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  • Publishing in the Language and Public Policy section of Language
  • Vaidehi Ramanathan and Patricia Cukor-Avila

This short piece addresses concerns relevant to potential contributors to the Language and Public Policy (LPP) section of Language. It briefly lays out what this subdomain of Linguistics is about, the kinds of questions and concerns it is devoted to addressing, the types of data with which it typically works, and criteria for an 'ideal' LPP paper.

In simple terms, language policy—a research domain in applied linguistics and sociolinguistics—has been defined as deliberate choices that governments, institutions, and programs make with regard to the relationship between language and social life. Traditionally, language policies have been viewed as mandates or rules that are often formally articulated in written documents (although there are nonformal policies as well). Generally critiqued for being top-down in orientation, this area of language policy has tended to focus on regulations, with much scholarship specifying how national language policies favor or discourage the use of a particular language or set of languages. Research in this domain typically addresses what a government does officially through legislation, court decisions, or policy to determine how languages are used, to cultivate language skills needed to meet national priorities, or to establish the rights of individuals or groups to use and maintain languages. Within this space, areas such as education and courts of law have received a lot of attention, since national, regional, or institutional policies impact everything within these domains, including concerns around teacher education, curriculum development, language(s) used in courts, translation services for speakers of minority languages, and language(s) used in health/medical settings. In short, an overall aim of this kind of LPP research is to speak to the need to legitimize nonstandard languages and varieties.

More recently, though, there has been increasing attention paid to a bottom-up approach to language policy, where the focus is on the enactments of and around policies, with a view to encourage researchers and scholars to openly address spaces for transformative interventions. A general aim with this orientation is to take advantage of the fact that exploring local language issues in public domains is a viable doorway through which to address policy concerns. Human engagements in public domains, then, become starting points, whether they involve middle-school teachers in rural South Africa who prefer to teach in Xhosa rather than Zulu or English or efforts to ensure that court transcribers in California can 'hear' Spanglish and African American English so as to provide accurate transcriptions. These engagements could also involve addressing the literacy needs of inmates in correctional facilities or working out the language of water policies to ensure clean drinking water (in places like Flint, Michigan). Making public engagements a focal point shifts attention away from thinking about policies as being formulated behind closed doors to a space where implications for policy change emerge from a focus on humans enacting or resisting current policies. This kind of LPP research means that we go beyond asking 'What are the current policies in place? And what do these policies do?' to asking 'What are current practices around a specific policy that are reproducing inequality, and in what ways do prevailing policies need to [End Page 403] change?'. This shift in overarching questions casts attention on how our language-related engagements in the world reveal aspects of policies that need rethinking.

These two approaches to LPP research draw on different types of data. Table 1 offers a rough breakdown.

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Table 1.

Types of data drawn on the top-down vs. bottom-up approaches to LPP research.

This rough breakdown might convey an erroneous either/or impression about data types: a top-down approach does not necessarily cancel out the relevance of a bottom-up orientation. In fact, some of the strongest LPP scholarship offers both a robust analysis of written policy documents and an analysis of spoken data. But given that both types of LPP research demand different kinds of discourse data analysis, and given page-length constraints that journals have to adhere to, it is often the case that the researcher ends up focusing on either...


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pp. 403-405
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