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Language and Power in Education
by Dimitrios Thanasoulas
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For a Word version of this article

1. Introduction
When we speak or write, we "tailor" what we say to fit the particular situation in which we are communicating and, at the same time, how we speak or write creates that very situation. '[W]e fit our language to a situation or context that our language, in turn, helped to create in the first place' (Gee, 1999: 11). Furthermore, it seems that we always build and rebuild reality not just by dint of the language we employ but through language as discourse, i.e., language used in tandem with non-linguistic cues and symbol systems, tools, actions, interactions, technologies, and particular ways of thinking, feeling, or believing (ibid.). According to Gee (1999: 12), when we speak or write, we build six 'areas of "reality"': the meaning and value of aspects of the material world; activities; identities and relationships; politics; connections; and semiotics (an in-depth analysis of these areas is not within the purview of the present study). Here, one of our aims is to show that language is social practice and not a phenomenon that functions in a vacuum; it is not an 'autonomous construct' (Fairclough, 1989: vi) but action, both shaping and shaped by 'the structures and forces of [the] social institutions within which we live and function' (ibid.). Moreover, we will be concerned with the construction of discourse within the classroom, where the seemingly salient participant, that is, the teacher, may negotiate meaning while still remaining the main purveyor of knowledge and wielder of latent power. Thus, we will draw upon several teacher-students sequences, with a view to shedding light on the role of discourse in establishing the teacher's authority over the students, as well as the power relationships attending the construction of knowledge in the classroom. It is hoped that the present study will 'help correct [the] widespread underestimation of the significance of language in the production, maintenance, and change of social relations of power' (Fairclough, 1989: 1), and draw our attention to how language contributes to people's domination.

2. Discourse as social practice
It is not uncommon for linguists and laymen alike to talk about the relationship between language and society, as if these two were separate entities that may occasionally come into contact. Yet, we could argue that language and society are inextricably related: 'linguistic phenomena are social phenomena of a special sort, and social phenomena are (in part) linguistic phenomena' (Fairclough, 1989: 23). On the one hand, linguistic phenomena are social, in that, whenever we engage in some talk, we do so in ways that are socially determined and can be said to have certain social effects. In the case of speech acts, for example, utterances such as I bet you six pence it'll rain tomorrow or I apologise perform acts that go far beyond the meaning of the words comprising them. In fact, their force 'is situated in specific social and cultural practices, and is continually transformed in those practices' (Gee, 1999: 63). In other words, what has been dubbed as "discourse" is language which is 'customized in, to, and for context, used always against a rich store of cultural knowledge (cultural models) that are themselves "activated" in, for, and by contexts' (ibid.). A rather telling example of how a cultural model operates is the case of "bedrooms." When we think about bedrooms, we actually "trigger" any pertinent situated meanings and cultural models regarding houses, families, relationships, and so forth (ibid.: 61). The bottom line is that meaning, even literal meaning, is not abstract but 'wedded to local, "on-site," social, and cultural practices' (ibid.: 63).
What we can glean from all this is that social phenomena are also linguistic, in the sense that the language activity transpiring in social contexts does not merely reflect social practices, but is a part of those practices. According to Fairclough (1989: 23), there is no symmetrical relationship between language and society; '[t]he whole is society, and language is one strand of the social'. At this juncture, it is of consequence to introduce another term, that of subject positions, used in Fairclough (ibid.), which better illustrates how discourse determines and is determined by social structures. Let us consider the example below and try to clarify what a subject position is. What follows is part of an interview in a police station (found in Fairclough, 1989: 18). The witness to a robbery (W) is being asked what happened, while the policeman (P) is writing down the relevant information.

(1) P: Did you get a look at the one in the car?
(2) W: I saw his face, yeah.
(3) P: What sort of age was he?
(4) W: About 45. He was wearing a…
(5) P: And how tall?
(6) W: Six foot one.
(7) P: Six foot one. Hair?
(8) W: Dark and curly. Is this going to take long? I've got to collect the kids from school.
(9) P: Not much longer, no. What about his clothes?
(10) W: He was a bit scruffy-looking, blue trousers, black…
(11) P: Jeans?
(12) W: Yeah.

The relationship between the policeman and the witness is undoubtedly an unequal one, the way the interview develops being under the interviewer's control, who does nothing to mitigate the demands he makes in the form of questions. For example, in turn (1) the interviewer might have used a mitigated form such as Did you by any chance have a look at the person in the car. Furthermore, in (5) and (7) the policeman reduces questions to words or phrases-how tall and hair, respectively. As Fairclough (1999: 18) insightfully remarks, 'the sensitive nature of the situation does not override the norms of form-filling'. We should also notice the way in which the policeman exercises control over W's contributions: P interrupts W in (5) and (11), while in (9) P fails to acknowledge W's problem, asking another question instead.
How much leeway are we left with in asserting that all these features touched upon above are arbitrary? In some respects, they are but, on reflection, they are contingent upon social conditions-more specifically, upon the relationship between the "police" and members of "the public." Thus, the social structure of the social institution called "the police" involves, inter alia, a set of 'social roles' (or subject positions), as well as a set of approved purposes for discourse (ibid.). To hark back to our example, the policeman and the witness occupy different subject positions, that is, they are assigned different social roles. It is by virtue of the subject positions they occupy that they are constrained to act and talk in certain ways. In this light, in the interview above, mitigated expressions and acknowledgement of the interviewee's needs are not generally expected, nor is lack of them experienced as a problem for someone versed in the conventions for such interviews.

Being a police officer or being a police witness is a matter of occupying the subject positions set up in discourses such as the discourse of (information-gathering in) interviews…And it is only in so far as people do routinely occupy these positions that the conventional personae of police officer and witness are reproduced as a part of the social structure of policing as an institution (Fairclough, 1989: 41).

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