Turns out my mother was right. What comes out of our mouth defines us.
For that reason, she scrutinized our language more closely than a political organizer does the polls. Participles had to agree with the auxiliary. No “I seen” or “had went” for her. In fact, grammatical faux pas were for her nails scratching on a blackboard. She just couldn’t bear it. She corrected us before the final sounds had escaped our lips.
Her secret weapon was that she could monitor proficiency in two languages. She was just as demanding in French. Should a wayward « moé » or « toé » slip out, she would insist on our repeating the sentence using « moi » or « toi ». She would have nothing of patois; she insisted on standard English or standard French.
I am indebted to my mother for her relentless insistance on correct speech. Her high standards gifted me with a lifelong love of language. Just ask my children. I have subjected them to the same discipline. In two languages. My mother knew instinctively that “Respect for language is respect for yourself; it lifts you up” (Mikhail Barishnykov). Language peels back the veneer of Armani suits, Coach handbags, and exquisite makeup to reveal a polished, articulate individual. Or not. Grammatical errors in speech prompt an axiomatic reevaluation of an individual’s true competence.
Even more important, the words we use communicate our values and our perspectives with respect to our personal and professional lives. The word “allowed”, for example, that partners sometimes use to describe what one or the other can or cannot do, clarions control. If I use tentative language, and suggest what options might exist, I suggest multiple pathways to an end rather than one singular vision. If, in my work as an educator, I speak of my “markbook ” and talk about all the “correcting” I have to do, I am revealing my preferential pedagogy. If, in the same way, my speech talks about “keeping records” or “providing feedback” or “reading student work,” I am also telegraphing my philosophy. Our words broadcast our approaches to our work and to our human relationships.
Dan and Chris Heath, in their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, reiterate the point. “Every culture,” the Heath brothers say, “whether national or organizational, is shaped powerfully by its language” (p. 247). Our words transmit our beliefs, whether we are aware or not. When a colleague might ask me to resend a document she can’t find, and I have a nagging feeling that maybe I forgot to send it in the first place, I feel bathed in balm. The colleague assumed the positive about me; her words are proof of her belief in people’s good intentions.
I am so grateful to Maman for raising my awareness of the impact of language. Our words do indeed reveal our inner selves, our values, and the quality of our interactions.