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Categories:  Faculty, Research

Language’s connection to learning

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Aria Razfar

Aria Razfar: “Linguistics is about how language functions in society.” Photo: Joshua Clark/UIC Photo Services

Many undergraduates plan to study medicine, then switch majors, but few veer as far as Aria Razfar did. He went into linguistics.

“Linguistics is about how language functions in society,” said Razfar, associate professor of curriculum and instruction in the College of Education.

“It affects us in all aspects of our lives. It gives us better control of our own cognition.

“Education has helped me make sense of linguistics, to distill ideas into relevant dimensions for teachers,” he said.

Most colleges of education compartmentalize linguistics within bilingual teaching, Razfar said, but he considers it essential for all teachers.

“The questions that I’ve always dealt with in schools have been, how do teachers think about the nature, function and purpose of language? And how does it connect to learning, how does it connect to their own teaching?”

Razfar has received grants totalling $3 million over the last three years from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education to advance language, math and science education, particularly for English learners.

He recently studied Chicago school principals as they discussed the status of African American English and found “interesting results.”

“They struggled in terms of how to talk about the language when it came to naming the language. African American English, Ebonics, black English — all these terms were used. Because it doesn’t have official status, it was a struggle for them to talk about it.

“What we try to do with teachers is get them to be very informed about how they talk about language, culture and identity, and examine the implications for educational outcomes.”

His latest book, Applying Linguistics in the Classroom, presents case studies to engage educators in the topic of language.

It starts with the sounds and structure of language, then moves to “the pragmatic, meaningful aspects — how people make sense of things, their culture,” Razfar said. It ends with ideology, or the worldviews embedded within the sounds — “issues of status and difference,” he said.

Razfar tweeted during President Obama’s recent State of the Union address that all education should be bilingual.

“I think it’s in our national interest to be a multilingual society,” he said.

“There has to be that will to learn about the other. It prepares us for the future.”