New app Valuable Voices builds awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity in the classroom

A new iPhone app developed at UMBC is poised to change how students and teachers think about language in the classroom. Valuable Voices provides 12 ready-to-implement exercises for students and teachers to build linguistic awareness and English language skills.

Christine Mallinson, an associate professor of language, literacy, and culture (LLC), created the app with her longtime collaborator Anne Charity Hudley, an associate professor of linguistics at William & Mary. Aureanna Hakenson ’15, modern languages, linguistics, and intercultural communication, provided development assistance.

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The app provides monthly exercises that can be adapted for elementary, middle, and high school classrooms, as well as higher ed, in a range of content areas and disciplines. Examples of exercises include analyzing the language of poetry, Shakespearean innovations, and linguistic heritage. Teachers can follow instructions for how to incorporate each exercise into their lesson plans.

Valuable Voices also highlights the importance of linguistic diversity, showing teachers and students alike the rich variation within even a single language, such as English. From word choice to sentence structure, different populations may use the same language in different ways, reflecting different social networks, regions, age groups, life experiences, and the ongoing evolution of language.

“Students don’t leave their language patterns at the door when they get to their classroom—any classroom, from English to biology,” says Mallinson. “This project really exemplifies applied research. With this app, teachers have tools at their disposal and can incorporate their own language background and those of their students. As a result, students are more engaged, and this is really applicable across all fields.”

Hakenson, who minored in computer science and now works as a cyber threat and intelligence analyst, built the app to share the positive impact linguistic awarness can have on students and educators.

“The goal was to make something that would be both interesting and easy to use,” explains Hakenson. “I also know that linguistics isn’t a very widely understood discipline, so being able to share that with students and teachers and possibly help to inspire a student to take in interest in linguistics is really exciting.”

Mallinson has showcased Valuable Voices on the national stage and its visibility continues to grow. She presented the app at the “Language and Educational Justice” symposium sponsored by the Linguistic Society for America and the Society for Linguistic Anthropology, held in January in Austin, Texas. On February 19, Valuable Voices will be featured at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Boston as part of the symposium “Leveraging Linguistics to Broaden Participation in STEM,” invited by the Linguistics and Language Science Section. Mallinson also presented Valuable Voices through a panel focused on linguistic diversity in education at the Maryland Language Science Center.

Since it launched, the free app has been well-received by educators, and downloaded nearly 200 times.

“Teachers and students thrive when they all have a deeper understanding of linguistic and cultural diversity, and this app is a natural extension of our efforts to bring that message into the classroom,” shares Mallinson.

“The value of using an app for this kind of project is that you’re presenting the new concepts to educators in a format that is not only familiar and convenient, but also fun,” adds Hakenson. “This means that the app format could be used across areas of study and with students of all ages, in addition to educators.”

Later this spring, Mallinson’s team will conduct a study with K-12 teachers who have used exercises from the app in their classrooms. Teachers who are interested in participating can contact Mallinson at mallinson@umbc.edu.

Update (2/10): Mallinson was featured in a Baltimore Sun article and video about language variations in Baltimore. “Language changes and develops for a lot of different reasons, and some of those are your social networks, your family networks, your mobility, residential patterns and migration,” Mallinson told the Sun. She is working to publish her research on Baltimore speech in the Journal of English Linguistics later this year.

Header image: Christine Mallinson uses the Valuable Voices app in her office. Photos by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC.