The Sociology of Language and Ethnicity

By Garcia, Angela | Transformations, September 3, 1996 | Go to article overview
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The Sociology of Language and Ethnicity

Garcia, Angela, Transformations

The Sociology of Language and Ethnicity

The "Sociology of Language and Ethnicity" is an upper level undergraduate course which examines the relationship between ethnicity and language. Language is broadly defined to include interaction, nonverbal communication, paralanguage, media, and cultural texts, in addition to linguistic phenomena. Topics covered include the relationship between language and ethnic identity, inter-group communication and mis-communication, and representations of ethnicity in cultural texts. I also cover how ethnicity is involved in socialization, values, religion, and social institutions. The class concludes with a discussion of the implications of ethnicity and language for educational and social policy.

I first developed this course as a summer school offering at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1987. When I next offered the course, at the University of Cincinnati in 1994, the literature on language and ethnicity had expanded so greatly that I completely redesigned and re-researched the course, resulting in essentially a new course. There is now a wealth of high quality research articles and books suitable for course readings and lecture material in the language and ethnicity area.

The version of this course taught at the University of Cincinnati was designed to meet new "General Education" requirements, which emphasize the development of reading and writing skills, critical thinking, and oral communication. Instructors are encouraged to address multiculturalism and diversity, and to emphasize active learning and group learning experiences.

General Education courses are also deliberately designed to be multidisciplinary. Although offered by the Sociology Department, the course necessarily and naturally (because of its subject matter) covers material from a variety of disciplines, such as communications, sociolinguistics, anthropology, religious studies, and psychology.

The four readings for the course were chosen with several goals in mind. I wanted students to learn about as wide a range of ethnic groups as possible. The readings also had to focus on several key sociological issues, and to highlight different aspects of the "language and ethnicity" topic. I chose Bershtel and Graubard's (1993) Saving Remnants: Feeling Jewish in America to focus on Jewish Americans. This book provided an excellent entre into discussions of the role of religion in defining ethnicity, and also challenged students to consider intersections (or lack thereof) between "race" and ethnicity. The book also demonstrates the position that ethnic identity is not a constant. The authors show individuals making decisions throughout their lives which affect their exposure to, involvement in, and identification with a specific cultural group. Because much of the book consists of quotes from in-depth interviews, the book made interesting reading which kept the attention of undergraduates.

Anderson's (1990) Streetwise: Race, Class, and Change in an Urban Community served to address both Euro-American and African American ethnic groups in a study which focused on interactions between them in public spaces in an urban setting. This book showed students how nonverbal communication works through the lens of ethnicity and color, and how social class and race affect the use of public spaces and urban territories.

Shorris' (1992) Latinos: A Biography of the People makes the point that umbrella labels such as "Latino" obscure the diversity within diversity, thus confronting standard concepts of ethnic groups. His book is in some ways the most challenging for the students because of its length and complexity, but many students were charmed by his painfully beautiful writing style and subtle portraits of specific Mexican, Cuban, Puerto-Rican, etc., experiences.

Feiler's (1991) Learning to Bow: Inside the Heart of Japan served to cover Japanese culture. I wanted at least one reading to reflect a global perspective -- to bring our discussion of language and ethnicity outside of the American context.

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