Kathryn Ryan talks to US poet and language activist and educator, Jamila Lyiscott on what it means to be articulate. Her TED talk "3 Ways to Speak English," has been viewed more than three and a half million times.
Jamila Lyiscott's family is from Trinidad and she was raised in a Black-Caribbean neighbourhood in Brooklyn, New York City. She says she is constantly trying to forge better connections between the academic world - and the communities of colour outside.
Read an edited excerpt from the interview below:
What has been your own experience, did you find yourself trying to fit in sometimes through your use of language, particularly as a young person?
The TED talk that has gone viral is actually based on a true story where I was in a college environment and I was speaking in standard English. In the midst of my response on that panel a woman interrupted me and she announced to myself and the room about how impressed she was that I sounded articulate. In that moment it occurred to me that somewhere inside myself I knew that I should not be speaking creolised-Caribbean English or speaking in African American Varieties in that space.
So in that moment I decided to interrogate this relationship between language and identity historically and what I have done ever since is I have thought about, ‘How do we push back against that?’ So in my work now I use hip hop literacy, spoken word, and different varieties of English within academic spaces intentionally in order to enhance those spaces and also to disrupt these kinds of norms that I find to be unjust.
I find it interesting, that Rihanna’s 'Work' heated up the charts and did you find that even for an artist in 2016 there was a judgement being loaded on the way she expressed herself in that song?
Absolutely. I have written a post about the way that educators in society writ large need to regard Rihanna, a powerful artist. She shared this song, her background is from Barbados and she used creolised-Caribbean English, she used Jamaican patois and a tonne of backlash came from Twitter and blog posts, people not understanding it and saying that she was speaking gibberish, that she was incoherent…
Then what happened was we had another wave of people who came to her swift defence and said ‘No, these are rule-governed, powerful varieties of English that exist for millions of people throughout the world’, and for Rihanna to centre them and to celebrate them as actually something powerful and you in fact are the people who need to be informed about this kind of diversity, so that we don’t think of diversity in terms of multiple cultures and colours of skin, but linguistic diversity is something to be celebrated and engaged with in a powerful way.
Thinking of the music traditions that have become dominant in the United States, there’s spoken word, there’s rap, there’s beats… one would have thought had broken through the snobbery around the way we perceive people speaking English their own way.
Diversity seems to be something that we celebrate on the surface and when it comes to artistic spaces, when it comes to music and when it comes to the arts, we embrace diversity, but when it comes to our spaces of intellect… and until we celebrate and regard and centre these forms within our spaces that we deem to be intellectual, they will constantly be disregarded as inferior, because even as we celebrate them and even as they become more popular in the 21st century, as soon as we get into the workplace, as soon as we get into any place we deem to be ‘prestigious’, if you engage in any of those linguistic practices you are automatically out of place. So I think that is the key in schools, in the workplace, and in any of these places that we think of as intellectual, is where we need to start regarding these languages as actually rigorous and having the capacity to add to the beauty of language and culture in powerful ways.
That’s an interesting point. It’s fine if it’s artistic expression, but it’s not if it’s delivering a lecture or a paper in school. You make an interesting point about the word articulate in the TED talk. There is a bit in the video where you say even the most standard and ‘articulate’ American accent, you’d probably still find a British person who would look down on it. There is this perceived hierarchy with what fits with an ‘intellectual’ way of expressing yourself.
Absolutely. I studied old English for my under graduate and masters studies and what I came across was, particularly in Chaucer, the work resonated with me and when I saw the forms that he engaged in in middle English he actually used a form of English, even though he was elite, that was used by the commoners at the time and so in using this form of English and realising that some of the englishes that were present in those times and evolved continue to saturate our society today, I found that language is a very living thing. It’s something that is very fluid and attitudes towards English in his time were dismissive and now we celebrate standard English as though it should reign over everything else and so just thinking about the contemporary distinction between American English and British English and those attitudes, those attitudes are always tethered to politics and those politics are often racial and cultural in problematic ways. So to me, to see that language is constantly evolving, the question becomes who is allowed to contribute to the power of this language in ways that are still deemed appropriate and who when they attempt to contribute are seen as marginal and not worthy.