Category Archives: Critical Literacy

Sociology of Language: Reading Responses

Of the three readings for this week, the one that most intrigued me was the one from Yukio Tsuda (2014). I am always inspired by the work Linda Christensen (2009) does, and I’ve read a little bit about what Pennycook (2010) writes about, but I hadn’t read an article similar to the one Tsuda wrote. He raised many important and challenging issues. His assertion that the most serious problem caused by globalization is the Anglo-Americanization of world cultures at first unsettled me as I thought first about labor rights in the developing world, and climate change. I was aware of the role US produced entertainment plays across the globe but I hadn’t linked it specifically to English as a hegemonic tool in the way Tsuda does. This is probably due to being a White home language English speaker from a middle class family. Growing up there were a lot of US movies and tv shows to watch, but materially people’s lives in those movies weren’t too far from what I lived, and linguistically we were speaking the same language. There were also many cultural similarities but the commercial side of the US and exports such as Disney were often criticized. UK cultural exports (such as the BBC) were generally received with less animus by my parents and people around us, and were often seen as ‘superior’, but neither was particularly foreign to us.

Tsuda refers to the work of Takahashi who states, based on empirical research, that native speakers of English (at this international conference) intentionally try to push non-native speakers out of discussions using a range of tactics. Tsuda adds that it seems in international conferences, native English speakers use their linguistic advantage to “magnify their power so they can establish an unequal and asymmetrical with the non-English speakers and this push them out of the mainstream of communication”. This is appalling to me and shows up a highly immature mindset among those who benefit from hegemonic linguistic privilege. It’s not clear what type of conference Takahashi refers to, but that’s not important as all international conferences should focus on the expertize each person brings, regardless of English fluency. It’s likely that the non-native speakers of English have more to add to the conversation, as it’s possible the native speakers use their range of linguistic push-out tactics to cover for content knowledge and analysis, but this wouldn’t be easy to prove. Non-native speakers certainly have an analysis that differs from the English mainstream and this is clear in Tsuda’s work.

Tsuda comments that those who cannot speak English fluently are labeled as incompetent, and thus insulted and perceived to be inferior. In South Africa this summer I read an article about Babes Wodumo, a young Zulu singer/celebrity. Babes has been criticized for not speaking ‘good’ English, this comment directly casting shade on her cognitive abilities. She sings and talks mostly in Zulu, and she can speak English but prefers her mother tongue. It is a source of pride for her. Like Ngugi (quoted by Christensen) she is resisting the colonial linguistic apparatus. Tsuda writes that stereotypes and prejudices are easily created to hold a discriminatory perception and attitude towards those who do not and cannot speak English. I have been paying closer attention over the last week to my reactions to people and their languages use. I can’t say it’s all good, because prejudicial thoughts do come my way despite my personal beliefs in the value of all tongues, in counter to hegemonic views. I doubt this article could have been written by a native English speaker as we are just not as tuned in to life as a non-native English speaker. As I write this I also think about people who have difficulties expressing themselves in their home language, and neurodiverse people, to name a few. This then cycles back to perception of ‘intelligence’ and English ability as a marker of competence. I speak three languages that are closely related and I learned these languages from living in countries where they are spoken. I don’t see myself as cognitively superior because of this. It is an interest I have and one I’ve maintained. My dad speaks about three languages (English, French and German) and my mum has tried to learn languages (French, Italian) but she has a very hard time with it. There is no difference in their intellectual comptence. We also all benefit from being White home language English speakers, thus our languages are seen as ‘supplementary’ rather than ‘necessary’.

