"The whole movement of life is learning" (Krishnamurti). "To be an act of knowing, then, the adult literacy process must engage the learners in the constant problematizing of their existential situations" (Freire). "Once you learn to read, you will be forever free" (Douglass). "I can learn anything I have the desire to learn" (White, S.G.).

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Language Is Power

Looking at “literacy, culture, membership” in the generative words list, there is one sentence flashing into my mind: “Language Is Power.” It is the slogan of the most influential language training school in China, where I was a student, and then a teacher.

Language is a big part of literacy both in daily life and working communities. As mentioned in Belfiore’s work, it is important to use the right language at the right situation for the right purpose. To some extent, being able to do this is a symbol of power, the power one needs to maintain and even promote his position in a certain community. Having the power of language, one will be recognized as a member of the group by others as well as himself. In the contrary, the lack of the power will hurt the sense of belonging.

As a non-native speaker of English in the United States, the English proficiency is my power to survive in this foreign land . The language enables me to find an apartment, communicate with my neighbors and do grocery shopping by myself. I go to an American church, talk with others, make new friends and feel belonged to the group. Without the language, I would have to rely on someone else to fulfill these basic tasks. Therefore, the language also contributes to my self-confidence and sense of independence. It helps satisfies my basic needs as a human being and allows me to pursue higher goals.

As language is always an embodiment of the culture behind it, the English competence serves as a path leading to the marvelous western culture. Being able to read in English, I enjoy the access privilege to great thoughts and entertainment that are originally generated in English. One may argue that those who do not speak English may also appreciate them via translation. However, there are so many cultural elements that are untranslatable. They just lose the meaning when striped from the original language and cultural background. That is why the greatest poems of Tang Dynasty make no sense when translated in English. Also, translations bear the personal bias of the translator inevitably. The real meaning of the original work, both the denotation and connotation, will be modified by the translator’s personal ideas with or without intention. Therefore, when one reads translated version, he is highly vulnerable of receiving wrong messages, and being misled and manipulated. Being able to read the original version protects me from these risks and entitles me with the uncolored cultural perspective and a boarder freedom of mind.

Besides English in general, the specific vocabularies and phrases I learned at the Writing Center stand as vivid examples of how literacy in work enhances the sense of belonging and membership of the group. Before working at the Writing Center, I had little professional training in academic English writing. I didn’t have the language to talk about writing and I didn’t consider myself as someone who could help others with their writing. During the time working there, I learned the language in this field, such as global revision, local revision, claim, evidence, reasoning, structure, organization, reader-based approach, writer-based approach, unpacking ideas, etc.. Therefore, when talking about writing, I can, at lease, sound professional and knowledgeable, which boosts me confidence and help me explain the writing process much clearer. Now I identify myself as a member of the writing consultants, which is particularly special among Chinese students here, and feel much more comfortable sharing my ideas and advise about others’ writing pieces.

To sum up, language is powerful in various layers. It is decisive in one’s personal and professional life. Sharing a language means sharing the culture it embedded in and the membership of the speakers’ community.


  1. I am posting a comment to see if my account works :)

  2. Yes, your account works, :). Very thought provoking post. Your comments reminded me of my time in Poland. Although, unlike you I had little to no contact, familiarity or connection with my host country's language. I spent the first six months of my time there seeing everyone else as a "foreigner". I could not accept Polish as a language because of it's unfamiliar sounds and structure. As time went on, I found myself relying on body language, facial expressions, and even voice intonations when communicating in English with the locals. My literacy methods began to adapt and shift from words and spoken language to silent communication. Once I removed my pride and arrogance from the equation, I slowly began to learn and use Polish and found a richness and beauty that I might have overlooked had I stayed confined to my preconceived beliefs that English was the only "real" language. Like you, I learned that language (in all shapes and forms) was empowering and as I grew and matured in my new country, my World opened up and my connections to those around me grew as well.

  3. Annie, this is an excllent example of how Hilary Janks describes "access" to the power language: it's not just access to kowledge and skill, but having the "discourse" to be heard by audiences. (Is this what belonging means? To be "heard" by those we care about?) Thanks for this illustrious anecdote. Sonja's response also vividly shows this link. Thanks Sonja!

    1. Thank you for your comment and the question, Dr. Muth.
      I think there are different ways to understand how language promotes the sense of belonging.
      "To be heard" is definitely one way to interpret it. Being heard and accepted bu those who are important to us contribute significantly to our social identity. It is vital to have the voice, and the voice shapes who we are internally and externally.
      Also, there is another way to paraphrase the sense of belonging. I will use an example form Dr. Hurst's class to illustrate this point. We were asked to think about a group we were in and how the group had impact on our identities. I though about the group of my college friends, and one aspects this group affected me in was the language. Since all of us speak both Chinese and English, and we were exposed to the same culture in the university, we enjoyed mixing Chinese with English and created our own expressions. Therefore, those who were not in our group might not be able to get the punch line of our jokes. By speaking the same language, we are self-identified as a group, and share the sense of belonging.

    2. @Annie - I was struck by your comment "it is vital to have the voice, and the voice shapes who we are internally and externally." Shaping internal identity, and ego, and how that relates to adult second language acquisition, is a topic I explored in another class. H.D. Brown (2007)discusses Guiora's concept of language ego, the "identity a person develops in reference to the language he or she speaks (p. 69). Brown goes on to discuss how the language ego influences language learning in adults. So, I wonder what language an adult's ego "speaks" and if there is resistance to letting go of first language ego to allow a new, English speaking ego to develop. Is there a point of surrender? How must age, gender, literacy level, or other factors contribute to this process? With respect to the population of learners that I work with, I argued that adult second language acquisition was as much an emotional process as a cognitive one, especially at the beginning levels. I considered whether the learner needed to feel a sense of belonging to the target language community before cognitive process of language learning could begin. Wow, way off topic here. Identity is a complex issue, indeed. Thx, Susan

  4. Annie, I so enjoyed this post and appreciated the different insight that you are able to bring culturally regarding the power of language and even just a single word. It brought to mind a Mark Twain quote that I love to share in classes and sessions when we discuss the importance of communication, "the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lighting and a lightning bug." One single word can hold the power to truly shape a perception and/or interpretation, and sometimes can cause a communication to go very very wrong...:) It also reminded me of an "ah ha" moment that I had recently when sharing some cultural competency documents with a few newly hired individuals. An employee (having actually read all of the stuff that I gave her-whoo hoo!) came up to me at the end of our discussion and pointed out what could potentially be a major error. Our interpretation service had translated "one moment please" using several different languages based on our commonly seen demographic. One of the translations however could take on a completely unintended meaning (even vulgar!), if said using a certain dialect of that language. So much can shape a language and even a single word! Thank you for your post Annie, I unambiguously agree that language can truly be power-and powerful!


Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on this post. Diverse opinions are welcomed.