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Language, Mind and Power: Why We Need Linguistic Equality

reviewed by Samina Hadi-Tabassum - April 29, 2021

coverTitle: Language, Mind and Power: Why We Need Linguistic Equality
Author(s): Daniel R. Boisvert & Ralf Thiede
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0367224402, Pages: 202, Year: 2020
Search for book at Amazon.com

The intersection of language and power as a theoretical construct has been a popular framework in the postmodern pantheon, composed of texts by Fairclough, Foucault, Grice, Habermas, Halliday, Hymes, Jakobson, and Kristeva—to name a few. This theoretical construct is now the foundation for Boisvert and Thiede’s book Language, Mind and Power: Why We Need Linguistic Equality. The authors of the book are colleagues who teach an interdisciplinary course for undergraduates at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. They wrote this book for their linguistics students, who may already be familiar with terms like syntax and semantics, as well as non-scholars who want a textbook that is readable and enjoyable. A common theme addressed in the book is “cognitive load” and the importance of creating and using texts that are comprehensible and written in plain language, to ensure equity for the reader by lessening the cognitive load of academic texts. By promoting comprehensible texts, the authors argue that democracy is sustained, and language continues to serve the higher goal of allowing human beings the right to speak and read, to analyze and synthesize, and to tell their story.

Clarity and accuracy are increasing in the readability of texts, including this book, and trends toward simpler language and less obscure jargon are evident in public speeches, journals and magazines, and scientific literature. Boisvert and Thiede also address the contemporary landscape of disingenuous news, conspiracy theories, and online political groups like QAnon that attack the obfuscated language of the educated elite, and in doing so, populate social media with divisive language, full of fire and brimstone, that serves the linguistic function of dividing us into warring tribes. Humans use language to build social and physical boundaries around their tribal territories and create linguistic gatekeepers like the word shibboleth to allow some into the tribal circle and keep others out. In fact, the book starts off with human evolution and how human societies throughout history developed and spread languages across the globe, due to the neurological power of the human brain, and used language as a tool to address the “cognitive and communicative demands” of culture—whether it be the culture of hunting and gathering, farming, trading along the riverbanks, or the modern-day capitalism of credit cards and bitcoin.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part addresses topics such as language and the brain, child development, social cognition, and the human need to narrate, and the second part addresses language and power, speech acts and meaning making, linguistic processing and cooperation, the language of violence, and how literary texts can create both order and confusion for the reader. These parts are broken down into chapters with subsections, and each subsection has an array of topics and subtopics. The discrete bodies of information that populate the book have some degree of semblance, but the authors also take a post-structural approach by presenting multiple and contested interpretations of language and power that are dispersed throughout the book and without a strict order and chronology. There are no clear transition points as the reader moves in and out of chapters, subsections, and topics. The layout of each chapter begins with a bullet-point summary of key points, marginalia highlight key concepts and terms, and tabs under each subheading make the reader pause and annotate. The chapters also end with pertinent questions to help the reader extend their thinking and connect the ideas to real-world examples and “what if” discussion possibilities. The book has just the right number of tables, figures, and images to scaffold the theories without overwhelming the reader. In general, the layout of the book is streamlined for the millennial learner who wants to read texts in small doses, focus on concept charts and maps, engage in topics related to social media and digital literacy, and use opposing viewpoints to build a discourse.

In terms of content, the book covers topics found in most college textbooks that focus on sociolinguistics rather than the science of linguistics. There is less focus on understanding the use declensions and a greater focus on how “human languages rely on collective intentionality” and our genetic disposition for hyper-cooperation and collective acceptance. Language is a powerful tool because of its symbiotic relationship with our mind/brain and how it provides mental faculties to manage information about our physical and social worlds such as how we classify and name objects. Language is a complex system of communication that can heal, liberate, and even brainwash us—allowing us to come together as well as splitting us apart—all the while following the logic of thermodynamics with moments of high and low entropy, predictability and randomness, mutations and adaptations.  Language can empower us while also taking power away from us; language can be exploited just like our land. Language gives us the mental capacity to imagine objects, people, and events who are not physically in front of us. Language allows us to frame our selective memories and narrate our stories and histories. Animals also have forms of communication, and the book highlights studies of monkeys, wolves, grey parrots, and Koko, the famous gorilla who could use sign language.

