warning: this post is a rant about how much I love my major and my education and not much else
Being at Stanford, surrounded by people studying engineering and computer science and physics and so forth, I had a hard time feeling like I wasn’t learning anything useful. What I learn doesn’t translate into a direct career, or specialized skills in technology or engineering. However, I genuinely believe my education thus far has made me a better person. Better in relation to myself before, not others, but still better.
What I think is interesting about language is that it’s something that is universally used, but rarely fully understood. The way immigrant children learn English in ESL programs, the importance of English literacy in socioeconomic and educational success, the mapping of languages to nationalities (eg Germans speak German, Chinese speak Chinese, French speak French, etc) all of these things are taken for granted to some extent. People see these things as facts, which is understandable given that we’re often given this information as fact. What I’ve been trying to learn for the past two years is how to challenge these structures, and question how and why people believe certain things about language. Why do we assign national identities to languages? Why are some languages considered “official” or “standard” and others aren’t? Why do people looking for language teachers want native speakers only? What does it even mean to sound native?
Less urgently, how do people know when to hang up a phone call? How do babies learn to talk? When does a bilingual speaker decide to code switch? There are an infinite number of questions to pose about the experiences we all have with language, and the answers are mindblowing.
Especially with the classes I’ve been taking this past quarter, I feel that I’ve become so much more cognizant of the ideologies, histories and power dynamics that are oftentimes made invisible in the transmission of language. The way I think about things is changing, and it makes me happy to to see that the way I view the world is changing. For example, one big problem I’ve been pondering all quarter is the issue of identity, in relation to gender and race and culture and language. I’ve thought a lot about the differences between seeing the above terms as given categories, and seeing them as dynamic and constantly changing and produced and reproduced and formed and transformed performances. Identity is performed, but at the same time it’s imposed. For example, it’s easy to think of myself as a person with free will, some who is agentic and able to succeed in a system of meritocracy, but I’m learning to recognize that as much as I want to believe in my free will, there’s no such thing as being agentic outside of the social structures in which me and the people around me exist.
As a Linguistics major, I’m studying something that everyone can use and produce, language. I’m studying something that is taken for granted as everyday, normal, de-politicized and de-racialized, when it should be taken as anything but. Language is extraordinary yall, and the way it plays into systems of racial inequality, violence, hyper-criminalization, imperialism, and more cannot be overlooked.
Minor transgression here; the one thing I will say that I don’t super enjoy is that the Linguistics major is really grounded in traditional modules of Linguistics like semantics and syntax and phonology, which are great and fun, but I’m so much more interested in studying the people who use and speak languages than the languages themselves. That’s just me. But that’s why I want to coterm in Sociology, and why half of my Ling courses and my favorite professors are in the Graduate School of Education.
I came into this quarter really just wanting to be more aware of the world around me, and I feel like that’s what has been happening for the past ten weeks. Not to say I haven’t drowned in papers, or speed read a 300 page book for a seminar in 30 minutes, or felt incredibly dumb in a seminar surrounded by people with literally a decade more of education than me, but those experiences come with some sort of reward. I get what educators are trying to get at when they talk about a liberal arts education, although I don’t think the current WAYS requirements at Stanford really fully get at that. But anyway, study social sciences everyone.
So, so worth it.
If you vibed with what I wrote above, here are some READING RECOMMENDATIONS for books on language’s role in power, racial inequality, stereotypes, and more:
- Homegirls by Mendoza-Denton
- Language, Identity, and Stereotype Among Southeast Asian American Youth: The Other Asian by Angela Reyes
- Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys by Victor Rios
- Race, Empire, and English Language Teaching by Suhanthie Motha