The Language Gap

The Language Gap was born out of a very literal “gap” between Paul Pfeiffer and me. Through a series of discussions that occurred digitally from opposite sides of the planet (myself in New York, Paul in Manila), the two of us found a common interest in how communication skills are formed.
For Paul, it was seen in work he'd done at schools in the Philippines, specifically surrounding a class called Speech Choir, which was related to the rote memorization of English texts. And for me, I encounter communication issues every day in my teaching practice at a local NYC public high school. This is, as I've often said, where social norms get ‘poured into concrete,’ and the world becomes much more finite.

Paul and I spent a day chatting with the students about their own experiences with miscommunication and language, and we came up with four topics: Social Hierarchies1, Social Norms2, Accents/Dialects3, and Cultural Diffusion4. Both the artists and the teens agreed that most miscommunications have origins in these four areas. The discussions that day often brought up questions that we couldn’t always answer but could always relate our life experience to. It was a juxtaposition of connecting with something but not necessarily understanding the workings of it— and that became the makings of our workshop for Art21’s Creative Chemistries in 2015.

What followed was a small piece of awesome: For our workshop, we broke up the room into four groups: the teens each selected one of the topics and worked to facilitate and balance a group conversation with the adults in attendance. There were about three adults for every student, and the conversations we had were the result of each participant’s own experience and personal history.

In our debrief, students remarked with alarming frequency “when adults talk, they seem like they do it with purpose, as if they’re out to prove something.”

For a few teens, this caught them off guard, but for most they said it was all too common. Their parents, teachers, or any other adult they’d ever spoken to seemed to have an agenda. And ultimately, I believe the process of unearthing those agendas helps break down the social structures that seem to divide us—it put all our cards on the table. I wasn’t necessarily left with an answer as to how these kinds of language gaps are formed, but I certainly left with new life experience(s) to drawn from it; as did the students; as did the participants.

In closing, there’s a lot of hot noise about social justice these days, and how to infuse one's practice with it. But in the end, I would say real justice is simply providing opportunities for marginalized people to have a voice when it comes to political discourse—to share the mic when sharing perspectives. This happens when I help find my students employment, when they get internships at museums, and when they’re allotted a chance to talk to adults on common level ground. And for me personally, the result of putting a group of multicultural teens in charge of a room of multicultural adults couldn't be closer to core of what I had intended to achieve: to unite people by defining what commonly divides them.


1 Social Hierarchies were defined as: How certain people in society are seen to be "above" or "below" one another, almost like a caste system. It's unofficial, but it's there. And it guides the way we interact with each other.

2 Social Norms were defined as: How we behave in different company, how the people who are in the room change the way we act.
3 Accents/Dialects were defined as: The way we talk and how others may relate to us / judge us.
4 Cultural Diffusion was defined as: How we learn to imitate or blend into a culture we're living in.

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