“Undoing Appropriateness: Raciolinguistic Ideologies and Language Diversity in Education”

This summer an article came out entitled Undoing Appropriateness: Raciolinguistic Ideologies and Language Diversity in Education, by Nelson Flores and Jonathan Rosa (2015). This article challenges my thinking regarding language acquisition and follows on from an article I wrote about a couple of posts ago (also co-authored by Nelson Flores). The previous article challenged my thinking regarding English learners/emergent bilingual students and the notion of ‘semilingualism’. This article focuses on the need to critically examine the role of the listener involved in interactions with emergent bilingual students. The authors also critique the supposed objectiveness of ‘standard English’. The authors draw on Lisa Delpit’s work (2006)and comment on her argument that users of nonstandard varieties of English must be provided explicit instruction in mainstream linguistic practices in order to gain access to upward mobility. The authors posit “(U)sing the terminology we have developed in this article, Delpit’s approach could be framed as perpetuating a raciolinguistic ideology that uses an appropriateness-based model to advocate explicitly teaching language-minoritized users of English the idealized linguistic practices of the white speaking subject.” The authors contend that we must shift the focus of research away from analyzing linguistic forms and towards analyzing positions of enunciation and reception.

Flores and Rosa assert that it is not a question of lack of proficiency in standard English that holds language-minoritized users back; rather racial positioning is at fault. One example given to illustrate this point is a teacher who hears her African American students making ‘errors’ in standard English when they say ‘he was/she was’, as the teacher was confusing this usage with the Ebonic usage ‘they was’. Another example raised is that of a “Chicana doctoral student in a Spanish literature department at a prestigious university”. The authors note that despite Estela’s bilingual experiences and academic credentials, some of Estela’s professors described her Spanish as “limited” and questioned the legitimacy of her admission to the doctoral program. When pressed, however, these professors were unable to give concrete examples to back up their claims. In both instances, the white listener/s were unable to hear past the racialization of the students’ language use, and therefore heard their language use as inferior.

In a previous post I quoted from Jill Kerper-Mora and James Crawford to illustrate the pernicious nature of language restrictionism. It is much easier to openly discriminate against people whose mother tongue is not standard English, than to discriminate for other reasons. When it comes to difficulties in terms of academic achievement it is much easier to place the blame on students for not speaking standard English, than to interrogate the intersectionalities that exist between language, race, and class. Instead of looking for ways by which students can best convey understanding and communicate ideas, the onus is placed solely on the shoulders of the students to learn and access language deemed appropriate for academic settings.

The authors bring Ofelia García into the conversation and raise the issue of additive approaches that perpetuate monoglossic language ideologies, approaches that marginalize the fluid linguistic practices of communities who engage in dynamic linguistic practices that do not conform to monolingual norms. There are no clear answers as to how best to address this issue. The growing number of Californian school districts mandating Ethnic Studies as a graduation requirement raises important questions as to how these changes will be implemented. It is clear that consultation with students should be front and center of this work. With guidance students can set up projects that are meaningful to them, that impact their learning in positive ways, and that offer creative ways to communicate ideas front and center in their hearts. We celebrate artists who shift our perception of the world, and writers who play with language. The intense focus on proficiency in academic English posits a false gatekeeper, and when tied to highly subjective standardized testing few students are able to truly show their skills and abilities in order to pass through. Articles such as this one challenge us to question our positioning as educators and researchers and make sure we stay on our toes.

Delpit, L. D. (2006). Other people’s children: cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: New Press : Distributed by W.W. Norton.

Flores, N., & Rosa, J. (2015). Undoing Appropriateness: Raciolinguistic Ideologies and Language Diversity in Education. Harvard Educational Review, 85(2).


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