Schultink lecture

A Cartesian Creolist’s Agenda for Linguistics in the 21st century

Michel DeGraff (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

We, linguists in academia, take it for granted that every single language is worth studying and that native speakers are invaluable sources of knowledge—without such knowledge our work would be nearly impossibe.Yet, some 40% of the world’s schoolchildren (some 200 million children) speak languages that are treated as lesser, to the extent that are excluded in the classroom—to the detriment of these children.Indeed, such exclusion is at the root of dire socio-economic and political inequity.How can linguistics in the 21st century help bridge such blatant gap between the core universalist-egalitarian assumptions of our field and the power-knowledge hierarchies that are created and transmitted through the exclusion of certain languages in school systems all around the world?

In my Schultink lecture, I would like to share some of the key aspects of my theoretical and applied-linguistic agenda.This agenda may inspire a new sort of linguistics whereby our research can help bring about the sort of linguistic equality that is a precondition for socio-economic and political equity.Indeed my agenda couples theoretical linguistics with on-the-ground projects that engage technology, pedagogy and local languages in order to improve research and education for sustainable development and equal opportunity for all.

On the theoretical front, I’ve aimed at deconstructing one of the most enduring socially-constructed hierarchies in linguistics, namely “Creole Exceptionalism.”In anti-Exceptionalist mode,I’ve considered Creole formation as one starting point to investigate larger issues in language acquisition and language change---and in cognitive science more generally. In so doing, I’ve elaborated the bases for a “Null Theory of Creole Formation,” which includes, at its core, insights about the interaction between second- and first-language acquisition in contact situations.Such an L1-L2 interaction is not only germane to Creole formation; it contributes to all cases of language change in the context of language contact. Indeed such a theory makes no sui generis stipulation about any exceptional “Creole typology” or any creolization-specific diachronic processes.On the contrary, my proposed framework analyzes, in uniformitarian fashion, various properties of Creole languages, including those that are derived from the superstrate or substrate languages, or some combination thereof, alongside various sorts of simplification AND complexity-inducing innovations.The structural patterns underlying these innovations seem germane to other instances of language change in the scope of the Comparative Method in historical linguistics.In this perspective, Atlantic Creoles are all genealogically related to their Germanic or Romance ancestors, once the Comparative Method is duly applied.More generally, Creole languages such as Kreyòl are on a par with European and other non-Creole languages in terms of development, structures and expressive capacity.

On the applied-linguistics front, I’ve enlisted the strategic use of digital technology in local languages, such as my native Haitian Creole (“Kreyòl”), in order to improve active learning of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (“STEM”), across social classes and beyond any linguistic barrier, especially among populations that have traditionally been excluded---by and large, through language---from access to quality education.In the particular case of Haiti, the success of the MIT-Haiti Initiative, which I direct, doubles as a proof of concept for my theoretical hypothesis above, namely that Kreyòl is indeed a full-fledged language with unlimited capacity to express any level of complex thought as in STEM. I’ve also made the more general argument that such strategic and systematic use of local languages in education is essential for the socio-economic progress and human rights of communities that have long been impoverished through various types of “linguistic apartheid”---some of which with correlates in academic linguistics. In the particular case of Haiti, well-documented processes of exclusion and dehumanization, which started four centuries ago when Haiti was a French colony (then the “richest” colony in the Americas), have continued non-stop throughout Haiti’s history, eventually creating one of the highest rates of inequity in the world.Language and education are two main vectors for the entrenchment of such exclusion, dehumanization and inequity.

I hope that my Schultink lecture will trigger constructive discussions---in the lecture hall and beyond, in the “real” world---about the ways in which linguistics can be broadened and enlisted in projects that aim at making the world better through a theoretically- and pedagogically-informed understanding and use of local languages in education.

(For more details on DeGraff’s biography and research, see , and )