According to Julie Washington, the only thing more powerful than language is access to language itself.
Washington, professor and chair of the Department of Communications Sciences and Disorders at Georgia State University, gave her lecture “The Power of the Spoken Word” at 10:45 a.m. Wednesday, July 24 in the Amphitheater, continuing Week Five, “The Life of the Spoken Word.”
Language is a “rule-governed and symbol system,” where words are put together to make meaning and represent actions, objects and ideas. It’s also an innate, human skill.
“Language is learned in speech communities the way we use it, but we come into the world wired to use language,” said Washington, who specializes in understanding cultural dialect use in young African American children, with an emphasis on language assessment, literacy attainment and academic performance. “Unlike reading, which is a learned skill and something that is imposed on the brain, most children come into the world wired to use language.”
Every language has dialects, or subsystems of a particular language. For example, American English has dialects such as Appalachian English, Southern English and Midwestern English.
More than anything, language is power.
“When you have the ability to communicate and use language well, it helps you to propel yourself forward — in your career, in your life, in education,” Washington said. “The ability to communicate to others in a way that many people can understand is powerful.”
Language is powerful, but only with access. In the case of children growing up in poverty, Washington said access is their main limitation.
“It’s not about just not having any language at all, but having a language system that allows you to have access to education, to have access to jobs, to have access to a larger, more prosperous society,” she said.
But what happens when the language of one’s community impedes their access? Washington said this question characterizes the way language affects literacy, particularly with African American children who grow up in poverty. Washington was introduced to the concept as a faculty member at the University of Michigan, when she was asked to go into the local school district and discuss ways to close the achievement gap between minorities and their white and Asian counterparts. There she saw the overrepresentation of African Americans in special education programs.
“Many of those kids were qualified as speech and language impaired, so I knew whatever was going on, we were contributing to the problem,” she said.
Washington said the biggest problem facing those “speech and language impaired” students was that their schools were failing to teach the fundamentals of reading by the time they reached third grade.
“That’s how I got interested in reading and the relationship between reading and language, how language propels reading, how important reading is for language and how important language is for reading,” she said.
The majority of African American fourth graders — 80% — read at a basic level or below. Only 18% are considered proficient readers, but proficient only means they can read at grade-level. Those statistics are now being considered a “high impact public health concern.”
“In almost everything that you do, it requires you to be able to read and write,” Washington said. “The inability to do so really hampers individuals and puts a ceiling on the success that they can have. At this point, the failure with children is less about skills and abilities or achievement, and more about access.”
As a result of limited access, the problem is also being referred to as a “health disparity,” “preventable differences in the burden of disease, injury, violence, or opportunities to achieve optimal health that are experienced by socially disadvantaged populations.” Washington said the most important word in that definition is “preventable.”
“There are some things that are malleable and preventable that we can do something about, and then there are things that we can’t — this is not one of those things that we can’t do something about,” Washington said.
In one of the poorest communities in Atlanta, the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, home of the Atlanta Falcons, was built in 2018. As a way to provide employment opportunities in the area, the stadium’s development team decided to hire construction workers directly from the community. One of the hiring requirements was reading at a third-grade level. What percentage of applicants were able to read at that level? Zero.
“When you think about the reading problems in this country, many of us who are well-educated are reading at high levels, but we’re in a rarefied group in the United States,” she said.
In Washington’s research, she found that a lot of students’ literacy progress halted between second and third grade, the years where students are supposed to learn to switch from learning to read, to reading to learn.
“So many students, even if they have mastered the basic, foundational components of reading, are not able to put those things together to create meaning,” she said. “Unless you can extract meaning from what you read, you are not a reader.”
To understand the role of language in health disparities, Washington studied African American English. In the past, the dialect was referred to as black English, Nonstandard Negro English and Ebonics. Washington mentioned the controversial “Ebonics” term to acknowledge that she is talking about the same system, just not in the same way.
“I’m not talking about all of the political and social baggage that is attached to this system,” she said. “That has consequences for kids. It has real consequences.”
Dialects are divided by low prestige — dialects with a negative connotation — and high prestige — dialects with a positive connotation. According to Washington, British English is the highest prestige dialect.
“When you hear somebody with a British accent, who is using British English, you think they’re high class, they’re related to the Queen and they’re educated and smart,” she said.
In the United States, Bostonian English is considered high prestige and Southern English is considered low prestige.
“Speaking a low-prestige variety has consequences,” she said. “It has consequences for you in your life because you’re always trying to prove yourself, or because people automatically think these negative things about you and you may not be able to prove yourself.”
To avoid the negative effects of speaking low-prestige dialects, people learn to code-switch. Washington was introduced to code-switching while working on a literacy project where students had to retell stories after hearing it read aloud. Washington read Are you My Mother? — a children’s book where a baby bird goes on a journey trying to find his mother. Many times throughout the book, the bird asks “Are you my mother?” and characters reply “I am not your mother.” When the little girl retold the story, she said “Is you my mama?” and “I ain’t none a yo’ mama.” In witnessing her code-switch, Washington had an epiphany.
“I thought about how much work she had to do in order to retell that story,” Washington said. “She had to listen to it in a language system that wasn’t being used in her home, recode it, hang on to the sequence and the vocabulary and tell me the story again.”
The ability to code-switch based on the environment one is in is a powerful skill, but unfortunately, only two-thirds of children who need to learn the skill will acquire it in school. In Washington’s research, she found that if students don’t learn how to code-switch by third grade, they never will.
“The ability to code-switch is actually critical, but these high-dialect users are the kids we are focused on now,” she said. “This is not just that if you speak dialect, you will not be able to read; what we have learned is if you speak a lot of dialect, you’re going to struggle to read because you have so much work to do to get to the Are you my Mother? text.”
But if it has been proven that code-switching is critical for learning, why isn’t it taught in schools? Washington said that doesn’t work because teachers use contrasting oral and written languages to teach code-switching, and by the time a student is old enough to write, they are most likely “already failing at reading.”
A more concrete solution is to prioritize reading in schools — if one can read, they have access to text, which facilitates code-switching.
While teaching code-switching and reading are both important, Washington thinks too much emphasis is placed on changing the children, instead of the models they learn from.
“Our failure to teach them to read has contributed to the failure to learn to code-switch,” she said. “We have to be able to do both. One way to do that is to teach code-switching, the other way is to make sure teachers are actually using the language of the classroom.”
Washington said people also need to start respecting students’ home languages.
“The same is true for the school language; if we want kids to learn it, we have to recognize that valuing and respecting it impacts the way it is taught,” she said. “What we are trying to do with (home language) is eradicate it — stop that. If we were allowing it to be something else, then we might be able to bridge what kids currently know with what we want them to know.”
As she talks to more people about the problems facing low-income students, Washington said she has become increasingly frustrated with the narrow path ahead. Thus, she concluded her lecture with a call to action, hoping increased awareness will lead to a more hopeful future — a future with answers.
“We need some solutions to this; it’s a long-standing issue,” Washington said. “These kids have been having trouble with reading for as long as we have been measuring it. We are losing generations and generations of kids who aren’t learning to read and, therefore, don’t have access or a way to get out of the cycle that they’re in and aspire to something higher than that.”