What is Our Language?

Allow me to share a bit  (of embarrassment) from my youth…

Joey was my best friend when I was a young child.  He and I were inseparable.  The things that we did!  Well, let’s just say that I am extremely grateful that my own children haven’t put me through some of the situations that my parents had to face.

One of the more tame and unusual occurrences in our relationship was that we developed our own language.  It grew on its own, without much thought into what we were “saying.”  And yet, it was a language that we shared.  Each utterance held meaning and we knew what we were saying to each other.

A similar story is shared in the documentary “When the Garden Was Eden.”  Apparently, Jerry Lucas and his Knick teammates developed a similar on-court, indescribable and undecipherable language.

(It is nice to think that perhaps we were taking in part in something that an acknowledged genius also did.  However, we probably looked a lot more like this:

which is to say nothing disparaging of the two toddlers. 🙂 )

Fast-forward to the playgrounds of St. Paul’s Lutheran School.  Here, I learned the language of kickball (I wonder how many mid-80s St. Paul’s students remember the phrase “baby bouncy?”) and four-square (sadly, I don’t remember the terminology we used for this game.)  It brings a smile to my face to think of what was going through the heads of our teachers as students would complain, “I asked him to pitch ‘baby bouncy’ and he pitched ‘big bouncy!'”  I don’t know that I would have had the composure to address the complaint with a straight face!

I started thinking about language over the recent Christmas break.  As our school continues to work through accreditation and curriculum development, I began to think about the language of our school.  The stories I shared above actually helped to answer some questions and point out some important thoughts:

1–Context is everything.

Without the context of the game and the playground, the language that was used would have been ridiculous and made no sense.  (Even trying to explain it is extremely difficult.)  Likewise, in education, certain terms are nuanced.  I recently attended a meeting in which a non-education-based person was helping a group of educators work through a document.  This person used the word “standard,” not knowing that the term has some serious implications (and perhaps negative connotations, currently) in education.

2–Language excludes.

The language of education is a foreign language.  When I first walked onto the playground of St. Paul’s, I had no idea what some of the terms meant.  I was an outsider.  To those who listened while Joey and I carried on conversations in our own language, the language was gibberish.

3–Language can be learned

Obviously, we know this, but we must remember it in education as well.  That learning is best done intentionally.  I acquired the language of the playground; I took part in the growth of the secret language I held with my best friend.  It required some degree of engagement and intentionality to understand.  Without any type of understanding or meaning, a language ceases to exist.

A few questions upon which to reflect:

  • When new teachers join our staff, are we taking time to show them the language that is used in our school?
  • Do we consciously and deliberately take time to discuss the language of our various disciplines?
  • Are there terms that we wish to avoid because of regional or perhaps episodic reasons?
  • Is the language that we use the type of language that will prepare our students for their next level of education?
  • What is the reasoning behind the language that we choose to use?

Our language within our schools also reflects our fundamental beliefs on education (e.g. essentialism, perennialism, etc.); our core values; and perhaps even our history.

Take time to consider your language.  How can you help improve it?  How can you make the acquisition of your school’s language a part of your assimilation for new teachers, parents, and students?


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