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Thursday, May 2, 2013

"Political Correctness in the English-Language Classroom"

From my article published in the proceedings of our institute's March conference, "Образование. Язык. Наука. Культура"--

. . . Accuracy is in fact the first goal of the “politically correct” classroom. When I advise students to use categories, pronouns, and titles relating to race and sex correctly, I do so not out of any fear that some linguistic mafia (apology to Italians!) will hunt us down for our every mistake. The blunt truth is that English has changed—and if our students’ English usage doesn’t reflect these changes, their credibility as actors on the global stage will be reduced.

It’s not that I fear my students will give offense by using out-of-date terms for racial groups (for example); almost everyone understands that non-native speakers are at a disadvantage, and allowances are therefore made. (Beyond that, almost any error can be neutralized by a sincere apology.) The value of inclusive speech is not so much in avoiding offense as in avoiding distraction. When my student uses a wrong or obsolete term, the hearer will almost certainly stop to wonder whether the speaker really is not aware that this term hasn’t been used among educated people since the 1960’s.

Here it may be useful to define a couple of terms. Inclusive language is usage that avoids making social distinctions that are misleading, biased, or insulting. In spiritual terms, inclusive language is a form of linguistic hospitality, signaling that the person, group, profession, or social situation referred to by the speaker is seen as wholly human, not as some lesser object. Political correctness is a label that is (often humorously or ironically) applied to this humane concern to use inclusive language. Critics of political correctness sometimes imply that inclusive terms are circumlocutions or euphemisms, but this is not true. Inclusive terms are more accurate in two ways: first, they neutralize historical or cultural disadvantages that obscure human value and equality; secondly, they reflect what people being referred to actually want to be called. I call this the “Berdy standard” after Michele A. Berdy’s important article, “Bias-Free and Inclusive English” [Berdy 2004; see link in sidebar at right].

Correspondingly, we teachers want to be accurate for two distinct, if related, reasons. First of all, we want our students to be technically correct, technically proficient. Second, as David Smith and Barbara Carvill emphasized in their wonderful book The Gift of the Stranger, we want each student to be “a blessing as a stranger” when abroad, and to practice “hospitality to the stranger” when at home [Smith and Carvill 2000]. This goes beyond proficiency to the very heart of cross-cultural communication: a recognition of our common humanity.

In practical terms, what are the classroom situations where we come face to face with issues of political correctness and inclusive language? Alex Case, in his useful overview “Politically Correct Language in the EFL Classroom” [Case n.d.], provides a convenient list of awkward “teachable moments”:
  • They [the students] didn’t know that it [an error] was politically incorrect
  • It is not politically incorrect in their language
  • The word or expression has become politically incorrect since they learnt it
  • What they said was a slight mistranslation
  • The place where they got the word from, e.g. an electronic dictionary, doesn’t have information on connotations
  • They didn’t learn that it was not PC when they learnt the word.
  • They learnt it from a text that was old, very informal (e.g. rap), or deliberately politically incorrect (e.g. a stand-up comedian)
Let’s take some examples.

The word “Negro” fits several categories: “not politically incorrect in their language” (i.e., “негр”, “негритянский”); possibly “a text that was old”; and possibly “they didn’t know it wasn’t PC when they learned it.” Berdy’s standard provides the antidote: we accurately and professionally teach what English-speaking black people actually prefer to be called. We expect English-speaking students of Russian to learn the difference between “русский” and “российский”; it is no less reasonable for us to teach the difference between the historical “Negro” and the contemporary “black” or “African American.”

[Update: See also this interview with Margo Jefferson, author of Negroland.]

V.D. Arakin, whose books play a central role for English instruction in our Institute, provides a beautifully nuanced and elegant foundation for each student. But here again we need to provide an update. When, for example, Arakin provides such uncorrected samples as “What does the reader bring to the study of his first literary work in a foreign language?” [Arakin 2000: 58], we must tell our students that they should no longer rely on the old universal masculine (“his”). While it is quite true that pockets of resistance remain—authors who insist on the inclusive masculine—our students should be aware that, whether we like it or not, to many if not most of their English-speaking peers, this usage will sound faintly odd at best, ignorant at worst.

Here the antidote is not to prescribe clumsy patches such as “he/she” and “him/her” but, as in so many other cases of awkward or ambiguous constructions, simply to learn to rewrite our way around the problem: “What do readers bring to the study of their first literary work in a foreign language?” This useful skill happens to be the same skill that is needed in so many other situations, such as the ever-popular ambiguous antecedent or the run-on sentence.

Far from being a laughable form of trivial fastidiousness, “political correctness” in its linguistic application is very simply a concern for humane accuracy. Just as we want our students to reveal their facility with grammar and lexicology, we also want to equip them with an awareness of the changes brought about by almost five decades of inclusive language, so that their encounter with their international peers will lead to mutual respect and mutual blessings.

The full article, and the rest of the conference articles, can be found in this PDF-format book.

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