In this episode, four airplanes (Herb, Holly, Hawk, and Hazel) and one helicopter (Harmony) are stuck inside due to stormy weather. When Hazel mispronounces “epitome”, they get into a discussion of other words they had mispronounced, such as Wyoming, Arkansas, espresso, and colonel. Herb, the oldest airplane, explains that “mispronunciation happens a lot with words and names from different languages”.
So far, this discussion is still pretty rooted in standard language ideologies, with correct ways to pronounce words based on separate, distinct languages. But what came next caught my attention!
“I guess the important thing”, she [Hazel] continued thoughtfully, “is to make sure that we can understand each other, it’s not a matter of pronouncing things wrong or right, it’s just whether we can understand what the other person is trying to communicate.”
“Yes,” said Holly, smiling back at Hazel, “because many people speak different languages, and they might be still learning the language that you’re speaking at the moment.”
Here, the episode shifts to highlighting the role of the listener. Emphasizing that (native speaking) listeners need to make an effort to understand learners reverses the usual assumption that it is entirely up to the learners to make their speech comprehensible.
The episode then goes on to critique the idea that there is one correct pronunciation, citing language contact and variation:
“Or,” said Herb, “we might not always know which languages’ rules to use to pronounce something. Especially if that word has come through several different languages over time, like Kansas and Arkansas did.”
“And,” added Harmony, “many languages have some words that’ break their own languages rules anyway.”
“Or maybe a person speaks the same language as you”, said Hawk, “but they speak with a different dialect.”
Next, the episode states that “everyone has different experiences with language”, which is a simpler way of stating one of my favorite phrases: our accents are the vocal reflections of our lived experiences.
“The point is,” said Herb, “we should never make fun of anyone for saying a word in a way we think isn’t correct. Everyone has different experiences with language.”
The episode reemphasizes that successful communication results from the effort of all participants, not just the speaker:
“We should always be kind and patient with others, and with ourselves. If there’s a communication problem, there is more than one way to be articulate.”
At this point, my ears perked up again, as “articulate” is often a compliment rooted in discrimination. When people say “you are so articulate,” it often carries a subtext (sometimes also spoken out loud!) of “and I didn’t expect this because you are Black/a second language speaker/a young woman/any other social category I assume can’t use language well”. So where does Ahway Island go with this?
“What does articulate mean?”, asked Holly curiously.
“I think it means to be able to explain what you’re thinking in a clear way,” said Hazel
“Yes, that’s right,” Herb nodded. “That’s why I say there’s more than one way to be clear, or articulate, about what you want to say. So always do your best to try to understand others, and to understand that language is just a tool.”
In my wildest dreams, this discussion would also have included information about how we make assumptions about being “articulate” based on social categories. However, I still like that it is contesting dominant language ideologies by explaining that there is more than one way to be articulate, and that understanding relies on the listener as well as the speaker.
The episode concludes with a discussion of when language is funny:
“Yes,” said Hazel hesitantly, “but sometimes I think language can be really funny.”
Herb began to laugh. “Oh yes, language can be very funny sometimes. But we should always laugh at language itself, and not at people or airplanes.”
The airplanes all nodded and agreed.
This is good advice, but it also misses the fact that language isn’t really separable form people (and in this world, airplanes). Yes, there are times we can probably laugh at language (why is English spelling so weird!) without laughing at people (also, let’s not forget English speakers are pretty powerful). Other times, this will be much harder—laughing at the “funny” pronunciation of a marginalized group is just using language to reinforce social hierarchies.
Overall though, I’m happy to finally report on a rare podcast episode that does question dominant language ideologies! Language ideologies in the wild is an ongoing series, so if you’ve come across any you’d like me to discuss, feel free to send them my way!