Language is more than how we speak — it’s home

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When Natalyn Daniels transferred to UC Berkeley as an undergraduate student in 2009, she felt like an outsider. “A lot of the communication approaches I was exposed to — they’re not … necessarily accepted or tolerated in a lot of professional and academic settings,” she says.

How we speak, says sociolinguist and Berkeley lecturer Rose Wilkerson, represents who we are — our culture, our family and our sense of place in the world. So, when a person is criticized for how they speak, she says, it cuts to the heart. 

Daniels, now on staff at Berkeley as a Clery liaison, looks back at her experience on campus and shares how her grandmother, who lived in a deeply segregated South in the pre-civil rights era, didn’t have access to an education that many take for granted.

“The very tool we suggest serves as the equalizer, or serves as a tool of empowerment, which is language and writing and literacy … that was a tool that has been weaponized against her, as well as historically withheld from her and other underresourced Black and Indigenous people,” says Daniels.  

three photos: a woman with sunglasses looking into the distance; two parents and two small kids sitting on a porch; a photo taken in the 1900s of a woman wearing a hat

In this episode of Fiat Vox, staffer Natalyn Daniels, who first came to UC Berkeley as an undergraduate student in 2009, reflects on how her communication approach was learned from her family — from her parents (top left), her grandmother (right) and her ancestors who came before her (bottom left). (Photos courtesy of Natalyn Daniels)

Read a transcript of Fiat Vox episode #69: “Language is more than how we speak — it’s home.”

Natalyn Daniels: When you come to the campus, it’s not that the campus necessarily changes. The campus keeps going. So, you have to find a way to be important to the campus and be part of the campus.

I think that’s probably a feeling that’s shared across most folks who arrive on the campus. And I think it’s exacerbated or amplified when someone comes in with identities that are not highly represented on campus, which was definitely the case for me.

[Music]

Natalyn Daniels first came to UC Berkeley in 2009 as a transfer student from a community college in Arizona.

Natalyn Daniels: A lot of the communication approaches I was exposed to — they’re not communication approaches that are necessarily accepted or tolerated in a lot of professional and academic settings, perhaps because they’re not the default or because folks just don’t know that those communication styles exist and are valid. So, really understanding that there’s a certain knowledge set that’s deeply valued by the institution that then shapes the way we even communicate about our experiences.

You’re listening to Fiat Vox, a Berkeley News podcast. I’m Anne Brice.

two parents and their two young children siting on a porch smiling

Baby Natalyn with her dad, Louis, her mom, Geri, and her sister, Tiffany, on the Dine reservation in Kayenta, Arizona. (Photo courtesy of Natalyn Daniels)

Daniels spent the first few years of her life in Kayenta, Arizona. It’s a small town that’s part of the Navajo Nation. Her parents were educators on the reservation. She’s the second youngest of four sisters.

Natalyn Daniels: And so, my first experiences of life and everything I knew about my own sense of self and culture and experience was wrapped in my family — we had our little bubble in our home there in Kayenta.

And then, we were surrounded by this deeply homogenous, ancient culture and practice that really, really raised me and helped me learn what it meant to communicate and to share and to show affection and to express needs and to know who I am.

Her mother comes from an impoverished agricultural family in the Midwest, and her father comes from Indigenous and African American lineage in Nashville, Tennessee.

Natalyn Daniels: My family is deeply mixed. We’re multi-heritage, so we’ve got a lot of different racial identities, a lot of different spiritual identities, different ethnic identities, different national identities — especially in terms of immigration and enslavement — playing a role in our house.

[Music]

Paper trails are really hard with families that are mixed like ours, especially on my dad’s side — that side of the family is descended from the Atlantic slave trade.

But the women in my family have used language, even if it’s not their language, they’ve used language as a tool to try to keep records via photographs.

So, we have all these photos, dating back over 100 years, of family members. And on the backs of the photos, there’s teeny tiny handwriting, beautiful penmanship, cursive from top to bottom. There is not a modicum of white space left on the back of the photographs because it was my family’s attempt to record and reclaim our history.

We don’t have paper records suggesting who we are or that we’re real or exist. It’s just these photographs. It’s the best trail we have to know where we come from.

