Anja Wanner

Credentials: Languages: German, English, some French and Latin

Position title: Professor, Department of English

Could you tell me a bit about yourself and what you do at UW-Madison? How does language intersect with your work or your studies?

I’m a linguist and faculty member in the English Department. My area of specialization is syntax, the study of the structure of sentences. My mantra is that grammar is not a corset but rather a toolbox that allows us to use language with precision and creativity. It is my experience that multilingual students find it easier to separate the underlying structure of a sentence (which is invisible) from the words that fill that structure and that they’re also more accepting of linguistic variation (because, as speakers of more than one language, they very well know that there are always different ways of saying the same thing). As a linguist, I can’t help but pay attention to remarks people make about language (like stereotyping a speaker based on their accent) or to the language they use (which is usually different from the language they think they use). There are so many language myths and prejudices.

How do you feel your language(s) contribute(s) to your personal or professional identities?

I don’t think I would be a linguist if I were monolingual. One doesn’t need to speak a dozen languages to understand what the study of linguistics is all about, but one does need to understand that there is no language use without language variation. On a personal level, my accent immediately marks me as a non-native speaker of English, so I might as well embrace that identity. For example, we speak German at home, and when I introduce myself, I always pronounce my name the German way (I also have a sound file attached to my email signature). A couple of years ago, I helped establish the German School of Madison, a Saturday school for heritage speakers.

How do you feel your language(s) contribute(s) or add value to your work or studies?

Being multilingual gets one in the habit of constantly changing one’s perspective, which is an approach I find very useful in my personal and professional life.

To what extent do you feel others on campus value your languages in the context of your work/studies at the University?

When I joined UW-Madison, I was nervous that students would complain that their English syntax professor is not a native speaker of English. That has never happened. My students have always respected my multilingual identity and have often expressed dissatisfaction with a school system that did not require them to study a second language early in life.

Have you experienced/observed linguistic prejudice or discrimination? If so, could you describe what happened?

All the time. It happens to myself, it happens to others, it’s baked into policies. People hear my German accent and start making jokes about beer and sausage, mimic my accent, or compliment me on my English in a condescending way. As a tenured English professor with five books on English grammar under my belt, I can take it, but not everyone is in such a secure position. I have seen teaching evaluations where students blamed their TAs’ non-native accent for their poor performance in the class. From there it’s only a small step to full-blown othering. An example of discrimination by policy: When my daughter entered elementary school, she had to take a battery of English proficiency tests that monolingual children did not have to take. The reason for those tests was that I checked a box that said we speak a language other than English in our home. Those tests had to be repeated for several years. The reason for the tests was NOT that her reading and writing skills (in English) were behind those of her peers. The assumption seems to be that linguistic competence is a pie and that multilinguals will only be partially proficient in the languages that they speak and will therefore not succeed academically without constant monitoring. As a linguist, I know this is completely wrong, but what about people who don’t have access to the resources that I have?

In what ways do you believe the campus community can better recognize the value that linguistic diversity brings to the community?

I love the Multilingual UW-Madison campaign. I wish it could also highlight the contributions of staff members in non-academic positions and of international students and TAs. As former chair of the English Department, I’d also love to have conversations about how we name programs and offerings for students who are not fluent speakers of English yet (but who may speak a half dozen of other languages). I know my colleagues in the program of English as a Second Language would love to have those conversations. Multilingualism is a strength, not a deficit.