not the exception, probably more like a peek into our future.

The students arrive to my Language and Literature class in the sweaty days of late summer expecting to read Macbeth, analyse the poetry of Carol Ann Duffy, and practice writing letters to the editor. There is some of that, of course, but what they don’t expect is that they will also become sensitive examiners of the structures of language and, subsequently, advocates for social justice.

I start by validating their relationship and experiences with language. 17 year-olds find it thrilling to learn that English is changing as we speak and that they, as young people, are the true innovators. When I showed them John McWhorter’s Ted Talk Txting is Killing Language JK!!! several students asked for the link - they wanted to show it to their mum, dad, 7th grade English teacher - anyone who might have been on their case as their thumbs flew over the keys of their iPhone for hours on end. It is comforting to them to know that the way they play with words, shaping them for their own purposes, is not only what’s always been done but is in fact real language work. The alacrity with which language is evolving with the omnipresence of technology can be daunting to people of my generation, but it excites and inspires theirs.

The cool thing is that they’re miles ahead of me when it comes to understanding the influence of tech on language. Thanks to my students, I knew how rude I was being when using a full stop in texts telling my husband to pick up milk on his way home months before I read David Crystal’s piece in Babel No15. When we look at what emojis mean, and how they mean it, I see the nods of acknowledgement and catch a whiff of the smugness they’ll answer with when asked ‘What did you learn at school today?’ at the dinner table tonight. They get it: they get how language changes. By centring their experiences in a high school classroom, we’re saying ‘This is real. This is worth studying.’

Melek board

I’m counting on this new-found confidence then as I lead them down darker paths, examining the ways in which language use intersects with the consolidation and wielding of power. And there’s no shortage of places to find examples. I don’t have a single American in my class, but the students followed the U.S. Presidential Elections closely knowing that the candidates’ speeches, debates and Tweets were rife with examples of the language of gender and class.

Looking at the ways in which language shapes gender expectations is an especially rich topic for teenagers who are in the throes of figuring out who they are and how they fit - or don’t fit - into this world. It’s rewarding to push these students past their knee jerk reactions to gender struggle and toward a more complex understanding of how identity is shaped by language. Of course they come into class hearing the word ‘slut’ and knowing that there is not really a corresponding word for a promiscuous male. But when they look at the process of pejoration and how words that once denoted a woman in charge – ‘governess’ or ‘mistress’, for example - now mean a woman in charge of children’s table manners or a homewrecker, they can see how our thinking about gender is defined by the language that we use.

In such a diverse setting as an international school, the language of race and culture is also prominent. Because of where we live, students are especially interested in the embedded messages we are sending when we use the word ‘migrant’ instead of ‘refugee’, or ‘Islamic militant’ instead of ‘terrorist’. And because they are teenagers like any others around the world, they are heartened to know that the language of hip-hop and rap is a dialect with its own grammatical rules and lexicon, not just lazy, ‘improper’ English.

Earlier this school year, some of my students participated in a Socratic Seminar discussing language and taboo. To prepare, they read articles in academic journals, but more importantly for them, they conducted field research by simply listening in on their peers in conversation about such topics as disability, suicide, and even menstruation. It took a little while, but as soon as one usually reticent young man broke the ice by pronouncing the word ‘tampon’, the kids were off and running, digging into the implications for their society when the language they use to describe our reality feels dirty and forbidden.

In the International Baccalaureate Language and Literature course, students must complete an oral presentation synthesising some of this learning and applying it to real life situations. What they come up with humbles me. Robin examined media coverage of both the Olympics and Paralympics to analyse how the language of sports reporting influences our thinking about athletes, while Ines told us how psychiatrists are using emojis to help children on the autism spectrum to show emotions and connect with their parents and teachers. Khalid delivered a speech about the misunderstanding of the word ‘jihad’ in the western world and let us know that he’s currently engaged in his own jihad against sugar addiction.

I, like other students of language or casual readers of Babel, am fascinated to learn how the language we use defines our world and our experiences in it. I feel more enlightened and empathetic the more I understand the implications of the myriad ways we use language. But I’m not a teenager. Not only are young people interested in these topics, they are moved to do something about them. And there’s the rub. I’ve learned that when students look a little more closely at language and see how it both empowers and enfeebles, they become more sensitive speakers and listeners with greater empathy for their fellow human beings. With the energy and idealism of the young, they will push for a more inclusive and just world.

About the author
Jean Melek teaches language and literature at ABA Oman, an IB World School in Muscat, Oman.

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