Starting a conversation about linguistic inclusion (by Ben Calman)

Ben Calman is a master’s student in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education (DISE) at McGill University. His current research focuses on linguistic inclusion of international students in Canadian higher education. Ben was born in New York and spent his formative years there and in Washington D.C. He has a B.A. from Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. He lives in Montreal with his wife Michelle and their cat Louise.

My friend Austin, a fellow student in my cohort at McGill, refers to us fondly as baby scholars. As a baby scholar, entering the field of sociolinguistics in what McGill still refers to as the Second Language Education concentration is a daunting task.


Sifting through what Marshall and Moore (2018) call the “panoply of lingualisms” (p. 1) often feels less like sifting and more like hacking through a dense jungle of wonderful, intriguing ideas.

Like vines and trees in a jungle, these ideas are intertwined, overlapping, growing in ways that sometimes support and sometimes strangle each other. This can be an overwhelming task for a baby!

Well, this baby is tenacious (ok it’s getting weird now and I’m going to stop referring to myself as a baby… maybe one more time). So, I read and read and read. Through my courses and readings, I became interested in linguistic diversity and the ways institutions & governments use language to deny individuals social justice.

As I began to write my master’s thesis, I started focusing on linguistic discrimination, especially the work of Dovchin (2019, 2020) exploring how plurilingual and translingual youth are discriminated against because of their communicative practices, as well as works by Flores & Rosa (2015) and Alim (2016) on how racial and linguistic discrimination are deeply interconnected. I wanted to know more about that! But that reading led me, as it always does, to another question: What is the opposite of linguistic discrimination? Identifying linguistic discrimination is important, but combatting it requires an alternative. I was stuck, too deep in my metaphorical jungle to turn back but unsure of which way to move forward, until one day I found this quote.

“Linguistic inclusion can succeed only as part of an explicit and broad-based anti-racist project” (Stuart, 2006, p. 248)

“This is interesting, what is linguistic inclusion?”

It’s a term so simple that just by reading it, I had an idea of what it meant. Of course, linguistic inclusion. Why hadn’t I thought of those words before? Surely, that’s something that sociolinguists are concerned about. Scholars are writing about that. Someone, at some point, has conceptualized what that is and why it’s important. Someone has defined it and I need that definition! And I found it, right?


I mean, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this, would I?

 The truth is that as a field, sociolinguistics just isn’t talking about linguistic inclusion, or rather, we’re not using the term. At the time of writing, a google scholar search for “linguistic inclusion” returns a paltry 565 results.

For comparison’s sake, here are some of the more regularly used terms in the “panoply of lingualisms” (ibid.)

Clearly, people in and beyond our field are talking about linguistic diversity. However, in each of the lingualisms in the panoply listed above there is recognition that linguistic diversity, while important, is not enough on its own.

That’s because when linguistic diversity happens, it is all too often accompanied by linguistic discrimination. Furthermore, language continues to be one of the last remaining socially acceptable and legal ways to exclude, discriminate, and deny rights to people.

To explain why it’s important to start talking about linguistic inclusion, it’s necessary to explore the distinction between diversity and inclusion.

Diversity vs Inclusion

“Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.” -Vernā Myers

I like this quote because of its simplicity and accessibility. It establishes cleanly that there is a difference between diversity and inclusion.

Diversity can be seen as more of a demographic assessment of an organization, institution or even nation state. Diversity could be assessed through a census or other quantitative means. It is a numbers game. Diversity is important; there is no inclusion, or ultimately social justice without it. But, it is a starting point. This is true of linguistic diversity as well. It is important, but it is not enough.

Inclusion on the other hand is much more related to the quality of the diverse space. An inclusive space welcomes and utilizes the ideas and skills of diverse individuals within that organization, institution or even nation state. Inclusion is about being involved.

If we can’t stop at diversity, then we can’t stop at linguistic diversity. If inclusivity is the quality diversity seeks to create, then linguistic inclusivity could be the quality linguistic diversity seeks to create

But what is this quality? It is worth noting that the quote at the beginning of this section is oversimple and a little misleading. What the above conception of diversity and inclusion lacks is agency of the individual who is invited to the party and asked to dance.

As some have pointed out. The quote positions people as passive receivers of inclusion, equity and social justice. For inclusivity to truly exist, people must be able to request and even demand the things they need and be heard. Truly inclusive spaces welcome participation, but also the change that diverse participation brings.

For this reason, I prefer Daniel Juday’s update to the quote: “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is choosing the music.”

A conceptualization of linguistic inclusion

By talking specifically and intentionally about linguistic inclusion I hope to continue and broadcast the important conceptualizations happening now about how language is all too often used as a premise to deny rights and social justice, to discriminate and oppress people in society today.

Linguistic inclusion means recognizing the legitimacy of and working towards achieving equity among all communicative resources, language varieties, and named languages.

If that sounds familiar, well, that’s because it is! Many sociolinguists are conceptualizing something very similar. By offering this term and conceptualization, my hope is only to be more inclusive to those trying to better understand their own experiences, and the experiences of those around them so that they might strive for a more linguistically inclusive and therefore more socially just tomorrow. This baby dreams big!


Alim, H.S. (2016). Introducing raciolinguistics: Racing language and languaging race in hyperracial times. In H. S. Alim, J.R. Rickford, & A.F. Ball (Eds.). Raciolinguistics: How language shapes our ideas about race. Oxford University Press.

Dovchin, S. (2019). The politics of injustice in Translingualism: Linguistic discrimination. In T.A. Barrett & S. Dovchin (Eds.) Critical Inquiries in the Sociolinguistics of Globalization (pp. 84-101). Multilingual Matters.

Dovchin, S. (2020). The psychological damages of linguistic racism and international students in Australia. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. 

Flores, N., & Rosa, J. (2015). Undoing appropriateness: Raciolinguistic ideologies and language diversity in education. Harvard Educational Review, 85(2), 149–171.

Juday, D. (2017, May 3) Inclusion isn’t “being asked to dance.” Linkedin.

Marshall, S., & Moore, D. (201)8. Plurilingualism amid the panoply of lingualisms: Addressing critiques and misconceptions in education. International Journal of Multilingualism, 15(1), 19-34.

Stuart, A. (2006). Equal treatment as exclusion: Language, race and US education policy. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 10(02-03), 235-250.

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