Tsuda brings up the “colonization of the consciousness”, the mental control of the colonized by the colonizer. Tsuda quotes Ngugi who points out that the domination of a people’s language by the languages of the colonizing nations was crucial to the domination of the mental universe of the colonized. Tsuda writes that English-speaking people unconsciously hold linguistic imperialist consciousness, while non-English speaking people assume English use to be inevitable, indicating the ‘colonization of their mind’. This point isn’t as well addressed in this article as topics such as the hegemony of English and the Ecology of Language Paradigm, but it is a critical point to include. I would taper the argument by adding White English speakers as ones who hold imperialist consciousness, as many non-White speakers of English are viewed through a racialized lens, no matter their command of the language. Writers such as Ngugi Wa Thiongo have a mastery of English that could put many ‘native’ speakers to shame, but his race and his accent make him seem ‘foreign’ in a way that a White person with a strong Scottish accent wouldn’t be. Regarding the ‘colonization of the mind’, I could argue that it is up to individuals in the academic settings he refers to to not acquiesce to English language demands, but that would be naïve on my part, and shows up my White English speaking privilege. I am looking forward to the CIES conference next year in Mexico City. For the first time proposals will be accepted in Spanish. Considering the extensive linguistic repertoires people at the CIES conference maintain, it would be good to see/hear presentations in many languages other than English. I feel that if the CIES conference can’t do multilingual presentations, then not many international organizations can.

 

 

References

 

Christensen, L. (2009). Chapter 5: Uncovering the Legacy of Language and Power. In Teaching for Joy and Justice: Re-Imagining the Language Arts Classroom. Milwaukee: Rethinking Schools Publication.

Pennycook, A. (2010). Introduction: language as a local practice. In Language as a Local Practice. London: Routledge.

Tsuda, Y. (2014). The Hegemony of English and Strategies for Linguistic Pluralism: Proposing the Ecology of Language Paradigm. Retrieved from http://miresperanto.com/en/english_as_intern/hegemony_of_english.htm

 

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Raciolinguistics and Early Childhood Education

 

Research into early childhood education teaching and practice benefits from a critical look at component parts. Language and literacy are key elements of any ECE classroom and many ECE scholars actively engage in critical literacy explorations. The new field of raciolinguistics asks and answers critical questions about the relationships and the intersections between language, race and power. Applying raciolinguistics to the early childhood setting is sure to raise lively debates and discussions. Intersectionality (in the case of raciolinguistics this would be-but not limited to-the intersections of race and language) and anti-essentialism are one of the key tenets of critical race theory (Ladson-Billings, 2013). Critical race theory can also be a contentious issue in the early childhood classroom, but if an analysis of CRT doesn’t belong there, there where does it belong?

Intersectionality has proven to be a productive concept that has been deployed in a wide range of disciplines such as history and literature (Cho, Crenshaw, & McCall, 2013). Cho et al. affirm that its insistence on examining the dynamics of difference and sameness has played a major role in facilitating discussion and analysis of gender, race and other axes of power. Raciolinguistics is a new field of research ‘dedicated to bringing to bear the diverse methods of linguistic analysis to ask and answer critical questions about the relations between language, race and power across diverse ethnoracial contexts and societies’ (Alim, Rickford, & Ball, 2016). It foregrounds the intersections of race and language. The relationship between language, race and culture has long been a topic of interest in different fields, but, as Alim points out, the reluctance to take issues of race seriously among mainstream linguistics and anthropology has been and is troubling.

I begin this paper with a discussion on intersectionality and critical race theory. I then move to discuss raciolinguistics and how it is connected to intersectionality, and how both fields inform the other. Along with this discussion I bring in research and practice in early childhood education and I comment on the need for greater scholarship in the field of early childhood education from a raciolinguistic perspective.

Intersectionality

The term ‘intersectionality’ was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a distinguished law professor, in the late 1980s as a heuristic to focus attention on the ‘vexed dynamics of differences and the solidarities of sameness in the context of antidiscrimination and social movement politics’ (Cho et al., 2013). Crenshaw and fellow critical race theorist Angela Harris developed the notion of intersectionality to explain how anti-discrimination law fails women of color (Delgado & Stefancic, 2013). Gloria Ladson-Billings (2013) attached anti-essentialism to the concept of intersectionality and states that critical race theory scholarship decries essentialism, or the idea that people in a single group act and think the same. She comments that we see things as binaries such as black and white, east and west, rich or poor, right or left, but that when we move into the complexities of real life we recognize we each represent multiple identities.

