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College of Arts and Sciences

New lecture series addresses connections between language, inequality

By: Spencer DeRoos
A&S Communications
October 16, 2017

An Oct. 20 lecture will kick off a new series on language and inequality co-sponsored by the Center for the Study of Inequality and the departments of linguistics and sociology.

Michel DeGraff, professor of linguistics at MIT, will present a talk, “Language, Education, and (In)equality in Haiti: Struggling through Centuries of Coloniality,” which will focus on linguistic inequality and the exclusion of “local languages” in education. These exclusions, he says, reflect power struggles both within and across colonial and postcolonial societies. DeGraff argues that linguistic equality is a prerequisite to economic and political equality. The lecture intended for a general audience will take place from 3:30-5 p.m., Oct. 20 in Uris Hall G08.

“Professor DeGraff’s work has revolutionized our understanding of creole languages,” said Abby Cohn, Cornell professor of linguistics. “[DeGraff’s work] has identified persistent biases in the analysis and characterization of such languages by linguists and [he] has made major contributions in the fields of Kreyòl medium and STEM education in Haiti.”

DeGraff is the director of the MIT-Haiti Initiative, a project aimed at helping Haitians learn in their native language of Haitian Creole ("Kreyòl"). The initiative reflects DeGraff’s belief that the teaching of Haitian children in French hinders their learning. The project seeks to improve quality and access to education by facilitating instruction in Haitian Creole, through faculty development and the creation of Haitian Creole curricula. DeGraff was granted $1 million by the National Science Foundation in 2012 to introduce online Creole language materials in the teaching of STEM in Haiti. He is also a founding member of the Haitian Creole Academy. His research focus is on the areas of syntax, morphology and language change.

This new series is intended for those who want to understand how the social dimensions of language contribute to issues of inequality: A speaker will come to campus each semester to address timely issues of how bias and inequality can be expressed and perpetuated through language. The new series grew out of a conversation started during Professor John Rickford’s university lectureship last fall, and keeps this important conversation alive in anticipation of Dr. Rickford’s return to campus in 2018 as an AD White Professor- at- large. Cohn says “This series is all the more important and timely in light of the issues we need to address as a community about both subtle bias expressed through language, not to mention more egregious verbal acts of racism and bias.”

DeGraff will also be giving a lecture in the linguistics colloquium series,  “Walls vs. bridges around Creole languages and their speakers,” Thursday Oct. 19, 4:30pm, Morrill 106.

Photo taken by Christine W. Low of Michel DeGraff in Matènwa, La Gonave, Haiti, working with students as part of a Kreyòl-based STEM initiative.