News

St. Olaf College | News

To Include is To Excel: Understanding Language Matters

Professor of Asian Studies and Department Chair Rika Ito developed a To Include is To Excel project titled “Understanding Language Matters to Increase Inclusivity and Equity in the Classroom.”

In the first two years of the To Include is To Excel initiative, St. Olaf College faculty and staff members have developed nearly 50 grant-funded projects to support inclusive teaching and learning. We’re highlighting these projects in a new series — and we hope that hearing about this work in the words of fellow faculty and staff members will inspire you to think about how you can be part of creating a more inclusive and equitable campus community.

 Professor of Asian Studies and Department Chair Rika Ito developed a To Include is To Excel project titled “Understanding Language Matters to Increase Inclusivity and Equity in the Classroom.”

She invited Oklahoma State University Regents Professor Dennis Preston, who specializes in sociolinguistics, to campus to help faculty, staff, and students understand the power and role of language in matters of inclusion and exclusion experienced in day-to-day interactions inside and outside of the classroom. Through a series of class visits, a public lecture, and a faculty workshop, Preston helped St. Olaf community members understand the roles of language in shaping identities and stereotypes.

Ito shares what she learned and what she hopes the community takes away from this work:

What led you to develop this project?
This project evolved from a conversation with Professor Maggie Broner in Romance Languages, who is also a linguist. Language plays an essential role in equity and inclusion, but most people are not aware of it. So while overt discrimination based on race/ethnicity, class, country of origin, religion, or sexual orientation cannot be tolerated, discrimination based on language is usually unnoticed. For example, when someone is denied for a job, not having a right “accent” can be used for justification; even the candidate themselves may accept such a decision.

“Language plays an essential role in equity and inclusion, but most people are not aware of it. So while overt discrimination based on race/ethnicity, class, country of origin, religion, or sexual orientation cannot be tolerated, discrimination based on language is usually unnoticed.”

The field of “sociolinguistics” emerged in the 1960s-1970s as an interdisciplinary field analyzing language relating to culture and society. The establishment of the field is not coincidental to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Seminal work includes the description of the systematicity of African American English, debunking stereotypes about the language and the speakers. There’s a rich body of scholarly work in the field since then, but linguists know that we need to do a better job in engaging with a general audience. Here on campus, Linguistic Studies is a program, not a department. There is not much platform to discuss language matters even though the affiliated faculty members are passionate about having such conversations.

Professor Dennis Preston is one of the leading scholars who specializes in perceptual dialectology, language attitude, and language ideology. When I heard about To Include is To Excel, I thought that bringing Dennis to campus would be an excellent way to kick-start To Include is To Excel. Equity and inclusion are experienced in our day-to-day interaction inside and outside the classroom.

I wanted everyone aware of how much “language matters” on this issue. (Minor note: Dennis was my dissertation director!)

Oklahoma State University Regents Professor Dennis Preston speaks to St. Olaf College faculty members during a workshop on campus.

What did you learn — about yourself, your students, your colleagues, the St. Olaf community — as you began working on this project?
Unlike other projects, this project is inviting a guest speaker, so I will share the reactions of the community members who participated in various events during Dennis’ visit last spring.

I learned that people in our community are really interested in learning, discussing, and reflecting on language issues. For example, students in the class visits asked Dennis a lot of questions. At the public lecture, the Viking Theater was packed — many sat on the floor (100+ people participated)! While students tend to leave after the public speech (not necessarily because they’re not interested, but because they’re busy), there was a lively Q&A session that lasted for 30 minutes. Some students even stayed after the talk, having a conversation with Dennis. At the two-hour faculty/staff workshop, people from various departments and offices participated in discussing issues of the linguistic variety and writing at the college level. The entire project was successful! But at the same time, I felt that linguists need to do more. In fact, one of the faculty members told me that “I’ve never thought about this (i.e., the role of language concerning discrimination).”

Students engage with Oklahoma State University Regents Professor Dennis Preston following his public lecture.

What do you hope students and other members of the St. Olaf community take away from this work?Being aware of the role of language — how we can include or exclude others by a simple utterance. Pay attention to what others say, not how they say it. Be a good listener to hear what other people want to say.

How can the St. Olaf community support your project?
We all use the language every day; be mindful in our mundane day-to-day interaction to be inclusive. Equity and inclusion won’t happen in one day. We need to demonstrate what we value in every interaction.

Where does your work go from here?
I’m going to teach a new course, LNGST 245: Roles of Language in the Context of Equity and Diversity, which is also funded by To Include is To Excel. I’m super excited!