It’s like, about time that we stopped, like, criticising the way students speak

Degrading someone based on the way that they speak communicates a larger judgment: what you have to say isn’t valuable.

For students with marginalised experiences, there are few spaces that are more unwelcoming than university classroom discussions. Whether it is the quiet mocking, unnecessary criticism or blatant interruptions, hostile learning spaces discourage participation, depriving students of learning opportunities. To hear the evidence of this, all a student needs to do is listen to the different uses of, and reactions to, discourse markers in their classrooms. Or as they are more intolerantly known, “filler words”. 

Defined as a word or phrase that manages the flow and structure of speech, common discourse markers in the English language include “I mean”, “you know” and “like”. Their use correlates with both age and gender, with young female-identifying people using more frequent discourse markers in their speech. Though I have my own gripes with personality psychology, the frequent use of discourse markers has also been associated with conscientiousness. This suggests that students who use these terms are more aware of their peers and surroundings. And, they are making interpersonal pleas to be understood.

However, the use of the discourse markers is commonly linked to an assumption that the speaker is less educated. One such example that comes to mind is the “like” of a stereotypical “valley girl” accent, and its association with ignorance and banality. The criticism is clearly a gendered one, masquerading the belittling of young women’s identities as disdain for “improper” language. Degrading someone based on the way that they speak communicates a larger judgment: what they have to say isn’t valuable. 

This made sense as I recalled instances where my own use of language had been criticised — my “overuse” of the word “like” is undoubtedly one of my parent’s biggest pet peeves. Strangely enough though, my clearest memory of being “called out” for the use of a discourse marker is from an instance where my speech lacked one. On a coach bus to JFK Space Centre, the guide asked our group if we knew what the first animal that was sent into space was. I knew — it was a Russian stray dog named Laika — so I answered. And the guide replied, “Aren’t you supposed to say ‘I’m not sure if this is right, but,’” followed by a quip, “No humility?” It was expected that I, as a young woman, would use a discourse marker that explicitly indicated my deference to an authority figure. Regardless of whether I was correct or not, a young woman who speaks with confidence is perceived as a threat to patriarchal norms.

In her book, Learning to Lose: Sexism and Education, Australian academic Dale Spender noted that male-identifying students perceived female-identifying students to have dominated class discussion even if they spoke for as little as 30% of the time. In truth, male-identifying students have been found to occupy classroom sonic space 1.6 times as often as women. Similar results have been supported many times over by international academics, and suggest that women are confined to occupying a miniscule space in university discourse.This only further supports how harmful language stereotypes can be — classist, racist and misogynistic prejudices are being deeply embedded into university graduates. 

In a study exploring how universities “chilly climate” for women contributes to the stalled gender revolution, Lee and Mccabe (2021) note that cultural beliefs, such as language stereotypes, which  “assign more status and competence to men than to women continue to frame social relations, thereby perpetuating gender inequalities” both within and beyond the classroom.

Furthermore, it limits the potential of women. If they aren’t perceived to demonstrate the “right” amount of humility, they are seen as cold, arrogant, bossy, or bitchy. If they use too many discourse markers, they are seen as lacking confidence, intelligence, and capability. It’s a double edged sword, one that people must wield every day when wading into classroom discussions, one that directly impedes learning.

How can we say that students have equal learning opportunities when one half of the room must navigate a political minefield in order to be listened to? 

I, personally, will no longer try to rid myself of the “bad habit” that is using frequent discourse markers. My voice is a function of my personality: the fact that my speech demonstrates care for my peers, and a desire to be understood, is like, totally a strength.

Filed under: