What They Learned: Marley Asplundh ’19

The linguistics major spent time in a Philadelphia classroom to research the relationship between linguistic discrimination and education for her thesis.

For Marley Asplundh ’19, the thesis project was an opportunity to put the studies for her linguistics major in conversation with what she learned for her education minor. The result was a fitting capstone to effectively close off four years of undergraduate studies that will continue to inform the recent graduate as she proceeds down her projected career track as a teacher.

The seeds of Asplundh’s thesis, “The Impact of Teacher Education and Experience on Curriculum and Pedagogy to Sustain Linguistic Diversity and Accessibility,” were sown early on in her time at Haverford.

“I took ‘Critical Issues in Education,’ a class that serves as an introduction to the Education Program and a survey of education as it has, does, and could exist in the United States, my sophomore year,” said Asplundh. “In it, we spent a day discussing topics surrounding linguistic diversity in a classroom setting. That discussion opened my eyes to a major issue and was immediately a clear connection of my major and minor.”

Though the linguistics major found inspiration for her thesis in that early discussion of her two fields of interest, it took another year of incubation and a trip halfway around the world for it to be fully realized. While studying abroad in Edinburgh, she took a course on Scots, a minority dialect spoken in Scotland. A thesis topic became apparent to her, during the class’s discussion of linguistic discrimination—when a way of speaking is looked down on as being “wrong.”

“At one point he [the professor] even said, ‘If any American students in the room are trying to come up with a senior thesis project, there is an endless amount to be written about the discrimination of African American English in the U.S.,’” Aslpundh reflected. “At that point I was in fact starting to think about potential thesis topicsso I added his suggestion right after class, thinking about how to frame it within a classroom manifestation”

After returning to the U.S., Asplundh interrogated her topic by means of classroom observation in a Philadelphia public school. Through her research, she sought to note the detrimental effects that linguistic discrimination can have on learning. Her thesis showcases a more effective and accessible manner of teaching. These topics will be of continued interest to Asplundh outside of Haverford as she enters into Penn’s masters program in urban teaching this July.

“Before starting my thesis, I had hoped that I could use it as a chance to learn something that would support my practice as a teacher and make me more aware and effective in my teaching,” she said. “My thesis process has helped to teach me about why it’s important to be thoughtful and intentional while I’m teaching.”

What did you learn from working on your thesis?

To conduct my thesis research, I spent three hours a week observing a sixth grade math teacher in a Philadelphia public school. She is a Bryn Mawr alumna, so she was not only enlightening to me as an experienced and intentional teacher, but she understood a lot about where I was coming from and thought about education in a lot of the same ways as I did.

At first, one of my note-taking focuses was on how the teacher used language in the classroom as a tool to help her students understand math. She is a white woman who speaks what is commonly referred to linguistically as Standard American English. Many of her students were black and spoke what is frequently called African American English or Latinx and spoke Spanish in addition to English. This difference in language use is common in urban public schools where a large majority of teachers are white and students are people of color. I learned through my observations that she made a conscious and careful effort to make the language she used meaningful to her students, defining words she used and giving analogies and examples. This practice helped them understand her while also providing tools that helped them talk about what they needed to thrive in school. My takeaways were that successful communication in a classroom needs to be purposeful and explicit.

What are the implications for your thesis research?

There is a lot of research on language in the classroom, and my thesis is just a small part of that now. Linguistic discrimination is a huge issue in the U.S. because people often think there is a “right” and “wrong” way to speak, but any system of language that is understandable by other people in your community is considered valid by linguists. The more that people can understand that minority dialects are just as valid as standard varieties of languages, the less language will be able to be used as a racist, classist weapon. Part of the reason I think it’s important to consider this issue on a school level is that I believe if more teachers were respectful of linguistic diversity, more people would learn to be respectful and accepting at a young age and help reduce discrimination. My specific research doesn’t necessarily do this in a way that other research has not, but I think this is something that will be improved when people are more aware of the issues of linguistic discrimination, so more research that exists on the topic the more awareness there can be.

“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.