By Staff Writer Carina Goebelbecker

How can words, language, grammar, and narrative be used in the fight for social justice? The Columbia University Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the HumanitiesLanguage Pedagogy and Social Justice virtual event on May 11th explored the previous question. The roundtable discussion highlighted perspectives from language educators, featuring: moderator David Borgonjon (Public Humanities Fellow and PhD Candidate in EALAC, Columbia University) Maya Krinsky (Associate Director of Multilingual Education, Rhode Island School of Design), João Nemi Neto (Senior Lecturer in LAIC, Columbia University), Karim ElHaies (Worker-Owner, Algarabía Language Co-op), Aldo Ulisses Reséndiz Ramírez (Worker-Owner, Algarabía Language Co-op), and Pamela Rose (Mandarin Educator). 

Each panel member reflected on their own teaching practice and how language pedagogy can be taught with a focus on social justice. Social justice themes and conversations are typically labeled as “advanced” in the language classroom. However, these topics are present within each unit of study, and denying this fact can perpetuate harm and fuel stereotypes. João Nemi Neto outlined the distinction between grammatical gender and social gender in romance languages. Grammatical gender (referring to an object or a place with a masculine or feminine gender) can be corrected in a classroom while judging a social gender (how a person identifies in relation to their gender, including but not limited to gender pronouns) is inappropriate, for it is “not [the instructor’s] job to correct any person’s gender or identity.” He posed the question, “if we allow grammatical gender to evolve, why is social gender so dangerous?” Gendered terminology in the language classroom can either be used as a tool for affirmation or destruction, for as Nemi Neto stated, “language is an important space of recognition of identity.”

Maya Krinsky stated that “language is a category for social justice … students talk about their own experience through language.” Freedom of expression and language use are key elements of human rights. Expression of experience can be done through spoken language or art, a means of sharing a story creatively. Krinsky reflected that “so much of what we teach [as language and arts educators] is the ability to perform language.” Art is a medium of communication, a way to exhibit social justice messages and conversations.

Karim ElHaies expanded on the notion of art as a tool for social justice, mentioning the power of film and group discussion. ElHaies runs an Arabic film club as part of his language instruction, a means of teaching through association. The class watches a film in Arabic every week and the lessons revolve around discussions about the film. Through these activities, vocabulary and themes used in the film are taught and reflected upon. This method of teaching brings language and social justice themes in tandem, making space for critical thinking and community building through engagement with fellow students. 

Aldo Ulisses Reséndiz Ramírez also emphasized the importance of community in the classroom. They mentioned how important it is to feel connected to your peers, caring for them beyond their participation in class. As an organizer, they use their teaching to give their students tools to help create change in their communities, whether that is practicing role plays for knocking on their neighbor’s doors or conversational tools to communicate with people in their community. Pamela Rose echoed the importance of giving educators the “tools and knowledge” to bring themes of social justice into the classroom, for the classroom is a political space where instructors are in positions of power to create change. 

Language is constantly evolving, it is “organic, not static” as Rose noted. Language instruction and education can be used as an advocacy tool for human rights promotion. Classrooms need to be designed so that every person is seen and gets the chance to be heard. As João Nemi Neto stated, “everything we say has the power to affect somebody. To hurt or help somebody. And sometimes at the same time.” With language comes power- the power to share our thoughts and experiences, adding voice to the fight for social justice. Actions paired with words (in their many languages, oral and visual mediums) can catalyze uproarious change. 


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