Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Why decolonization and inclusion matter in linguistics

As sociolinguists, we have centered social justice in our research, teaching, and administrative work for many years. But as with many other academics, this issue took on renewed collective urgency for us in the context of the events of 2020, from toxic politics and policies at the federal level, to state-sanctioned anti-Black violence and the ensuing racial reckoning, to the Covid-19 pandemic and the many inequities it exposed and heightened.

Troubled by the often-misinformed efforts to make institutional change that we saw around us, we wanted to take action that was both specific to our disciplinary context and wide-reaching in its effects. We started with an article in the flagship linguistics journal, Language, calling for the centering of racial justice within the discipline. That article was the lead piece in the journal’s Perspectives section and was accompanied by a range of responses from linguists worldwide, which we responded to in turn.

We wrote with the hope that institutional change could start from the individual and (especially) collective actions of linguists. We were also motivated by the hope that the discipline our students will enter will be radically different from the one that we have spent our careers within. This hope fueled our work for the next several years, as we collaborated with linguists within and beyond linguistics departments and throughout the academy to create concrete, specific, and action-centered models for how to do the work necessary to transform the discipline. The results of this intensive collaborative process are two companion volumes, Decolonizing Linguistics and Inclusion in Linguistics, and their websites, which provide additional information and resources. 

Some linguists, particularly those for whom linguistics is structured and whom it best serves, may be asking themselves, “What’s so bad about linguistics in its current form?” Many linguists we interacted with as we embarked on this project were defensive, baffled, or even outright hostile. Fortunately, many others were curious and eager to learn how the discipline could do better and what they could do to help. Most importantly, the people for whom we do this work—those who have been made to feel unwelcome in linguistics and who have been shut out, pushed out, or relegated to the disciplinary margins, as well as those who have succeeded despite rather than because of linguistics-as-usual—understood and welcomed our project. Many of these current, former, and would-be linguists have been engaged in like-minded efforts of their own.

Some critics see our work as “politicizing” linguistics. But these commenters miss the point that linguistics (and academia) has always been political. The discipline has its roots in empire and the colonizing practices of categorizing and classifying languages in order to control those who use them. As the discipline has taken shape over the centuries to the present day, linguistics has become a field limited by its own exclusionary practices and ideologies—a field that, in our view, is simply too small. In Decolonizing Linguistics and Inclusion in Linguistics, we envision and work to build a linguistics that is capacious and welcoming, particularly to those whose lived experiences give them fresh and much-needed insights into the kinds of questions linguistics should be asking, the kinds of methods it should be using, and the kinds of real-world impacts it should be making.

Inclusion in linguistics

Most linguists are familiar with the concept of inclusion through institutional discourse in academia and elsewhere, particularly the acronym DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) or its many variants. Too often, however, inclusion is used to mean recruiting members of formerly excluded groups into often hostile institutions, without making significant changes to the workings of the institutions themselves. True inclusion is not a matter of making space within existing institutions for new people to do the same old thing. Instead, true inclusion requires the transformation not only of who is in institutional spaces but what they do, how, and why. Transformation demands that we ask ourselves who is and isn’t present in linguistics, whether they have full and equitable access, and whether the community of linguists will value their full humanity, rather than treating them merely as sources of linguistic data or as token representatives and spokespersons for the groups to which they belong.

Inclusion in Linguistics offers abundant examples of how linguists can and already are creating genuine inclusion within the discipline. The authors challenge limited notions of who gets to be included, calling attention to a wide range of groups who remain marginalized on the basis of race and ethnicity, gender identity, disability, geography, language, class and caste, and more. The authors issue a powerful call for a linguistics that does not simply make space for but purposefully centers those who have been excluded. We collectively urge linguists to think bigger, to abandon long-cherished ideological investments in what is and isn’t legitimate within linguistics, and to build a discipline that doesn’t hide in the ivory tower but engages with the world and makes it a better place.

Decolonizing linguistics

Compared to inclusion, decolonization may be a less familiar concept to many linguists. Some academics in the US may have first encountered the idea, along with related concepts like settler colonialism, through student activism on their campus in recent years and months. (In fact, the New York Times recently published an explainer on the term settler colonialism, assuming—no doubt correctly—that its predominantly white, liberal, and highly educated readership is not well versed in decolonial theory and activism.)

We chose the title Decolonizing Linguistics to invoke the long and ongoing history of linguists’ global academic exploitation of Black and Indigenous people and the discipline-based extraction of their languages for professional and economic gain. Contributors identify some of the forms of colonialism that linguistics has taken and continues to take. We emphasize the importance of Black-centered and Indigenous epistemologies and methodologies in undoing colonizing structures. We also highlight community-driven collaborative projects that provide a comprehensive picture of the powerful social and scholarly impacts of an unsettled, decolonized linguistics.

Both volumes offer specific roadmaps and pathways for how to advance social justice, through programs, partnerships, curricula, and other initiatives. Our work is a necessary first step toward institutional and disciplinary change: a linguistics built by, around, and for groups that have confronted colonization, oppression, and exclusion—that is, precisely the people whose languages so often fascinate linguists—is also a linguistics that prioritizes the new ideas and practices that these groups bring to the discipline and recognizes these new directions as precisely where linguistics needs to go.

We do not consider Inclusion in Linguistics and Decolonizing Linguistics as definitive statements but rather as an invitation for others to join us in ongoing conversations. We invite linguistics scholars and students, educators and higher education leaders, around the world to engage with the ideas in both volumes with an eye toward what you can do in your own local context, what we have inevitably left out, and how you might build on, adapt, and push us forward to create the kind of inclusive, decolonized, and socially just linguistics that you would like to be part of.

Featured image by Fons Heijnsbroek, abstract-art via Unsplash.

Recent Comments

  1. Graham Elliott

    There is a puzzling lack of clarity in the title. Are you saying, as a statement, ‘Why decolonization and inclusion matter in linguistics’ ? Or are you asking a question, ‘Why does decolonization and inclusion matter in linguistics ?’ ?
    Statement or question ? These differences matter in linguistics. Don’t they ?

  2. Graham Elliott

    I see, you have amended the punctuation (writing this so that my original comment still makes sense). That’s better !

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *