Reframing Our Language Experience (ROLE): A consortium of scholars working against essentialist notions of language in policy and practice, within academia and beyond
This cross-institutional transdisciplinary group seeks to work towards concrete policy changes in research by (a) bringing together evidence that taking essentialist approaches to language enacts harm, (b) supporting each other to advocate for and implement policy changes across institutional and disciplinary spaces, and (c) demonstrating scholarly consensus within linguistics and language research.
We want to work towards changing assumptions about language and identity by changing how these assumptions are encoded in institutional policies and practices.
Following (Rickford & King, 2016, Charity Hudley et al. 2020 and also), we seek to focus our scholarly energies on enacting changes in the spaces where we have influence, and expanding our reach. Inspired by the cross-institutional approach of ManyBabies, we find strength in collaboration, and know that a multi-pronged approach is necessary to enact structural and cultural change. Along with producing works which can be categorized as scholarly in a traditional manner, this group seeks to create persuasive policy writings and support collaborators who are trying to make change in their own disciplinary and institutional spaces.
The ROLE collective was established by Dr. Savithry Namboodiripad and Dr. Ethan Kutlu in 2022.
Step 1: Check our language
In research contexts, it is especially important to treat labels for socially constructed categories with care. These constructs are often simplifications which do not align with the complexity of social life. This does not mean we should avoid labels. It simply means that we should take the time to understand the limitations of these labels, and interrogate the validity of the constructs we use (cf. Cikara et al. 2022). ‘native speaker/signer’ is not an internally valid, “natural” category (Cheng et al. 2022). Rather, it is a socially constructed label which is a proxy for many other factors (Cheng et al. 2021). Using this label in an uninterrogated manner is not only exclusionary, it is often inaccurate. What is the role of this construct in our research questions or how we are describing the language use or experience of our participants, students, and colleagues?
Step 2: Check our ideologies
The ‘native speaker’ concept as it is used today is heavily intertwined with other social categories like race (Gerald 2020), ethnicity (Kutlu 2020), nationality/citizenship (Khan 2022), disability (Namboodiripad & Henner 2022), and gender (Tripp & Munson 2021). Further, the roots of this term can be found in nationalism and essentialist ideas of language and identity (Hackert 2012). Taken together, centering “nativeness” in academic spaces contributes to the overrepresentation of white, cis, heterosexual, Western, and Anglo-centric perspectives. Is evoking these connotations part of our research goals or how we want to construct our academic spaces?
Step 3: Check our assumptions
‘nativeness’ is tied in with identity and belonging (and all of the inequities which go into how belonging is determined, see also Bucholtz 2003), as well as language access (Costello et al. 2008), which influenced by macro-level factors such as nationalism, xenophobia, colonialism, and globalization. Being a ‘native speaker/signer’ of a language is never a choice. One cannot choose which languages one will be exposed to upon birth. One cannot always choose which languages one can continue to use. Therefore, what is the value of prioritizing and valorizing ‘nativeness’ in academic spaces, when, by it is by its nature an unattainable status?
Step 4: Ask the right questions in our research practice
We have the power to change norms by changing our research practices.
We can ask:
Are the connotations invoked by ‘native speaker/signer’ relevant to my research questions?
Am I asking about language experience, identity, or ideologies of nativeness? Is there a more specific alternative to ‘native speaker/signer’ which might better capture my goals?
Which communities are excluded by my use of this term? Is this my intent?
Who is my research for? How am I pushing against the negative ideologies surrounding communities whose language practices and use are stigmatized (Weissler et al. in press)?
Step 5: Ask the right questions in our academic communities
We have the power to change norms by changing our assessment practices.
A part of our scholarly role is to review manuscripts, grants, and conference abstracts, as well as to write recommendations for our students/collaborators as relevant. The concept of ‘nativeness’ can come up in our assessments of research and of the language use of our students and colleagues.
We can ask:
1) Does my department or (graduate) school ask about the language of applicants using essentialist terms like ‘native speaker/signer’ as benchmarks? (e.g., putting “native” at the top end of language proficiency scales, or asking recommenders to comment on an applicant’s English “if they are not a native speaker”)
2) Is this term used as a benchmark of academic writing in conferences or journals I work with or review for? Is it truly necessary to ask scholars to have a “native speaker” read over their writing?
3) As a recommender, reviewer, or editor, what steps can I take to change how we ask about academic language in professional spaces?
4) Is it truly necessary to ask for “native controls” (cf. Rothman et al. 2022, Clancy & Davis 2019, Roberts 2022)?