LaBrant, L. (1946, June). The words of my mouth. English Journal, 35(6), 323-327.
Exploring the relationship between words and attitudes, LaBrant confronts teaching students about words and language within the context of their changing and nuanced meanings.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/807767
The English class does not differ from other classes in responsibility for social situations which militate against prejudice and intolerance. Classifications which result in racial or cultural segregation, encouragement of small cliques, avoidance of crucial issues-all of these may be evils in the English classes as in others. Indeed, many of our classifications, built on results of reading tests, tend to promote rather than to destroy the kind of antisocial situation just mentioned….The question is briefly: Do the very words we use and our attitudes toward them affect our tendency to accept or reject other human beings? (p. 323)
First, let us be clear that any principles of teaching which are important for one group are equally important for another. There is something of condescension in talking only of prejudices toward minorities, as though there existed minorities incapable themselves of the same kinds of attitudes which majorities easily attain. The principles are universal and should be approached in that way.
A basic understanding which needs to be taught in school and home is that the existence of a word does not at all prove the existence of any thing. Children do not understand this; nor do all adults. (p. 324)
Shall we, therefore, urge children and young people to drop the word “Jew” from their vocabulary? No more than we drop the words “fairy” or”dragon.” But we should certainly make them understand that the original meaning has been lost, and that only in referring to an ethnic group has it any validity; that, indeed, it is frequently misleading and best avoided….
This leads naturally to a related principle of language growth: that, as we have developed in the complexity of our civilization, as our experiences have multiplied in number beyond any possible number of words, we have had to use abstract terms to include many objects, experiences, ideas. These abstractions tend to become vague and therefore misleading. Class names, such as “labor,” “capital,” “whites,” “Christians,” and so forth are among these terms. Frequently the speaker uses them with apparent assurance that they have meaning, and yet could not for his life explain what he means. (p. 325)
Parenthetically, it may be right to suggest here that the most effective teaching comes from good example….
She is suggesting the primitive belief that by avoiding the words she is avoiding the differences. We have much of this word magic indirectly taught in our classrooms. (p. 326)
Teaching how language works is not a matter of formulas which, once applied, are forever effective. We have tried for some decades now to teach “rules” of grammar, with the expectation that, once they were memorized and illustrated through one or fifty sets of exercises, we would have established a pattern for sentence structure. Our ears tell us that this method is almost completely futile. Similarly, we cannot expect to teach in a few lessons the ways to use language to promote intergroup understandings, and to prevent its potential strengthening of our prejudices and ignorance. Language is much too closely associated with our daily living, much too complicated; and the influences outside the school are much too strong for any sudden or easy competence to be developed. The teacher needs first to question her own use, as she would question her own habits of verb agreement or pronoun reference. (p. 327)