EMU class adjusts to logistics of COVID-19, produces a powerful video project spotlighting the insidious threat of linguistic discrimination

By Geoff Larcom / EMU

YPSILANTI – Eric Acton, a professor of linguistics at Eastern Michigan University, and his class in African American Language put together a powerful class project even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic this past semester. The effort, in Acton’s words, shows “the intelligence, creativity, fortitude and compassion of our students.”

At the beginning of the semester, the students and Acton had planned to put together a workshop for other EMU students about the problems of linguistic discrimination (discrimination on the basis of one’s language/dialect) and the value of linguistic diversity. Then came the COVID-19 crisis, which meant no opportunity to host an in-person workshop.

“However, we instead pulled together and developed a rich asynchronous workshop,” Acton says now. “For what would have been a live, slide-based presentation, students recorded themselves presenting their portion of the slides, which I then compiled into a single presentation with interactive questions. The students also took footage from interviews they had conducted on campus earlier in the semester and created a very powerful video on language and diversity at EMU.

“Even in the face of the pandemic, every single student in the class made a crucial contribution to the project — incorporating their diverse perspectives and insights — and they conveyed our message immeasurably better than I could have on my own.”

The interactive workshop focuses on linguistic discrimination on the basis of a person’s dialect, a pernicious and often insidious condition that still runs throughout our society. In discussing “the last back door to discrimination,” students illustrated the importance and value of linguistic diversity, and noted what positive steps could be taken. If you’d like to view the workshop presentation or the language and diversity video, you can email Action at eacton1@emich.edu.

Among the insights shared in the workshop:

• One person’s standard English is another person’s broken English. Think about how a highly educated Michigander whose speech includes American vocabulary and pronunciation might be perceived in a London classroom teaching in British English.

• When flourishes in dialect or accent are mocked or called out in class or in discussions with family or friends, it can make people hesitant to further express themselves.

• Dialects are just varieties of a language. Every one of us speaks a dialect, and everyone has an accent. Example: Whether one uses “pop” or “soda” to label Dr. Pepper or other flavored, carbonated beverages.

• Dialects are not broken or sloppy versions of a language.

• African American English is not just slang. Like any dialect, it is highly complex and systematic.

• What can we do to cut through such discrimination? We can debunk dialect-based stereotypes and push back against prejudice. We can encourage those who speak differently from us to participate and speak. And never count someone out because of their dialect.

• We can also empower people with linguistic versatility. We can teach standard English as one basic way to communicate, but make it clear that all language varieties are equally valid and valued.

• Above all, celebrate linguistic diversity.

Acton, who came to Eastern in 2014 and earned his doctorate at Stanford, expressed his deep satisfaction with the students’ efforts, summing up the thrust of the presentations thusly: “I’m grateful for the variety that we see in human languages, and for the texture and the personality and the beauty it brings to our human experience.”

Along that line, want a fun example to take with you?

Consider the all-time music hit by McFadden and Whitehead, entitled “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now.” This is surely a catchier way to express this idea than saying, “There isn’t any stopping us now.”

About Eastern Michigan University

Founded in 1849, Eastern is the second oldest public university in Michigan. It currently serves nearly 18,000 students pursuing undergraduate, graduate, specialist, doctoral and certificate degrees in the arts, sciences and professions. In all, more than 300 majors, minors and concentrations are delivered through the University’s Colleges of Arts and Sciences; Business; Education; Engineering and Technology; Health and Human Services; and, its graduate school. EMU is regularly recognized by national publications for its excellence, diversity, and commitment to applied education. For more information about Eastern Michigan University, visit the University’s website.