Specialized Language and Jargonism within Higher Education and Academia: Further Consequences on Bilingualism and Multilingualism

By Mehrnaz Moghaddam

During my first year of PhD program (cultural anthropology), I hardly understood any of the discussions in depth. In my case, it was not because English is not my native language (only to some extent) but largely because I was a newcomer to the field of social sciences and humanities from a technical discipline. When I asked elementary and straightforward questions to make sense of the concepts within the limits of my intellect, I was offered complex and involuted responses that confused me even more. A sequence constituted of concepts that sounded smarter if accompanied by jargons. There were too many jargons to keep pace with. After two years of rigorous training, I learnt how to navigate my ears, brain, and tongue through seminars in higher education. I finally learnt the ‘jargonism’ apparatus within the fields of humanities and social science.

            However, soon after I realized that I had forgotten how to communicate with people outside of academia and my discipline. I could not explain my project that was about people to people. It became increasingly apparent when I started to teach a course to undergraduate students outside of social sciences and humanities. I teach introduction to anthropology and my students are mainly natural sciences and business majors. I found my students lost with the language that is supposed to unpack critical definitions such as culture, race, and gender; and that should be transparent to everyone. While the ethnographic examples help a lot, it is extremely difficult to simplify the materials (in this case, the anthropological concepts) in a way to be comprehensible for students whose field of study do not familiarize them with these notions on a regular basis. Being involved with this language for a semester, my students grasp the class materials. However, it is very unlikely that they could deploy them into their daily life.

            Now the question arises is: What are the social and political implications of this mode of knowledge production? Emphasizing on ramification of English as the dominant language, Robert Phillipson (1988) defines linguicism as “ideologies and structures which are used to legitimate, effectuate, and reproduce an unequal division of power and resources (both material and non-material) between groups which are in turn defined on the basis of language (i.e., the mother tongue)” (p. 339). He emphasizes on the ways in which linguistic ideologies are structured like racism as they enable the dominant language group to present “an idealized image stigmatizing the dominated group/language and rationalizing the relationship between the two, always to the advantage of the dominant group” (p. 341).

            Drawing upon Phillipson, I attempt to discuss that highly specialized academic language and ‘jargonism’ form a mode of knowledge production that becomes exclusionary to a group of people and control who can learn and how one can learn. Looking at it from the perspective of Pierre Bourdieu (1970), it reproduces social relations rather than accessible knowledge. Moreover, it reproduces a category/class of people who are isolated within specific spaces such as academia. It is particularly problematic and paradoxical within social sciences and humanities as these disciplines are premised to advocate and promote praxis, practice theories, and bring them on the ground, and present and transfer the knowledge to public. Majors such as anthropology, sociology, and history that study humans, society, and people’s life histories, paradoxically apply and reproduce a style of language and jargons that make it impossible for public to connect to and get involved with. Criticizing the exclusionary politics through an exclusionary means of communication is only contradictory. In so doing, we create an additional border around education rather than advocacy and promotion of accessible, public, and transnational knowledge.

Language as Border:

            Here, I look into two broad ways in which language forms a border for students based on my observations in my classes. Firstly, I examine the difficulties non-native English speakers face in classrooms. Then, I probe the further consequences of the intersection of ‘jargonism’ and English as the academic language in higher education.

            According to recent US census (2020) nearly 14% of the U.S. population was born in another country. According to The National Center for Educational Statistics, eight to ten percent of United States undergraduates are immigrants. Of these students, 46% came as children, 20% as adolescents, and 34% as adults (Arbeit, Staklis, & Horn, 2016). Moreover, based on Pew Research Center about 4.6% of students in US colleges are international students, of whom around 53% stay in US after graduation. For most of this population who are non-native English speakers, the academic English functions as the first border to enter higher education. For many keeping up with the standard English becomes a contestant struggle in the classroom. Many are excluded from class discussions and participation as are embarrassed not only of not fulfilling the standards for ‘proper English’ but also of their accents (August, 2018).

            As part of my Humanities Alliance fellowship, I observed linguistic classes such as ‘bilingualism,’ and ‘language and power’ at Hostos Community College (CUNY) in which most of the students are bilingual; some are non-native English speakers (migrants and international students), and some are second generation immigrants and mostly heritage speakers of other languages, mainly Spanish and French. As my own research focuses on the Middle East, I also teach ‘anthropology of the Middle East’ in other colleges in which many of my students are fluent or heritage speakers of Arabic and Farsi. Strikingly, while many of these students are fluent in different languages yet because they are learning professionally/academically in English – they learn the terminology of their majors and disciplines only in English. It is very common to see this when students are having a conversation in Spanish, Arabic, or Farsi with each other or with the instructors; they use English terms for most of the concepts and theories while making an academic point. What is apparent is that the higher education reproduces the English professional/educated category vs the everyday/ uneducated/ heritage speakers. In other words, English is constantly accredited as its colonial and hegemonic role in our class settings, and consequently higher education reinforces the linguistic power relation. Our students are encouraged to improve their English as an important asset for their future career while not encouraged to advance their mother-tongue or heritage languages in the same way. English is perceived and taught as to be the only language to be turned into exchange value for their future careers. In so doing, educational system reproduces embodied borders through which students learn and believe that the way to ‘success’ passes through proper English. Other languages are presumed as secondary if considered important at all but not improved to become a tool for further academic and intellectual dialogue.

How to Reform this Model?

            Beyond theory, from a pedagogical perspective, how can we -teachers- reorient this model? To answer this question, we need collective and collaborative contemplation and action. However, firstly, we need to change our perspective from deficit-based approach to asset-based approach. Instead of recognizing students as non-native English speakers, acknowledge them as bilinguals and multilinguals. Think about different ways in which students’ bilingualism and multilingusim can be encouraged, discerned as valuable set of skills, and can be put into practice in our class settings. In my classes, I urge students to use and cite sources in their native and other languages. I encourage them to write one of their papers, or assignments in other languages. Instructors don’t speak all the languages, of course. However, at CUNY, we come from many places and speak many languages. Creating a collaborative initiative, we can help each other to support our students in better ways.