There are two unique areas of emphasis in the book: 1) an examination of a language-rich diet for child development, and 2) how language is used to perpetuate violence. The authors tap into the cognitive science research of Patricia Kuhl (2001) and her colleagues at the University of Washington, who found that infants use “predictive processing” to understand the patterns of language by taking statistics such as when they add the -ed past-tense morpheme to verbs such as “I eated my sandwich” by simply listening and figuring out how morphemes work in English. Infants use “combinatory rules” and put babbles into sounds, sounds into words, words into phrases and sentences, and then sentences into discourse. In terms of child development, language develops alongside cognition, and children soon learn to read and articulate the emotions and thoughts of others—a phenomenon known as the Theory of Mind, which leads to better-functioning adults who can demonstrate empathy and self-regulation. Children learn to apply the rules of their languages in a playful manner, often with joint attention of the mother, eventually gaining access to the complex language which gave humans an advantage over other species. However, the authors also integrate popular research studies into the book without checking for bias, such as the Hart and Risley (2003) research on the supposed 30 million word gap between low-income children and their wealthier peers. Critics have documented the flawed methodology of this study as well as a bias favoring white, middle-class norms of parenting and the deficit perspective toward communities of color (Michaels, 2013; Speery et al., 2019).

In order to share linguistic traditions, we see how our culture of child rearing leads to intelligent creatures who then pass down languages over generations to maintain cooperation and bonding. However, the authors argue that this same linguistic intelligence can also lead to aggressive and injurious behavior such as planned raids, the silencing of the weak, and being the only species that engages in genocide. As we migrated out of Africa, we became predators who adapted to their environments, hunted for bigger game, and “enabled large scale violence.” These acts of violence are still ingrained in our nature and nurture. In the 2020 presidential race, we saw the effects of political discourse and speech acts that targeted specific groups of individuals and engaged in violence against those groups. There were many scholars and non-scholars who analyzed former President Donald Trump’s tweets and social media feed for the use of “assertives, directives, expressives and commissives”—forms of elocution that pointed to his desire for the “hearers” of his elocution to do what he was directing them to do. These elocutionary acts from powerful leaders have always been a part of human history and point to the Machiavellian intelligence that comes along with our emotional intelligence. More so than race, it is language use that is a cohesive device to bond us into tribes as well as a divisive tool that can cause us to become violently triggered by people who speak different languages and dialects. We know today that race is an artificial system of taxonomy that we humans have created for ourselves to divide and conquer; however, the authors argue that we need to have a reckoning with language and how it hard wires us to bond with our tribe, while also warring with the linguistic other.


Gopnik, A., Meltzoff, A. N., & Kuhl, P. K. (2001). The scientist in the crib: Mind, brains, and how children learn. William Morrow.

Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (2003). The early catastrophe: the 30 million word gap by age 3. American Educator. http://www.aft.org/ae/spring2003/hart_risley

Michaels, S. (2013). Commentary: Déjà vu all over again: What’s wrong with Hart and Risley and a “Linguistic Deficit” Framework in Early Childhood Education? Learning Landscapes, 7(1), 23–41.

Speery, D., Speery, L., & Miller, P. (2019). Reexamining the verbal environments of children from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Child Development, 90(4), 1303–1318.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 29, 2021
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23682, Date Accessed: 5/14/2021 10:19:36 PM

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About the Author
  • Samina Hadi-Tabassum
    Erikson Institute in Chicago
    E-mail Author
    SAMINA HADI-TABASSUM, Ph.D., is a clinical associate professor at Erikson Institute in Chicago where she teaches courses in cognitive development and language development. She recently published a book chapter on how children understand race and is working on a book of the same topic.
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