The Multiculturalism of Language

Divorce. Dinosaurs, Birthdays. Religion. Halloween. Christmas. Television. These are a few of the 50-plus words and references the New York City Department of Education is hoping to ban from the city’s standardized tests.

What interests me about this topic is not the seemingly careful selection of words for inclusion/exclusion. Nay, I’m intrigued that we still hold firm to the belief that language is, can be, or should be, neutral. Maybe someone has identified a few “hot button” words that are potentially “more loaded” than others (debatable), but this idea, that somehow language and word choice is ever truly decontextualized (or even should be) is not just silly, it’s dangerous.

In this world of high-stakes testing, an ever diversifying population is expected to magically measure up to standardized notions of sameness. Those who don’t are deemed failures.

Actually, conversations like this – that some words and concepts are potentially offensive, triggering – should help us to see that standardized tests can scarcely measure a neutral or objective standard. The standards are always someone’s standards. What is assumed common is always someone’s view of what’s common. This means that for someone else (often people of lower socioeconomic status or people of color), these concepts, ideas, words, are NOT standard.  The truth is, we each embody many intersections. Our language choices, including “neutral” words like family, reflect those intersections.

This discussion shows that testing (and schooling) cannot really be “culture blind,” despite the fact that the very idea of standardizing rests on this premise.

Read Brian Vitagliano’s article in full, here.

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