What can you do with a degree in linguistics? Or, using language to turn the tide on Trump

Caroline Tagg

Anna Marie Trester is on a one-woman mission to tell the world why linguistics matters.* Armed with a PhD in linguistics from Georgetown University, she now works for FrameWorks Institute, an American think tank which trains social change advocates and NGOs to communicate more effectively with the public. She talked to a group of interested staff and students at Aston University (Birmingham) about her work. I was particularly struck by three aspects of it: the kind of clients the think tank attracts; the rigour of the methodology used; and the power of language – specifically metaphor – to shape how we think and respond.

FrameWorks’ clients include a range of prominent policy and science organisations, such as the National Science Foundation, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Noyce Foundation in the US; while, in the UK, they work in areas including early child development, child abuse and neglect, and criminal justice. The linguistic changes they effect are taken up by important players: for example, the American Academy of Pediatrics now uses their suggested term ‘toxic stress’ to convey to the public that while people need to put up with some levels of stress, others are intolerable.

FrameWorks’ assumption is that a change in discourse leads to a shift in thinking which in turn changes policy – a key indication of the power of language. To illustrate their methods, Anna Marie talked us through their work with immigration reform advocates to change the discourse around immigration in the US. The impetus for this reform came from ‘Come out of the shadows’, Obama’s 2014 campaign to entice undocumented immigrants to come forward. You don’t need a linguistics degree to know that this was a problematic way to frame the policy. FrameWorks started by analysing how immigration was being discussed by policy-makers and by the public in order to identify gaps between the professional and lay discourses: for example, policy-makers want to talk about fixing a ‘broken system’ while the public know little about the system and instead focus on immigrants as personal threats to their livelihoods and neighbourhoods. FrameWorks’ research mad it clear that addressing these gaps in understanding necessitated a change of metaphor.

Rather than talking about ‘floods’ of immigrants, FrameWorks suggested the metaphor of immigration as the ‘wind in the sails’ of the US economy. This ‘candidate metaphor’ then underwent extensive testing, which included members of the public explaining the metaphor to others in order to highlight where miscommunication occurred and how ‘sticky’ the metaphor was. Although the reform advocates initially disliked the metaphor – for its associations with being ‘fresh off the boat’, for example, and for making a largely economic argument – it was amazing to see how both members of the public and professionals took off with it, extending it conceptually as they discussed how unpredictable the wind was and how flexible their rigging would need to be in order to harness it – in other words, people not only began to talk about the ‘system’ but to reconceptualise and transform it. In the short video clips that Anna Marie played, you could see people beginning to change how they perceived and responded to immigration – simply because the metaphor had shifted.

There is certainly much more to linguistics than the example of FrameWorks Institute suggests, and many linguists may object to its somewhat prescriptive approach (as Anna Marie herself acknowledges) and its Orwellian undertones: if language can be used to manipulate thought, might it be used for bad as well as for good, and who decides what constitutes ‘good’? But FrameWorks is nonetheless a compelling illustration both of the role of language in matters of social and political importance, and of the power of language awareness to reframe the debate. By being aware of the language we and others use, and knowing how to effect change, we can trump those who deliberately or inadvertently spread hatred and fear through their words.

For more on Anna Marie’s work, pre-order her new book: Bringing Linguistics to Work: story listening, finding and telling for your career (summer 2016).

*It may be a two-woman career: a recent book by Erika Darics (who organised the talk) attempts to improve business communication skills by raising professionals’ language awareness: Writing Online: a guide to effective digital communication at work (2015, Business Expert Press).

THIS BLOG ARTICLE IS PUBLISHED FIRST AT Researching Education and Language.