Kay Payne ’73

The Communication Conversation

by Andrew Wickenden ’09

“Reading is communication, writing is communication, everything done in the classroom is some form of communication — there is no education without communication,” says Kay Payne ’73, a professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Howard University’s School of Communications.

For decades, Payne’s research on linguistic diversity has staked out important territory in the national conversation on improving educational equity. She is internationally renowned for her unique specializations in sociolinguistics and cultural anthropology, as well as her expertise on cultural diversity, test-taking skills, and communication disorders, including diagnosis, treatment and bilingual issues.

Communications specialists “are essential to education,” she explains, because “there isn’t a good handle on why there is the achievement gap and a reading gap, and why a disproportionate number of people from multicultural backgrounds are put into special education. We need to do more research to discover solutions and make sure we don’t misdiagnose. And that’s all about communication.”

Alongside educators and speech therapists, academics like Payne design their research to practically benefit both adults and children, addressing acquired language disabilities, such as stroke or head injury, as well as congenital developmental and learning disabilities. To help restore communication faculties to people with communication disorders, that rehabilitation work typically starts from the bottom up.

“We are biologically wired as human beings to learn a language — that’s one of the things that sets us apart as a species,” says Payne. “With rehabilitation, you have to know the process of language development, how children go about acquiring language from the environment, how language is structured, what areas will be impaired by a particular condition — all in order to restore what may have been missing or delayed in the normal process of acquiring language. That’s what we call therapy.”

As a researcher and educator, Payne focuses on sociolinguistics, exploring language in the context of social phenomena like region, class, occupation, gender and ethnicity. That’s the other side of therapy, she explains: “You have to know culture to understand how expressions are being used.”

Currently, one of Payne’s students at Howard is developing a project focused on Guyanese Creole, a mix of African and European languages spoken in Guyana, the only predominately English speaking country in South America.

“Guyana is a developing country with a large need for speech and rehabilitation language therapists,” Payne says. “The tools they have come from the U.S. and are based on our linguistic system here, which may be useful in certain parts but isn’t widely applicable.”

This is because Guyanese Creole — “a language with a slave heritage,” Payne notes — retains many of the original linguistic aspects that existed 300 years ago.

The focus of the project, therefore, “is to describe and capture the relevant aspects of the language that differ from standard American English in the U.S. and make appropriate instruments for therapists working with children and adults,” says Payne, whose career has been built around research at this crux of language, communication and culture.

“As I culminate my years in the field,” she says, “I’m happy to have a student interested in something I was interested in at the beginning of my career. It’s nice to see that part of the conversation continue into the future.”

Kay Payne ’73 has authored three best-selling books and helped create the first software program to improve the scores of minority students on the PRAXIS examinations, which evaluate individuals for entry into teacher education programs. She has been awarded the Fulbright Fellowship twice to do research in Egypt and India, and other prestigious fellowships to Brazil, China, Namibia, Russia and Ukraine. She has been named a Fellow of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and more recently received the prestigious Scholar-Mentor Award from the National Black Association for Speech, Language, and Hearing. In 2016, during the Colleges’ Multicultural Career and Networking Conference, Payne was awarded the William Smith Alumnae Association’s highest honor, the Alumna Achievement Award. In her keynote address during the conference, Payne encouraged the audience to “value diversity — not only because it is the right thing to do, but because without diversity we limit the horizon of human achievement.”


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