So, the back of these photographs, it lists names, nicknames, marriages, children, birth dates, racial percentages, which is mostly due to, like, blood quantum and enslavement policies at the time. But there’s also some short, quirky stories about who they are and what their favorite food was and why they divorced their first husband or whatever.

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Like, there’s that kind of stuff that really makes these people feel so human and reminds us that they are us and still in us in a lot of ways, even if history is telling us that’s not true or telling us that it’s not possible to know those things.

I definitely have my grandmothers to thank for that on both sides for holding that photo archive and maintaining it so well. It’s an incredible resource for me that wouldn’t exist without them fighting so hard to be able to learn a language that was never meant for them and use it to document these things for me in the future.

Natalyn's grandmother as a teenager stands with her young son and her mother

Daniels’ grandmother, Barbara (right) had her first son, Louis (front), who would become Daniels’ father, when she was a teenager. She grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, where she still lives — about 20 miles from a plantation where her ancestors were enslaved. (Photo courtesy of Natalyn Daniels)

Her grandmother, Barbara, had her first child, who would become Daniels’ father, when she was a teenager. She had three other kids and raised them all on her own. And she fought really hard to achieve a high school level of education.

Natalyn Daniels: My grandmother has endured deeply segregated, oppressive circumstances in the South, specifically pre-civil rights. And these circumstances have impacted every aspect of her life, including her access to education and language and other learning opportunities that a lot of people, I think, take for granted.

But the very tool we suggest serves as the equalizer, or serves as a tool of empowerment, which is language and writing and literacy and all of these other pieces, that was a tool that has been weaponized against her, as well as historically withheld from her and other underresourced Black and Indigenous people.

[Music]

Also, she has a traditional Nashville Southern accent — what Daniels describes as a “hearty, soulful twang.” Daniels says because of the way her grandmother speaks, people have often dismissed what she has to say right off the bat.

portrait of Natalyn's grandmother in her 30s

Daniels’ grandmother, Barbara, raised four kids on her own and fought to achieve a high school level of education. “The very tool we suggest serves as the equalizer, or serves as a tool of empowerment, which is language and writing and literacy,” says Daniels, “that was a tool that has been weaponized against her, as well as historically withheld from her and other underresourced Black and Indigenous people.”

Natalyn Daniels: And my grandmother — she’s an incredible person with so many incredible things to say. And we would only benefit from listening, including myself. Every time that I get to see her speak or share, I am floored. There’s just so much wisdom held in one person.

Rose Wilkerson: The concept that somehow there’s a standard and a substandard language is really about power.

That’s Rose Wilkerson, a sociolinguist and lecturer in the Department of African American Studies at Berkeley. She has a Ph.D. in linguistics and specializes in African American English.

She taught a course a few years ago in the linguistics department at Berkeley called American Languages.

Rose Wilkerson: We have a saying in linguistics: The difference between a language and a dialect is whoever has an army and a navy.

In other words, who has socioeconomic and political power in the country — that will be the standard or the accepted mainstream form of English.

So, when you have any kind of perception about a person and the way that they speak — “Oh, this is a dialect or a substandard form of English or it’s a broken language” — actually, the way that the brain works and the way that human beings speak, you can’t break a language. That’s impossible to do.

In fact, most sociolinguists don’t like to use the term dialect because it’s very derogatory. We call them a variety. African American English is a variety of English.

[Music]

Language functions as a way to communicate for human beings. All languages have structure. All languages have rules. Everything we speak has a pattern. Most people don’t understand that, and they don’t understand that because they’ve been taught differently, right?

Portrait of Rose Wilkerson

Rose Wilkerson is a sociolinguist and lecturer at Berkeley. (Photo courtesy of Rose Wilkerson)

Wilkerson explained that the reason there’s a linguistic prejudice against people with Southern accents, like Daniels’ grandmother has, comes from the outcome of the American Civil War.

Rose Wilkerson: Well, who ended up losing out of that? The South. So, their language, their culture, tends to be looked down upon: “These are more ignorant people. They are not very smart.” And basically, it’s because they lost that war.

If the South had won the Civil War, she says, the standard in the U.S. today would be Southern English.

