The value of accessible language

Camilla Tarpey-Schwed, Columnist

I may not be the only one who feels a burst of energy when I decipher difficult readings for my classes and communicate abstract and theoretical concepts through complex language. This is because the college classroom environment encourages us to ground our dialogue in the academic and theoretical language that we are also being taught. This environment, however, is unique, because everyone is introduced to similar language and specific theoretical ideas, unlike many conversations outside the classroom where everyone has different interests and backgrounds. 

This classroom practice has resulted in discourses that are not only inaccessible but also abstracted from the real-world issues they seek to understand and address. Language can be a way to open conversations, but it can also be an exclusionary barrier to productive dialogue. In order to foster inclusive discourses, we must not only remain aware of the type of language we use to communicate and its effects, but we must also form dialogues that are universally accessible.

Inaccessible language can be defined as any type of language that excludes certain people from accessing, understanding and using the language. Such language can make it difficult to enter conversations and spaces. Types of inaccessible language can include jargon (technical vocabulary) and abstractions.

Abstraction is a form of inaccessible language because its conceptual nature  distances oneself from important, emotionally grounded conversations about identity and experience. From my view, I’ve noticed that I and others are afraid that we will hurt others or say something wrong when discussing experiences of race, gender/sexuality, class and disability. 

Abstraction can also be a way to avoid these types of conversations by using words that distance the discussion from real-world issues and experiences. For example, when discussing privilege, we may use abstract words such as “racism,” instead of describing real-world examples of our privilege. We can also state that we’re committed to diversity, equity and inclusion, yet fail to explicitly and clearly describe concrete steps that we believe should be taken to make our institutions more accepting. 

The use of abstract and theoretical language in an higher education environment is a form of elitism as well. Theoretical language is difficult for anyone to comprehend, and coupled with the myth that academic language equates to intelligence, such language renders individuals who use theoretical language superior and those who do not inferior. Additionally, when we problematically believe that we are superior to others and know everything about a topic or issue, productive conversations are shut down. 

Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely love theory. I find it useful for understanding different concepts and ideas that we come in contact with and that frame our everyday experiences. My point is that abstract, theoretical language is problematic when we immediately believe that we speak truth just because we use and understand such language.

To provide an example, I am taking a rhetorical theory class this semester. I have been so inspired by the concepts I have learned, and so I often try to facilitate conversations with my friends and family about what I’ve learned. At first, it was difficult to translate how the theories applied to real-world experiences, and the big words and abstract concepts I used deterred my family and friends. Through time, I found that I was able to communicate my ideas effectively in a comprehensible, less abstract manner. 

Ironically this article may also be inaccessible. Using accessible language is a skill that I am continuing to work on, and it should be something we all keep in mind. When contributing to conversations and dialogues, we should not only remain aware of the language we use to communicate but also recognize our own positionalities, experiences and perspectives.