Spotlight December 2019: 'Race, Language and Belonging: How Just is our Listening?'

A recent talk by University of Toronto scholar Vijay Ramjattan delves into the field of raciolinguistics, which examines how language is used to construct race and how ideas of race influence language and language use, especially in relation to racialized subjects. Scholars Nelson Flores (University of Pennsylvania) and Jonathan Rosa (Stanford University) coined the term “raciolinguistic ideologies” to explain how non-white students, despite a high level of English-language competence, can come to be seen as linguistically deficient. These ideologies “produce racialized speaking subjects who are constructed as linguistically deviant even when engaging in linguistic practices positioned as normative or innovative when produced by privileged white subjects.”

RamjattanRamjattan’s talk, based on research carried out among English language instructors in Canada, looked specifically at how raciolinguistics can illuminate sites of work. He found that students and employers, acting as “white listening subjects,” often downgrade the linguistic competence and clarity of non-white instructors, even when the latter have English as their mother tongue and/or speak with a Canadian accent. A white instructor from the British Isles, on the other hand, may be evaluated as more competent despite speaking with a “foreign accent.” Ramjattan stressed that such evaluations do not always come from listeners who are white – they need only have adopted a “white perceiving” stance. He notes that “nativeness” continues to be a standard in the field of English-language teaching, and that this status is often a proxy for whiteness. Ramjattan concludes that fighting against raciolinguistic ideologies “is not about changing individual hearts and minds, but rather dismantling the systems of white supremacy that create the white perceiving subject in the first place.”

Lionheart movie posterA recent book by Maya Angela Smith, Senegal Abroad: Linguistic Borders, Racial Formations, and Diasporic Imaginaries, applies the ideas of raciolinguistics to a transnational context. Smith conducted sociolinguistic research on Senegalese migrants living in Paris, Rome and New York, examining how they navigate the experience of “speaking while Black.” She documents the impact of race on how these migrants’ skills in French, Italian and English are perceived by local residents, and notes that “their racial identities often overshadow their language abilities.” Raciolinguistics might also shed some light on Hollywood’s recent rejection of the Nigerian film “Lionheart,” a candidate for Best International Feature Film, because too much of the script is in English. IndieWire asks and then answers an important question: “Does the English in ‘Lionheart’ (in fact, a number of variants of that language, many of them unique to Nigeria) make the film any less Nigerian — any less ‘foreign’— to Hollywood? Of course not.” The Hollywood film industry seems baffled by the notion that Nigerians have taken what was once an imposed colonial language and made it their own, adapting English to express local styles and realities. Speaking English in Nigeria is not, in other words, a proxy for whiteness. IndieWire rightly notes that the film, “which is steeped in Nigeria’s Igbo culture, suggests not the assimilation of Nigerian media into Hollywood’s own idiom but rather the absorption of the English language by an African culture…”