In renaming things, N.J. policymakers hope words will move minds
Officials say embracing new phrases like “multilingual learner” can spark better solutions
State education officials aim to change the phrase “English language learner” to “multilingual learner” to honor a student’s skill speaking multiple languages, rather than focusing on a deficit. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)
New Jersey politicians aren’t above name-calling.
Knucklehead is one of Gov. Phil Murphy’s favorite insults, while Republican Assemblyman Brian Bergen raised eyebrows last month after using a more profane word to describe a Democratic colleague.
But on paper, anyway, state officials have moved in recent months to embrace sensitivity. Across government, policymakers and paper-pushers have been tweaking laws and policies to update old words and phrases that have fallen out of favor as language evolves.
Inmates are now “people who are incarcerated,” addiction is “substance use disorder,” sex and gender categories have been expanded to include “gender identity,” and now phrases like “English language learner” and “achievement gap” may go the way of slate chalkboards and one-room schoolhouses, under changes education officials are mulling.
When government tries to ensure the labels it assigns to people are sensitive and precise, consensus can be elusive, with the party in power typically setting the tone — and language changes championed by one party prompting eye rolls by another.
When state Board of Education members earlier this month discussed replacing “achievement gap” with “opportunity gap,” several Republican legislators accused the board of caring “more about boosting certain groups, regardless of individual educational needs, at the expense of efforts to ensure good outcomes for every student.”
The reality is, language is a policy choice, agreed Peter Chen, senior policy adviser at progressive think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective.
“Whatever you choose, there’s no neutral,” Chen said.
New words and phrases are likelier to last if officials include the groups they’re defining in the discussion — and pair them with policy change, so that merely renaming something doesn’t mask inaction on an issue, he added.
“Lip service from the government — without addressing core underlying problems — is nothing new,” Chen said. “But these kinds of linguistic changes are part of a broader movement to humanize groups that have been historically oppressed or underrepresented. They can help reframe policy debates and often come with policy changes.”
The influence of words
With or without policy change, freshening up the language of laws is a worthy endeavor because word choice can influence public perception, said Jonathan Howell, an associate professor of linguistics at Montclair State University.
“Just because you use a different term doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to do anything different, but it will reflect what you think the problem is — and therefore what solution you might pursue,” Howell said. “The language that you use can have an influence — not like a straitjacket, but more like a nudge. Like ‘opportunity gap.’ That speaks to what you think the problem is.”
Educators, specifically, have tended to use “deficit language,” Howell said.
“We assume that the problem is with the learner rather than with the educational system,” he said. “But the more we change the language to reframe it, the more likely we are to acknowledge and to see the problem as systemic and not just about the learner.”
Chen agreed that changing the language can change the solution.
“What is the ‘achievement gap’ for a 4-year-old? Like they weren’t studying hard enough at colors? Calling it an ‘opportunity gap’ instead shows that the system is not set up to provide them with the same opportunities that other children receive,” he said.
Language is often asked to do a lot of work. – Felicia Steele, professor, The College of New Jersey
Language is often asked to do a lot of work.
– Felicia Steele, professor, The College of New Jersey
Renaming “English language learners” as “multilingual learners” — another change state education officials are considering — also makes it a more positive identifier, Howell added. The change is meant to “help students thrive and to honor their multilingual skills as an asset rather than to focus on only deficit-based remediation,” acting state Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan wrote earlier this month in a memo to the state board.
The board also is considering changing “equality,” which means people get the same resources or opportunities, to “equity,” the idea that everyone has different circumstances and may need different resources and opportunities to achieve equal results.
Sometimes, changes reflect a move toward “person-first” language, which aims to drop dehumanizing labels in favor of person-centered phrases by defining groups as people first. That was the main motivation earlier this year when state officials agreed “person who’s incarcerated” should replace “inmate” in state laws and documents.
But person-first changes aren’t always effective, said Felicia Steele, associate professor of English at The College of New Jersey.
“Language is often asked to do a lot of work,” Steele said. “We want to use person-first language in the belief that, if the first thing someone thinks of when they see somebody else is their humanity, they will behave better. It’s intended to promote more ethical action toward other human beings. But there isn’t really a whole lot of evidence cognitively that the language we use has a direct relationship with how we treat other human beings.”
Rooting out racism
Sometimes word changes are about abandoning words with racist roots.
A bill now before the Legislature would require the state to replace the centuries-old, disparaging words “alien” and “illegal alien” with “foreign national” and “undocumented foreign national.”
“The term ‘alien’ is, by definition, alienating,” Chen said. “It’s no surprise that it infects the way America thinks about its immigrant population. The choice of the word ‘alien’ wasn’t an accident, and it has really harmed the way that we think about people who are not born here.”
In 2020, Murphy signed a law to rename county freeholders as commissioners, because the older word stemmed from a time when only white, male landowners could hold public office. The state Law Revision Commission stripped the word “workhouse” from statutes last year because it was rooted in colonial oppression and rejected the word “magistrate” in 2020 as “a vestige of a bygone era.”
“A lot of this push is about decolonization and challenging the notion of what patriarchy has taught us,” said linguist Amee Shah, director of the Cross-Cultural Speech, Language, and Acoustics Lab and professor of health science at Stockton University.
Sometimes, officials looking for a more sensitive way to word something can instead obscure its meaning.
A parent who hears the phrase “age-friendly” might think it refers to how welcoming a business is to small children, but an Age-Friendly Advisory Council the state created last year was intended to ensure towns and cities are liveable for senior citizens, as people live longer lives.
“Language helps put labels to certain phenomena, but if we make the language so abstract and vague, it’s not going to identify the underlying phenomenon,” Shah said.
And sometimes renaming can backfire, Steele added. Many folks have embraced replacing the word “slaves” with “enslaved people,” but in Texas, policymakers have toyed with everything from renaming slavery “involuntary relocation” to calling enslaved people “immigrants,” “workers,” and “laborers.”
Language tweaks can also be euphemisms officials use to continue problematic practices, Chen added. For example, while solitary confinement is banned for juveniles, some corrections officials continue it under different names, like “room restriction” or “meditation period,” he said.
Whatever the motivation, Steele said, new names never stick without one group on board — publishers. With no official arbiter on what things should be called, publishing companies and their trade groups like the Associated Press and the Modern Language Association typically set the standard, Steele said.
“You can have institutions make edicts about what kind of language that they’re using. But those won’t result in positive language change unless they’re also supported by printing companies,” Steele said. “Language change is a dance between people in power and people who want to be as clear as possible. In the end, in the United States, language change in print happens because of printing institutions.”
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