Why is Language Missing From the Conversation?
Why do we forget to consider language as another dimension of our social experience? Because we take it for granted. Language is such a regularly embedded and embodied aspect of our everyday experience, we sometimes are unaware of how it can contextually shift in its use to construct ideals of woman, nation, or Arabic-speaker, for example.
The video posted below on "Study Abroad in Jordan" is my latest installment of the #LanguageStory video series, and follows two college students, Laye and Erica, in their sojourn to Amman, Jordan. I met each of them during my time as an ethnographer embedded in Jordan, and their friendship is all the more powerful considering their many differences: Laye is a first-generation Muslim immigrant to the U.S., and Erica is a White American woman with aspirations for a career in Dubai.
Watch the Video.
It's Real: Race and Gender Have Impacts on Second Language Learning.
Both Erica and Laye enjoy their life abroad in Amman, Jordan, and view it as an extraordinary opportunity. Their friendship has fostered a unique brand of colloquial Arabic between them. However, as it turns out, their study abroad experiences diverge in ways that relate to how their bodies are gendered and raced by others in Amman. Across each of their experiences, language remains another dimension through which they experience difference.
For Erica, being seen as a woman narrows her opportunities to converse with men. In her homestay situation, this also leads to marriage as the central topic of conversation. This has the effect of narrowing her potential
As for Laye, he moves through Amman as a man, but also as a Black man. He relates his experience (one of many) as being vocally read as a Black man in his description of being called "Michael Jackson" and "Abu Jackson" by a local taxi driver. This same driver went on to openly ascribe discourses of moral beauty to Whiteness, as opposed to Blackness. Even as this positioned Laye as hypervisible and disempowered, Laye's own personal investment in intercultural learning helped him draw upon this event to articulate his sense of self-worth as both a Black man and Arabic-speaker. In this, Laye languages himself as an expected and competent speaker of Arabic, who belongs on study abroad, even if his presence is both fetishized and rejected by local others.
"White, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian...The trappings of power reside within this mythical norm." - Audre Lorde, African American woman philosopher
Why Media Storytelling is Key to Examining Intersectionality.
My additional goal in this media project to intentionally expand our vision of who speaks Arabic and who goes on study abroad. The textual and visual-semiotic aspects of video allow for featuring speakers in their own words, in ways that make use of subtitles for non-Arabic-speaking audiences.
Subtitling also became a way of including my own voice in visual alignment with that of participants. But even before post-production, I wanted to make sure to gather footage that included me in the video frame with interviewees. In this way, I could illustrate how my own question-making and self-discovery was a part of the ethnographic research process. Often, I find that the researcher's voice is elided in ways that can make participants' voices seem artificially suspended in the narrative. With a sense of what questions are being asked that draw out participants' stories, we get a greater sense of the meaning of what is being shared, with less reliance on the authoritative voice of the researcher.
Within this work, I take up key positions of sociocultural and critical applied linguistics, that:
- language both shapes and is shaped by society,
- research should concern social justice, and expose inequality.
What I offer in my contributions here, is an extension of these concerns to also emphasize a focus on:
- cultivating an intentional politics of intersectionality.