Language as Symbolic Power

 Written by Claire Kramsch, author of Language as Symbolic Power

When twenty years ago I decided to teach an undergraduate course on Language and Power in my German department at UC Berkeley,  I didn’t have any other purpose in mind than to share my newly acquired insights into post-structuralist approaches to language study with students who were learning a foreign language. As they were working hard to acquire French or German and to develop the ability to communicate with foreign others, I wanted to show them how much more there is to language than just grammar and vocabulary. Why, behind their choices of what to say, what not to say, and how to say it, there was a whole power game going on!

Many students had never thought about what it took to play that game, neither in their native nor in the foreign language. They still believed the old adage “Sticks and stones/ can break my bones/ but words/ can never hurt me”. I was determined to deflate their bubble and to show them how and why words can hurt – they can make you laugh and cry, and can lead you to action. How often have I been taken in by the sound of someone’s voice, their accent, their choice of words, that have either endeared me to them or turned me off.  Many people fall in love with native speakers because of the way they talk –  I know I have. How often have I been unable to truly understand what a person meant by a word because I didn’t know the word’s history in that person’s culture – the word “people” in English for example vs. “le peuple” in French and “das Volk” in German.  But then, how can we know whether someone is speaking through their culture or through their own unique self?,  I wondered.

As the course gained in popularity and I was invited to teach it for the campus at large, it grew into a full-fledged interdisciplinary course on language as social and political practice and was ultimately transformed into a book, Language as Symbolic Power, soon to be published by Cambridge University Press.

While the class was becoming more and more multilingual and multicultural, so did the examples that the students provided to illustrate the theories we were reading. For example, their examples of child rearing practices from different parts of the world confirmed or disconfirmed Bourdieu and Foucault’s views on the power of discourse and discourses of power.

Over the years the course also became more and more relevant to the current political situation: the fall-out from the 2001 attack against the World Trade Center and the way the media discussed the event; the rhetorical strategies that preceded the war in Iraq and Bush’s “Mission Accomplished”; the Obama years  “Yes we Can” and, after the police killing of Trayvon Martin,  “If I had a son, he’d be like Trayvon”.  Indeed, as Panagiota Gounari writes in her introduction to a special issue of the L2 Journal (2020) on Critical Pedagogy and Language Learning and Teaching in Dangerous Times, “language as a site of power, ideological tensions, political and financial interests, hierarchies, and symbolic and material violence, is most definitely a war zone.”

Now that we have lived through four years of Donald Trump’s language warfare, language as symbolic power will be having a field day at the ballot box. No speech act will be more important than the vote we will cast on November 3. The results of the election will show what value we still give to words like “democracy” and “truth”, and how we are to use language on social and other media in the future. They will certainly affect how the readers of Language as Symbolic Power understand the book when it comes out in November.

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