I saw something which shocked me a little last week, which, given my tendency towards the placid, is quite an achievement. The offending item was a website for students containing spoken examples of language for “guys about girls” and “girls about guys”. It was quite astonishing really, that a publicly available website for the benefit of learning English would include examples of language which appear to have originated in the less attractive corners of a men’s changing room. I wondered if the “girls on guys” section might be a nice balance, but no, girls linguistic needs when it comes to relationships are apparently centred around their need for a sensitive man.
Let’s not pretend, however, that these attitudes don’t exist out there. I’ve encountered plenty of students with similar or worse attitudes, not to mention the occasionally medieval mindset when it comes to race. Which begs a question, really: if we are “just” teachers of language, do we have a duty to explore the language which allows our students to express all their views, even if they are offensive or discriminatory? After all, “student led” is the order of the day, and we are on hand to teach students the language they need to fulfil their ambitions, live their lives, and if our students’ ambitions and needs are to be bigoted asshats, then who are we to argue?
I’m going to leave aside the easy answer to this: that as someone who teaches in a publicly funded college in the UK, I have a legal duty to promote equality and diversity. This is too glib, too lazy, and fails, as is so often the case with top-down arguments, to really explain anything properly. As an explanation, it’s barely better than “because I say so.” I have a legal duty, so what? It doesn’t necessarily make the problem go away. And anyway, there’s a much more interesting argument here.
At the root of it all is simply the notion that language is one of the primary carriers of culture and therefore social attitudes. It’s how we rage against the machine (and the dying of the light). It’s the key weapon in a politician’s armoury. And it’s the way we share our values and our ethics. Whether language is inherently discriminatory is a complex discussion, but whether or not language embodies social attitudes in and of itself, it is definitely the means of expression. Even if language is not in and of itself offensive, it can easily be weaponised to hurt.
This places responsibility on the users of that language, and on those who would teach that language. It’s not just how you say something, but what you say, and indeed why you say it. Many owners of bigoted views know that what they believe is not generally seen as acceptable, and know to moderate expressions of that view, and it is this side of things where language teachers come into it. We probably can’t change students attitudes or morals, but we can remind them that those attitudes are likely to cause censure in the wider language community. To learn a language is also to buy into the values of the people who use that language, which, even in a setting of English as International Language, is dominated by what we might loosely call liberal western ideologies.
I make no claim to know what these are, beyond my own instinctive reactions, and that, at the end of the day is all we really have to draw on. I am shocked by the discrimination inherent in those resources above (there are more, by the way: “Who would you take, Jessica Simpson or Liv Tyler?” and “I like obedient girls” particularly stood out for sheer awfulness) and as such would never consider allowing students to talk about others in those terms, regardless of what they wanted. While there are almost certainly pockets of male-dominated nastiness in every society and at every level of society, that doesn’t make it right by my standards, and by the standards of a public majority. At the core of all discourse around equality is simple respect, and “She needs to go on a diet” is entirely lacking in that.