It’s all just in the words

As academics, no matter our level or field, we are used to the conventions of our field as well as the language, the jargon, used in our environment. While I speak of academics, every profession has its own jargon, it is used to communicate efficiently, and simultaneously it establishes our own knowledge and understanding of our discipline – 10-4?

In our field, the humanities and even more specifically, the literatures, terms and concepts such as “discourse,” the “Other,” or to “deconstruct” are frequently used to communicate an idea and situate it within a larger discourse. Often we, as academics and advanced students, do not reflect on these terms because they are understood by our academic audience – it is our language here at the university and in our department. As Instructors we try to familiarize our students with this language, yet might not always be aware of our own jargon use, or what is understood differently by students who are either new to academia or to the field. In humanities discourse, everyday terms like “memory,” “voice,” or “truth” are re-contextualized and given a slightly different meaning and thus different consequences than the same terms when used in non-academic language. In a way they are jargonized as this new, academic meaning is known to the academic community. For native-speakers of English, the transition, or the jargonizing process, from every day to specialized language happens quickly and often as a side note: as instructors we deconstruct the everyday term and (re)situate it within our own disciplinary discourse and then expect our student to use these jargonized terms. But what happens when a Second Language Writer comes across these often common but now re-contextualized terms? For Second Language Writers the transition requires an additional step, the translation of the term into his / her native language and thus an environment where the deconstruction of the English term might not work as fluently as it does in English. Second Language Writers are therefore frequently confronted with jargon understanding of terms that differ or go far beyond a traditional dictionary definition. Furthermore, some of these terms may prove themselves much more complicated and problematic, especially when venturing into a post-colonial environment / jargon: What or Who is “the Other” when a Second Language Writer from a non-western environment writes? Why is he / she referred to as the “subaltern”? Obviously, it was Gayatri Spivak, as an Indian woman and scholar, who coined the term, but she did so within the jargon environment of her field. But it is now we instructors who introduce these terms to a diverse student population from all over the world, and more frequently than not, do so from a Western perspective and interpellate our students into our own discourse, often silencing their voices.

I am not advocating that we as instructors stop using the jargon of our fields! It is in many ways our responsibility to familiarize our students with the specific language that is used in an academic discipline, at least to a certain degree. Members of the medical community must speak the same jargon; legal professionals speak and write in their own “language” where every day synonyms have a distinct (legal) meaning; police officers must know what the numbered codes mean – even though these jargons/languages might seem inaccessible to the outsider at first, they serve a purpose.

However, as instructors of our field(s) are in a position (if not to say we have a duty) to make our language / jargon accessible to our students and thus have to take a step back once in a while to reevaluate our own, specific language. Especially when working with Second Language Writers, we need to understand that there is an additional translation process and that we might have to work through a term, maybe on an individual basis, a bit slower and ask more pointed questions to further the students’ understanding. Or, why not take a moment in class and work with all our students through a term like “voice” and let them discover its academic scope. What we cannot do in return, is to penalize a student who makes a good argument based on a different, non-jargonized understanding of a term.

In the end, it is all “just” about the words and how we use them – for better or for worse – but we need to understand and to be understood in order to have communication happen.