Thinking Broadly About Language.
In this blog post, we want to challenge your thinking that language diversity is just the number of languages that you speak with two studies we conducted. Rather, we find that the way speakers view themselves in relation to larger communities is an important aspect of how language operates. In addition, ethnicity and nationality intersect with our varied and personal perceptions of language, further impacting linguistic diversity.
Our Survey Study.
How would your ethnicity play a part in language diversity? Through our first survey, we found that ethnicity played a key part in determining the other languages known by respondents, as well as the languages they desired to learn. Out of 10 total respondents, 7 students identified themselves as “White”. Out of those 7 students, only 1 student knew a non-European language and only 1 student desired to learn a non-European language. A possible explanation for this can be the effects of linguistic inequality.
What is Linguistic Inequality?
Linguistic anthropologist Judith Irvine’s “Subject Words: African Linguistics and the Colonial Encounter” examines how colonizers possessed attitude that the African languages were inferior to European languages causing most of them to not even attempt to learn these languages (Irvine).
Moreover, in Stephanie Lindemann’s research article , “Listening With An Attitude: A Model of Native – Speaker Comprehension of Non-Native Speakers in the United States,” she explored how those college students who had negative attitudes toward their Korean immigrant counterparts were unable to achieve a successful communicative result, relative to American-born peers who had positive attitudes toward the group (Lindemann). To acknowledge the data we collected, the White students we surveyed may have only learned an European language because 95% of U.S. college language classes are in European languages (Friedman). However, this also illustrates the severity of linguistic inequality with regard to languages other than English, which are offered in Americna higher education, and which students desire to learn.
American Education and Linguistic Diversity.
We can also look at other relationships between participant’s hometowns, nationalities, and language knowledge. Referring to Figure 2, the student respondents in Survey 2 come from a variety of places. Importantly, a student from Paraguay would have different linguistic traits than a student from Michigan. And this is true for the most part, especially in regards to the ways that they view language in their new community and how they fit in.
How do they differ though? They viewed their linguistic community differently and interpreted changes in language use differently, too. Our survey respondent from Paraguay analyzed the differences in speech patterns in more of a tonal, or phonetic way. She noticed that the swing of people’s voices were different than what she was used to, that they seem like they have lazy slurs at the ends of sentences in that it seemed like the tone of everyday sentences sounds like a question is being asked. On the other hand, the Michigan student noticed the larger vocabularies that students use at Swarthmore. Comparing the two, those who are further from their home look at more “complex” differences in the way languages are used. Students that speak supposedly “inferior” languages may be more likely to feel different in a less diverse linguistic community.
The definitions for language found in the first survey demonstrate the potential outcome of these multiple differences in background and language experience. In Figure 1, it is shown that 66.7% of participants responded that language is communication. However, we found it interesting that the vast majority of our respondents could only claim knowledge of European languages. This points to a overt focus on European languages in our American education system, which has the potential to close us off to the rest of the world, and limit the sharing of another country’s culture and ideas.
When considering more deeply the notion of linguistic diversity, we found it meaningful to look at how different parts of who we are can impact our language use, and influence the communities we take part in. It is important to consider many aspects of who we are, where we are from, the languages that we speak, and how comfortable we feel in our environment. Every person brings a different perspective to a community, and when these individual people are more diverse, we achieve a more interesting and thoughtful community.
 Irvine, Judith T. "Subjected Words: African Linguistics And The Colonial Encounter." Language & Communication, vol 28, no. 4, 2008, pp. 323-343. Elsevier BV, doi:10.1016/j.langcom.2008.02.001.
 Lindemann, Stephanie. "Listening With An Attitude: A Model Of Native-Speaker Comprehension Of Non-Native Speakers In The United States." Language In Society, vol 31, no. 03, 2002, Cambridge University Press (CUP), doi:10.1017/s0047404502020286.