Food for thought 

A movement toward linguistic justice 

By Bianca Nicolescu 

With so much controversy surrounding the right way to teach American history, Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill and the banning of books in states around the nation, teaching has always been treated as a political game of people fighting for their voices to be heard.  

Though we raise our voices to advocate for our students’ needs, our educational system does not often implement equitable policies. Rather than uplifting those who are systematically disadvantaged, it is rigged to create imbalances by giving unjust power to the privileged. Social justice movements, like the linguistic justice movement, try to reverse these damaging effects by empowering voices of silenced cultures.  

Dr. April Baker-Bell, a leading pioneer in this movement for linguistic justice, emphasizes the importance of incorporating language justice in our schooling, and especially the art of Black language. Language justice would allow us to disrupt privilege and challenge the colonial influences of “White Mainstream English” (WME).  

One perspective of the linguistic justice movement is embedded in the history of colonial America. Dr. Baker-Bell explains that during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, European enslavers and African middlemen raided villages to abduct African people as slaves. Africans were abused and isolated from other captives who spoke the same language to minimize rebellions. 

Today, many Americans of color are often penalized for using a different language than WME despite its origins in conquest and domination. However, learning about the diverse history of language matters because of its use as a rhetoric of resistance.  

We should teach students to write authentically and feel proud of their culture by incorporating diverse linguistics into their language arts studies. Conversely, if schools strike out one’s use of language, their authority can be psychologically damaging for students, teaching kids that their history is inferior and has no room in the curriculum.  

An inclusive space for language 

Rather, teachers should provide a space that honors students’ language and makes them feel comfortable enough to actively participate in the classroom community. In doing so, teachers might comment on linguistic expectations, but separate this feedback from their grade. Undoing our preconception that some people speak “good” English while others speak a form of English that is “less than,” we can uproot grading policies that are grounded in whiteness. In truth, language variation is not the defect of a child; rather our educational system’s response to this language is defective. By respecting the connections between students’ use of language and their identity, we can continue to encourage students’ self-agency.  

A separate but unequal approach to language variation is linguistic discrimination. Language is connected to larger systems of oppression and is heavily impacted by race. Racism is connected to linguistic superiority, and more specifically, to white linguistic supremacy. WME harms those who don’t conform to what our American education system has established as the standard. As a result, our “whitewashed” linguistic culture becomes exclusive of anyone who does not assimilate. To cultivate a culturally and linguistically pluralistic society, we have to create an inclusive space for all English vernaculars, and this can be sparked in the classroom.  

Ultimately, we, as educators, should engage in anti-racist pedagogies, work to actively dismantle our implicit biases and build linguistic consciousness. At this time, we can no longer afford to be polite about unjust education policies, about inequality, and about the inhumane treatment of certain people in our society. We must face uncomfortable truths and come to terms with the unfortunate part of our reality so that generations to come do not share our hardships.

Bianca Nicolescu, a sophomore at The College of New Jersey, majors in secondary math education with a minor in women’s, gender and sexuality studies. She is the NJEA Preservice Diversity and Justice co-chair.