Rose Wilkerson: Think about what the U.S. would have been like, linguistically speaking, in terms of what we would value. It would be a different story. So, the standard would be Southern English. That’s how that happens.

When people are criticized for how they speak, says Wilkerson, like Daniels was when she got to Berkeley, and how her grandmother has been throughout her life, it’s about so much more than just the speech itself.

Rose Wilkerson: Language is culture. You learn language from your parents. It is the language of love. It is the language of your home. It is the language of food. It’s the language of music.

So, when you come into a situation where people say things to you or devalue who you are by the way you speak, that cuts to the heart, right? You’re discriminating against a person’s culture and their language. You’re making assumptions about them based upon how they’re speaking.

We need to have teachers that are trained, that understand about not just language, but language perceptions and discrimination. Because this, again, this is not something that we always talk about. We’re not conscious of what’s going on.

We still carry these prejudices in our minds. If people really understood language from the perception of linguistics, I think that would be the start of removing these perceptions about language somehow being deficient.

[Music]

Natalyn plays a keyboard on stage

Daniels, who works as a Clery liaison at Berkeley and first came to the campus as a transfer student in 2009, says she hopes that sharing her story will help others on campus will recognize that, no matter where they come from and what communication approaches they use, that they have value and make Berkeley a better, richer place. (Photo courtesy of Natalyn Daniels)

In 2011, Daniels graduated from Berkeley with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. She went to work as a medic in Alameda County and in foster care for the city of Oakland.

In 2017, she came back to Berkeley to work at the PATH to Care Center, the campus interpersonal violence center, where she focused on response and prevention to sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence and stalking.

Portrait of Natayln smiling

Daniels says, looking back, she would tell her younger self “that the experiences and the way that I learned to navigate difficult, complex circumstances and environments in our society, that all of that still is a bed of wisdom and a bed of experience that is mine, and it’s valuable.”  (Photo courtesy of Natalyn Daniels)

Recently, she took a job as a Clery liaison, helping to make sure the campus is in compliance with the Clery Act, a protection law that aims to provide transparency around campus crime policy and statistics.

She says now that she’s been entrenched in academic language for several years, she has a grasp on how academia prefers things to be said.

But she doesn’t want others to go through what she did — a kind of painful assimilation in which she felt her identity was deeply devalued.

Natalyn Daniels: Looking back, what’s the message I would say to my younger self? I don’t know that I would encourage my younger self to speak up more. I don’t think that is the case.

I think the change I would make would be to encourage my younger self to recognize that, as much as I feel like I have to learn from the institution and from the people around me, the people around me don’t feel like they don’t have just as much to learn from me, and that’s not my fault.

And I think that would be the thing that I would share back — that the experiences and the way that I learned to navigate difficult, complex circumstances and environments in our society, that all of that still is a bed of wisdom and a bed of experience that is mine, and it’s valuable.

Natalyn and her two sisters with their grandmother on her 80th birthday

Daniels (right) celebrates her grandmother’s 80th birthday with her two sisters, Tiffany (left) and Andrea (center). (Photo courtesy of Natalyn Daniels)

And just because no one’s asking what that experience is or asking me to write about it or asking me to talk about it, that doesn’t mean that it’s less valuable than the experiences that my peers and my faculty are sharing with me.

It’s a message she wants to share with all the students at Berkeley, and anyone else on campus who feels like an outsider: that they belong, and that Berkeley is better because of them.

This is Fiat Vox, a Berkeley News podcast. I’m Anne Brice, a podcast producer for the Office of Communications and Public Affairs.

Next week, I’ll be talking with Rita Lucarelli, an associate professor of Egyptology and a faculty curator of Egyptology at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology. We’ll be talking about the museum’s mummified crocodile collection and what crocodiles meant to ancient Egyptian culture.

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Also, check out our other podcast, Berkeley Talks, which shares lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can find all of our podcast episodes on Berkeley News at news.berkeley.edu/podcasts.


Music in this episode was by Blue Dot Sessions:

“Stucco Grey”

“Titter Snowbird”

“Distill”

“Building the Sled”

“Slow Lane Lover”

Listen to other Fiat Vox episodes: