Building a Broader Language Access Movement

Last Friday at “La Casa” in Mt. Pleasant, Many Languages / One Voice (MLOV) advocates gathered for a powerful (and long overdue) teach-in, co-hosted with the organization BeHEARDDC — a true testament to the power of grassroots coalition building.  The event was meant to highlight some of the overlapping challenges faced by deaf and LEP communities,
especially the barriers in equal access to government services.   Here’s a quick rundown of what I took away from the event:

1) Language access doesn’t have to be an immigrant rights or differently-abled issue, but a social justice issue for all.  When I think of “language access” beneficiaries, I’m picturing limited- or non-English proficient individuals in the immigrant community.   But Talila Lewis, the founder of HEARD (Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf) said it doesn’t have to be that way.  Why?  Because…

2) Wrongful incarceration is an issue that impacts the immigrant AND deaf community alike, oftentimes as a result of poor language access implementation and compliance.  MLOV board member Nadia Firozvi shared a story about her and DC’s first language access complainant, a Korean man who spent 4 days in jail without interpretation… only to find out he was the wrong Mr. Lee.  As a consequence, DC was found in noncompliance with the Act and the city took major steps in retraining all of their personnel.  They now have “Liaison Units” for the Latino, API and LGBT communities.  Nevertheless, LA implementation has a long way to go, according to a recent report released by the DC Language Access Coalition and the AU-Washington College of Law.

3) Toward a broader language access movement?  Technically, the DCLAA only covers LEP/NEP individuals, not the deaf.  They are backed by the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act).  However, the advocates on both sides agreed that ADA and the DCLAA are not enough on their own.  Talila suggested we think about both groups as linguistic minorities, which would include spoken and visual communication.  If these groups continue mobilizing under the broader umbrella of government accessibility, I can only see a stronger movement in the future and the legislative reform that is so sorely needed.  A most inspiring event!

James Lipton, Don’t Quit Your Day Job

A few days ago James Lipton drew media attention for “taking his political consulting a bit more seriously” than usual during an interview on the Laura Ingraham show:

“After Ingraham played a clip of Obama’s 2011 “shake it off” speech, Lipton said, “I wanted to write a piece some time ago … called ‘The Disappearing G.’ It was inspired more by George W. Bush than by anybody else, where suddenly this man who comes from a [inaudible] upper-class family and comes from an upper-class world, but the G in -ing vanished — I’m goin’, we’re talkin’. And other politicians have taken it on. Obama does it there. I don’t like it anywhere. If a fella is educated and all his life has been saying, ‘We’re going to succeed,’ he doesn’t need to say, ‘We’re gonna succeed.’” (Politico)

As my title suggests, I think James Lipton better leave this one to the linguists. 


#1     People drop their G’s all the time. It’s a widely available feature of most English dialects. Obama isn’t pretending to be someone who drops his Gs, he’s someone who has it available in his “repertoire” and uses it.  I also find it amusing that Lipton, who had just referred to a grown man as a “fella,” could go on to criticize Obama for being too folksy. 

#2     Performance.  Lipton was juxtaposing quality acting (i.e. “not pretending, embodying”) with modern politics (circus-y, cheap, pretending).  Point well taken.  But I would say that Obama’s “G dropping” could never compare to Romney’s “cheesy grits” gaffe.  But the point here is this: communication is a fundamentally social behavior. We also don’t talk the same way all the time, it depends on who we’re with.  It’s entirely possible (and proveable) that politicians drop their Gs whenever they’re campaigning south of the Mason Dixon.  But I would say a better use of our time is not listening to how they’re saying it, but what they’re saying.  

#3     Dialect performance in acting.  Horrible.  I think when it comes to dialect performance, there are few actors that pull it off well.  And some of it’s just oversight: He might not mind when Salma Hayek plays a Puerto Rican, but I certainly do. 

Where visual semiotics and advocacy intersect: The infographic

In much of his work, linguist and social semiotician van Leewen (2004) speaks to the importance of visual literacy as the new literacy society (and individuals) will need to address in the professional context.  He says “visual communication is coming to be less and less the domain of specialists, and more and more crucial in the domains of public communication.”  Unfortunately, he argues the current education system does little to improve this.  [Compare the amount of drawing you did in 1st grade vs. 12th… get it?] He goes so far as to say that “not being ‘visually literate’ will begin to attract social sanctions… will begin to be a matter of survival, especially in the workplace” (3).

Luckily, some advocacy and social justice organizations are ahead of the curve by keeping their graphics as stimulating as the text in their research publications.

One of the benefits of using visual representations is that the message is received in such an instantaneous way.  [For the sociolinguists reading right now, van Leeuwen calls them image acts: speech acts + images that are realized as a single syntagmatic unit].  For many social justice organizations (and non-profits in general) resources are low.  Investing in good graphics can mean the difference between reaching 0 and 1000 people.  Or more!
A local DC group called Save Our Safety Net is great when it comes to using visuals and props in their organizing, with some clear influence of the practices behind radical puppet theater.  Anyway, you can click here for a taste, around minute 1:25, if you wonder what that looks like inside the chambers of DC City Council during budget season.
They also happen to have made huge gains this year in advocating for the restoration of the social service budget that was about to be hacked away.   Coincidence?  I think a lot of the success they’ve had in building grassroots support stems from (at least partially) their ability to make speaking truth to power a fun, creative, and ultimately engaging endeavor as well.
[UPDATE: After a little more research I’ve learned that they have a name: Infographics.  Check out this article here by the New Organizing Institute to find out more about how to make infographics work for your cause.  In it they recommend, a community platform for making data visualizations and infographics based on data from Twitter and Facebook.  Free and new, user-friendly way to represent data?  I like it.]