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Collegiate or colloquial: Inaccessible language in higher education

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inaccessible language

“The succinctness of this answer had not ought to dissuade one from believing that it projects intellect or sophistication,” Maxwell Arnold, a random white dude and Quora user said on Quora. “Though in the absence of ideas or information, a sentence such as this serves no actual purpose - and as such it is neither fancy nor smart.” 

Think of language as infrastructure: roads, sidewalks (cue that song by Olivia Rodrigo). Like red lights, stop signs, and white paint in an intersection, it is simply a means of communication. But what happens when words make dead ends instead of highways?

As college students, we understand that whole universes –– from classrooms to casual conversations and Socratic breakout rooms to Canvas discussion threads –– often revolve around that one smart-sounding individual who makes no practical sense. 

Yes, I said it. You know who you are, and admit it: You have no friends, because your favorite pastime is saying the word “scintillating” even though you are not, in fact, scintillating. You just want to seem brilliant.

Words are free to everyone, but they can be costlier for some because language has the power to create a culture of exclusion. Advanced terms or vocabulary can make a simple subject infinitely more complicated, and this is particularly true for those whom English is not their first language.

Esha Jain, a student at the UW who comes from an immigrant family, has witnessed this phenomenon in classes firsthand

“I don’t think that people who use pretentious language mean to isolate others — there is pressure in academia to speak more intelligently — but academics using big words to separate themselves from the general population can actually be pretty counterproductive to our growth as a society, ” Jain said. 

Everyone, of course, is capable of learning a new language. But specifically, the problem occurs when obscure terms are used solely for the sake of “sounding smart” without explaining what those terms actually mean. 

Some words can become roadblocks, because instead of streamlining learning, students are forced to first search for definitions before they can delve into the sentence’s complete meaning. Why say “esoteric” when you could just say, “I’m part of this super duper exclusive club, bro.” 

To be clear, using “advanced terms” in a “sophisticated manner” is not inherently bad or wrong. 

“[Language] assimilation is not wrong either — a society where everyone speaks one language can help standardize a lot, reducing the costs of communication,” Jain said. “This is good. It’s good we can communicate with one another. It’s just about recognizing adversity for the people who are working to assimilate.” 

An example of “inaccessible language” could also include politicized language or slang that people are expected to automatically understand, when really there may be multiple definitions, complicated histories, and dual meanings behind a single word, depending on culture or region

We often mistakenly conflate range of vocabulary with being more educated, when in fact, vocabulary is more about social location and proximity to language than it is about intelligence. 

But there is also something about English specifically that concerns me. As a general trend, people learning English as a second language are told to speak better if they aren’t perceived as fluent enough. They have to constantly grapple with this feeling of being outsiders in an English-speaking world.

Language accessibility isn’t just about not understanding a certain word or two, and the issue is much bigger than a single person. It is part of a complicated history entrenched in Eurocentrism and the centering of the English language, written by and for –– usually white and non-immigrant –– people who have had access to English-based education. 

“It's so normalized for people around the world to be learning English so that they can interact with native English speakers,” Jain said. “I feel as though we need to recognize the advantages that [native English speakers] have due to the way that the system is formed.”

Ironically, this article may have also been a little difficult to understand for some. Call me hypocritical, but maybe I am that one student who likes to seem smart sometimes and am evidence of the importance of this conversation being had.

Regardless, no matter who may participate in accessible language, the point is not to simplify language but instead to possess cultural awareness and be sensitive to the fact that language isn’t a one-way street –– it’s an intersection. The universe should not, in theory, revolve around an esoteric English. 

“I think that we all just need to remember that we are all humans, and we are all trying to grow together,” Jain said. “There should also be constructiveness in our approach to other people regardless of vocabulary.” 

Ultimately, words should elevate –– and sometimes that means getting your driver’s license for the sake of a passenger, so that we can all access, enjoy, and benefit from the ride.

Reach writer Sarah Pham at Twitter: @sarpham

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