Critical race theory provides a historical context to systemic oppression and highlights the enduring nature of race and racism in our society. It began in the field of critical legal studies. Derrick Bell, who first coined the term, examined the enduring role of race in the supposedly objective field of law. CRT was then brought into another supposedly objective field: education.

Critical race theory in education offers concrete tools for framing pedagogies of race, such as counter storytelling and testimonio (Solórzano & Yosso, 2002). This centralizes the experiences and narratives of people of color, thus legitimizing them as evidence to challenge and reframe dominant narratives about race, culture, language and citizenship.

Intersectionality was a lived reality before it became a term (Crenshaw, 2015). In the first part of the 1800s, Maria Stewart, a black female intellectual, stated that race, class and gender oppression were the fundamental causes of Black women’s poverty (Hill Collins, 2000). Hill Collins refers to group dynamics, the importance of the collective, of group identity and solidarity. Intersectionality by its very nature assumes belonging to identity-based groups. It isn’t simply a matter of where or how you ‘belong’ to these particular groups, but it is a matter of how belonging to these groups restricts movement (literal and figurative) and impedes reaching your full potential. It presents a frame through which to analyze layers of oppression, and challenge the hegemonic system: to challenge what is viewed as objectively ‘normal’.

The African American Policy Forum, co-founded by Crenshaw, highlights the importance of intersectionality as a tool (of analysis and resistance) rather than as academic tactic or fashion (Gillborn, 2015). Mc Call (2005) identified three modes of theorizing the complexity of intersectionality: anticategorical complexity, intracategorical complexity, and intercategorical complexity. An anticategorical approach is post-structuralist, and calls social life too complex to make fixed categories anything but simplifying social fictions. That is to say, race and other identity markers are merely social constructs, negating the central tenet of critical race theory that race is enduring. The intracategorical approach acknowledges intersectionality but does not go far enough in analysing why such disparities exist between groups of people. It offers a more layered approach where categories are almost piled up one on top of the other. The final approach is the one McCall uses to describe her own research methodology. Intercategorical complexity requires ‘that scholars provisionally adopt existing analytical categories to document relationships of inequality among social groups and changing configurations of inequality along multiple and conflicting dimensions’ (p. 1773). In other words, the how and the why particular groups of people suffer oppression is foregrounded, and the dynamic nature of intersectionality is affirmed. We must build on the work that came before and continue to interrogate systems of oppression, and how we can resist and transform lived reality. This approach is a call to action, a central tenet of critical race theory.

Raciolinguistics

When it comes to broad scholarship on race and ethnicity, language is often overlooked as one of the most important cultural means that we have for distinguishing ourselves from others (Alim, 2016).

Raciolinguistics is a term that explicitly ties race to language: ‘racing language and languaging race’ (Alim, 2016). Rosa (2016) comments that public display of linguistic difference is alternately celebrated or stigmatized depending on the speaker’s social position. “Language use and race come to be constructed and interpreted in relation to one another” (p. 67). Even when superior language skills are acquired, people are still seen (heard) through a racialized lens that views them as inferior (Flores & Rosa, 2015). A clear example of this was shared on social media recently when a Latina scholar was questioned on her use of the word ‘hence’; her professor assumed she had plagiarized (Martínez, 2016). Children are racialized through language almost from the moment they begin to talk. Language, power and race affect their movements and self-identity in a myriad of ways. We have a responsibility to analyze practice and theory related to early childhood using intersectionality and raciolinguistics in order to best help our children grow up healthy in body and soul.

Intersectionality and critical race theory scholars most often take adults and youth as the starting point of their work. Growing numbers of early childhood practitioners and researchers are using frames such as CRT and intersectionality in their work with young children (Vasquez, 2014)(Souto-Manning, 2013)(Kuby, 2013). It is no accident that the same teacher scholars use critical literacy as a frame through which to hone their work. Language and literacy practices are central to most school settings, and we need to be able to identify what teaching practices help or hinder our students, from as early an age as we can. We need to be aware of how language and race intersect in powerful and potentially destructive ways. The language a child brings to school is inherently tied to family and home, and as teachers we must respect and revere this knowledge, or risk irrevocably breaking their spirit.

