Murderers, thieves and assorted felons at New York's notorious maximum security prison in Dannemora are having a heated discussion about syntax, beat rhythms and the use of the double negative construction in black English, Italian and Japanese.
Parents at a Montreal daycare are fretting that early exposure to several languages may impede their child's ability to master his mother tongue.
Grade 9 students at FACE high school are discovering how understanding their speech patterns can actually improve their math skills.
Forget Henry Higgins, the pompous arbiter of the queen's English who proudly pummelled the Cockney out of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. This is a job for CLOUT, Concordia University Linguistics Outreach.
Because when Concordia University linguistics professor Charles Reiss and students Michael Barkey, Francis Murchison and Hisako Noguchi head out on the road, the last thing they want to do is freak people out about what's right or wrong about the way they speak.
Instead, their mission is to demystify the art - and science - of language. Along the way, they hope to help people from all walks of life and education levels better understand what their sentence structure reveals about themselves, their culture, and the way our brains collect, sort and process information.
"We think we learn about language through books or in class, but most of what we know about language is unconscious and not accessible to consciousness," Reiss said.
"Each person has a mental grammar, and it is complex and full of surprises."
Emboldened by leading language theorists like Noam Chomsky, Reiss contends there is a "philosophy of the mind," a component of knowledge and learning that is innate, allowing us to absorb information through the senses or by deductive reasoning.
So last spring, members of the fledgling group handed over their knapsacks and went through metal detectors at the Clinton Correctional Facility, a sprawling 19th-century fortress in upstate New York, where they engaged inmates in a high school equivalency class with their non-judgmental attitude toward Ebonics, the controversial dialect favoured by some black Americans.
"Our goal was not to say, 'Don't use the standard,' " said Barkey, who first made his mark at Concordia as one of the handful of students who founded the People's Potato, the university's innovative vegan food service. "There's a lot of language-based racial stereotyping, it's obvious. So one of the major intentions of this prison visit was to undermine that and help people come to the realization ... that this was unfounded. It's important to learn the standard dialect, but it shouldn't be a decision based on a feeling of inferiority."
During that initial visit, Noguchi showed how the double negatives commonly used in black English are a frequent grammatical device in her native Japanese.
"Imagine being told your language doesn't mean you are stupid and illogical - which is the way it is usually taught - but your grammar is just like Italian or Japanese," Reiss said.