Posts Tagged ‘Language’

People’s minds tend to run a lot on patterns and associations. When someone says a word, we can generally summon up a bunch of connotations from our experiences and the messages we’ve imbibed from our culture. If I try this with a random word generator and get ‘chat,’ I think, ‘room, little, office, experience of the words ‘wanting a chat’ preceeding a lecture that I will squirm through and not dare speak up in.’ (I think this means that I never caught on to using the word ‘chat’ when talking about ringing someone up to talk…)

This gets really important when the words we use impact on people. Words and the way we use them are really influential when it comes to the way we think, especially as we are growing up and learning how to weave those words into expression. We learn them through communication and connotations, which means that the things we associate with a word will forever have an impact on how we perceive what that word is attached to. I had a slight negative reaction with ‘chat’ because it appears I’ve mostly come across it as a prelude to earnest conversation directed at me that I felt very uncomfortable being a part of. That’s what I associate it with; squirming in my seat and feeling silenced.

So what happens when people-words get bad connotations? Those connotations generalise to the people concerned, and negative, prejudiced attitudes creep under the carpet of people’s minds. Also impacted by negative presentations and cultural messages, these negative attitudes are generally at the root of discrimination. Where inequality is legislated, it comes from the underlying prejudices of the people who created the legislation, the people who passed it, the people who elected them and so on. Where inequality is tolerated, that comes from discriminatory behaviour striking a chord with those same underlying prejudices. Language, presentations, culture – they’re important. There is other stuff to fight for, big stuff, solid stuff – but these underlying currents are where they come from. When the big stuff gets fixed, it’s unlikely to stay fixed until the culture changes, as the underlying attitudes find new ways to mess the marginalised up or push the big stuff back to its original position.

It’s very uncomfortable to see people-words get bad connotations, and yet it happens all the time. ‘You throw like a girl,’ makes ‘girl’ the object of contempt, something to be avoided, something lesser. And negative attitudes towards women and girls and those perceived as such are reinforced. I… may be overstepping myself here, since I’m white, but ‘acting black’ troubles me since I’ve generally seen it used against people who act in a way seen as negative – thus enforcing racism. ‘That’s gay,’ one of my own little hobby-horses, associates gayness with something pathetic, contemptible, useless, bad – thus enforcing heterosexism. Slurs work this way. Longer messages, such as the many that enforce rape culture, work this way.

And the worst thing is, it looks like nothing. It’s hard to correct, because you’re seen as being pedantic and petty-minded. And to be honest, merely, ‘don’t say that word’ is unlikely to work. We need to examine the reasons why we’re saying what we’re saying, and the message that sends out, and consciously work on changing it. It’s definitely important to salvage the stuff floating out of reach, issues that have a concrete impact on our quality of life, but one can’t ignore the little eddies and swirls that show the current beneath the surface, the current that could eventually tear the solid stuff out of our reach.

As mentioned in the previous post, I have been looking for non-ableist alternatives for words following the pattern of homophobia, transphobia etc. The ableism inherant in appropriating the word ‘phobia’ is a discussion that I have seen a lot of on Tumblr, and I can also see that getting rid of it would remove the common defence ‘I’m not scared of them.’ I will continue to use words in this pattern as tags until alternatives – not necessarily mine – become widespread in the anti-kyriarchy movement, but in posts I will be using the following alternatives unless others become more widely used and accepted;

Misohomy – homophobia (I prefer to maintain a distinction between the elevating of heterosexuality and the denigrating of homosexuality, hence not using the term heterosexism instead of homophobia). I may also use misahetery (mis=hatred, a=non, hetery=adaptation of hetero) for the hatred of non-heterosexuals, not to replace a -phobia word but to try to avoid monosexism.

Transhatred – transphobia (again, I’d prefer to maintain a distinction between this and cissexism).

Misoxeny – xenophobia.

I will continue to write other -phobia endings in long form, such as hatred of Islam/Muslims for Islamophobia, since I do not feel it is right for me, as a non-member of these groups, to coin terminology for them. I was unsure even about coining misoxeny.

These words are merely what I prefer to use, and do not represent me attempting to force them on others or create a more-progressive-than-thou dialogue, which is not productive. I will probably be linking this post a lot when I use the words, simply for understanding’s sake.

Why aren’t kids taking language GCSEs? Panic, panic! And most of the people I’ve read stuff by about the issue don’t seem to have been in a languages classroom for years.

I didn’t do any languages bar foundation Welsh to GCSE, so I guess I can’t talk much either. But I did do French to year nine, and quit with relief. Why? It was boring and felt useless.

Doing all the languages I’ve done in school has involved learning sentences by rote and constructing stilted conversations on paper that we then learned by rote and recited. We got fun little booklets in Welsh with lots of zany cartoons and ‘sentence starters’ and ‘insert-your-name-here’ example paragraphs. In French it was much the same, but without the zany little booklets and with zany little textbooks that were more of the same. We were discouraged from using language not from the zany little books.

We didn’t know how to construct a sentence, just how to substitute words into it. We didn’t know how to vary the wording of what we were saying or understand someone else. We didn’t know how to cope with unscripted conversation. We didn’t know how to alter tenses (at least not until a week before the Welsh exam or something ridiculous like that, and even then it was sketchy).

That’s not learning a language. Learning a language is learning vocabulary, how to fit that vocabulary together, how to talk, how to get your point across, how to follow unfamiliar texts and speech, how to get an accent that native speakers understand.

My mother can remember a time when you did your courses, you wrote essays in the language, you read works in the language, you talked in the language, and then you went into your oral exam with no idea what the examiner was going to say to you. It may not have been perfect, but when, as part of her O level course, she went to France, she could speak French well enough to get by with her host family. That’s learning a language.

If I tried to have a conversation in Welsh, having passed (just!) a Welsh as a second language GCSE, I would fail unless the person I was talking to by some miracle used the same wording as my Welsh exams and teacher. That’s not going to happen. Ever. My Welsh teacher once asked me, as a continuation of a scripted conversation about a musician I’m fond of, whether he was young or old. I didn’t even know what she was saying. I’d never encountered the words before, and certainly not in that wording.

That’s not being able to speak a language, even as a second language. I’m not claiming to be able to.

From what I’ve heard from friends who’ve done them, GCSE Spanish, French and German were exactly like that. It’s just not learning a language. No wonder uptake rates are going down.

So the answer? Teach how to speak, write, read and understand the language. Not ‘certain parts of the language.’ And that, my friends, in today’s exam-outcome focussed environment, is something the exam boards could change.