When sociolinguistics speak of language and power, they refer to a large area of research into how people use language in ways that give certain people, groups, languages a higher status or more privilege than other people, groups and languages. As ESL teachers, we teach newcomers to Canada who bring with them a sense of power in society from the countries they come from, sometimes transferring those beliefs onto Canadian society and sometimes expecting different ways of interacting among people and groups. Not only is it helpful for us to ask ourselves whether our words and actions match up with our beliefs about language and power, but it is also advantageous to discuss such issues in class. Here are three themes that can serve as discussion starters:
The relationship between men and women
English has one form of address for men “Mr.” and three for women “Mrs., Miss, Ms.” The use of “Ms.” arose out of a desire to come up with a way to address women that did not require knowledge of or address marital status.
- Have students observed this phenomenon? How well do they perceive it has caught on?
- Is there a similar phenomenon in their language? How well did it catch on there?
- What might be some of the reasons behind the success or lack of success of these endeavors?
- Can they come up with other examples of language and gender?
Honor and respect in the workplace
How are language and power expressed in the workplace? Here forms of address provide another potential indicator. In some workplaces, everyone is addressed with their first name. In others, the boss is Mr. (or the female equivalent), but workers are addressed by each other and the boss, by first name. Does anyone still use Sir and Madam? Listen around you. You may hear it in the store (cashier to customer), with authorities (e.g., police constable) or in the boardroom (boss and clients).
- What clues do we have as to how to address others in the workplace?
- How is this done in their home country?
- How do Canadians perceive this has changed over time?
The status of English vs. other languages
Some people use the term lingua franca to refer to the use of a common language for business among speakers of different languages. Often this term is used to highlight the use of English in specific settings in countries where English normally isn’t spoken, such as hospitals in Quatar and computer software companies in Tokyo.
- Have students observed English used in specific settings in their own countries? What were those settings and why do they think English was used?
- What does this say about English and the relative power of other languages?
The above questions serve as a starting point for a class discussions. Enjoy discovered what you and your students know about language and power!