“Looking Holistically in a Climate of Partiality: Identities of Students Labeled Long-Term English Language Learners”

Nelson Flores, Tatyana Kleyn & Kate Menken (2015) Looking Holistically in a Climate of Partiality: Identities of Students Labeled Long-Term English Language Learners, Journal of Language, Identity & Education, 14:2, 113-132, DOI: 10.1080/15348458.2015.1019787

I’ve been interested in language and language learning for almost as long as I remember. One of my earliest career goals was to go around the world cleaning houses. I’m not sure where the cleaning houses part came in, it was maybe related to my gran’s field of work. I wanted to travel the world so I could learn many different languages. My mother tongue is English and I’ve never needed to clean houses to make a living so I’m privileged in more ways than a few. I’m close to bilingual in French, competent in Spanish and I know smatterings of Portuguese and Xhosa. I haven’t taken on languages far removed from English and I can talk about bilingualism and the need for effective bilingual/multilingual education without it being a life or death matter (for me).

I don’t feel I’m exaggerating when I couch the linguistic debate in such extreme terms as ‘life or death’. When I started formally studying bilingual education we discussed BICS and CALP and the problem with students being ‘semi-literate’ in both home language and English. It’s important that educators are aware of the differences between conversational language acquisition and academic language acquisition but there is much more to the story. I read an article recently that addresses this issue, and one of the elements that  made it a compelling read is that over the course of the study the authors found their assumptions challenged and they addressed this in an open and honest manner. The article addressed the need of students classified as LTELLs (Long term English language learners-generally defined as not testing out of their English language learner status after seven years in a US school). Leaving aside the problematic of testing, what resonated with me was that with all the best will in the world, the authors themselves had held onto this notion of being semi-literate and the damage this can bring (I’m not paraphrasing and I hope I haven’t misrepresented their words).

From the article: “In his critique of the term semilingual, MacSwan (2000) argues that it not only sees students through a deficit lens but also privileges certain ways of using language as superior—namely, academic English. This construction does not explore the important question of what defines a proficient speaker of English, nor does it deconstruct the assumption of the mastery of academic discourse as a prerequisite for being considered a proficient user of English for certain populations, nor does it explore who or what defines what academic discourse is and who has mastered it.”

The authors continue: “For example, in the United States a monolingual English speaker who never mastered academic discourse would not be considered an ELL, and yet somebody who is bilingual must master academic discourse to be considered fully proficient in the language.”

This article is based on interviews done with students who have been classified as LTELLs by the system. “Unsurprisingly there was unanimous rejection of this label by the students who not only found it offensive but as simply inaccurate in describing their fluid language use and transnational identities.” There is much of interest in this article and it opened my eyes to my own deficit view of emergent bilinguals. I’m reminded of my privilege and background and the option I have of stepping back, an option too many children in our schools don’t have. Articles like this one, and the spread of Ethnic Studies in California gives me hope that more voices will be raised, and that all students will be treated with dignity and respect. The authors point out the harmful cycle happening in schools: “Furthermore, there is an assumption that hard work will suffice, yet the inability of schools to build on Lorenzo’s linguistic repertoire suggests that far more is needed than simply an increased effort on the student’s part.” So not only does systemic racism and prejudice endure, the students battling this are made to feel as if they are to blame.

And this: “In this article, we hope to push the discourse of partiality even further and argue that it, in fact, can be understood as a racial project that serves to perpetuate White supremacy through the marginalization of the language practices of communities of color through a form of epistemic racism that situates the epistemology of privileged monolingual subjectivities as the unmarked societal norm.” Too many educators shy away from embracing languages they don’t understand. Furthermore, a hegemonic monolingual stance reduces empathy and increases the likelihood of making an ‘other’ of students whose lives matter every bit as much as those who fit the hegemonic mould.

I used to use a quote attributed to Wittgenstein: “the limits of my language are the limits of my life”. I took this to mean that we needed to support students’ learning so these limits will be surpassed. This quote now sticks in my craw, as limit used once is too much. I’m now more drawn to a Czech proverb that states, “learn a new language and get a new soul”. This does not imply fluency in another language, but it implies putting yourself in another linguistic frame that may lead to greater empathy and compassion. As educators we are privileged to work with students from diverse backgrounds, and we have a moral duty to show empathy and compassion. We must always “teach with joy and justice”, as Linda Christensen artfully states. The article I’ve discussed in this post is essential reading for all educators in the country, no matter what the age or stage.

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