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New lecture series addresses connections between language, inequality

Michel DeGraff in Matènwa, La Gonave, Haiti, working with students as part of a Kreyòl-based STEM initiative.

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 linguistics and sociology departments.

Michel DeGraff, professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 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 said, reflect power struggles 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 be held at 3:30 p.m., Oct. 20 in G08 Uris Hall.

“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 teaching 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 series grew out of a conversation started during Stanford University professor John Rickford’s university lectureship last fall (he will return to campus in 2018 as an A.D. White professor-at-large). 

“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,” Cohn said.

DeGraff will also deliver a lecture, “Walls vs. Bridges Around Creole Languages and Their Speakers,” part of the linguistics colloquium series, Oct. 19 at 4:30 p.m., 106 Morrill Hall.

Spencer DeRoos is a communications assistant for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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Jeff Tyson