CRT in education promotes the use of counter storytelling and testimonio (Solórzano & Yosso, 2002) to center voices often unheard and to challenge hegemonic practice. In the early childhood classroom children are filled with ontological questions, their own version of counternarratives and testimonio. They busily make hypotheses about who they are, how they are, why they are etc. These explorations manifest in literacy events such as drawing, writing, reading, painting, telling a story, sharing ideas aloud, collaborating in the block area as they build a city, and the list goes on. Children learn first through the body, and then in some form of what we recognize as words. Very young children are able to respond to verbal commands before they can say them aloud. They process the information and act on it physically, without saying a word in response. A conceptual understanding of the world precedes speech, writing and reading.

Cruz (2001) writes from a distinct perspective, but her words regarding an epistemology of the brown body are valid in an analysis of early childhood education and children of color. “Situating knowledge in the brown body begins the validation of the narratives of survival, transformation, and emancipation of our respective communities, reclaiming histories and identities. And in these ways, we embody our theory”(p. 668). Those of us working in early childhood, and in elementary education, must acknowledge the work that has come before, within families, within communities and within the child themself. We must recognize that knowledge is not only passed down through books and words, but it is also transmitted through bodies, communal relations, and other forms of non-verbal communication.

The moment children enter formal schooling, the pressure is on for them to read and write, and often before they reach first grade. Any knowledge gained through the body and through non-verbal communication is thrown to the side, as are literacy and language skills the children have acquired in their early years. This pressure does not produce diamonds, it produces ulcers and skin rashes. This practice is developmentally inappropriate for all children, but children of color suffer worse.

Raciolinguistic ideologies[1] (Flores & Rosa, 2015) position non-native (and non-standard) speakers of English as deficit thinkers even if they possess superior English language skills. 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. An example given to illustrate this point is a teacher who hears her young African American students making ‘errors’ in standard English when they say ‘he was/she was’, as the teacher was confusing this usage with the Ebonics’ usage ‘they was’. Power differentials that are already vast when adults teach young children become even greater when the child’s language is not respected and revered.

Intersectionality is inextricably linked to an analysis of power and it helps ‘reveal how power works in diffuse and differentiated ways through the creation and deployment of overlapping identity categories’ (Cho et al., 2013). In reference to U.S. Latinas/os, Rosa (2016) writes that stigmatization occurs through the policing of their English-language use. “Signs of accents and Spanish-language use are regarded as reflections of abject foreignness, regardless of the long history of Spanish-language use across the Americas” (p. 67). Language use is intimately connected to national origin and is often a surrogate for anti-immigrant sentiment, even from people who would otherwise see themselves as liberal. Too many teachers attest to discomfort in the classroom if students are speaking a language they personally don’t understand. We need to question the primacy of English itself, as it is understood in the academic arena. This is a fertile area for future study.

Intersectionality has a core activist component, in that an intersectional approach aims to generate coalitions between different groups with the aim of resisting and changing the status quo (Gillborn, 2015). Intersectionality can be used to identify areas of struggle and to analyze where oppression is coming from, and how it manifests. The burgeoning field of raciolinguistics is also a call to action as affiliated writers and readers take their cue from real world practice and use this as a base from which to theorize. Both intersectionality and raciolinguistics pull from inherently dynamic systems that constantly shift. For this reason it is particularly exciting to see where research and practice will take us. The field of early childhood education is also highly mutable and open to innovative analyses. In the ECE setting CRT activism falls more on the shoulder of teachers and educators than the children themselves, however a challenge to the status quo may come from the work the children do. We must all be ready to take this call to action on.

References:

Alim, H. S., Rickford, J. R., & Ball, A. F. (Eds.). (2016). Raciolinguistics: how language shapes our ideas about race. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

Cho, S., Crenshaw, K. W., & McCall, L. (2013). Toward a Field of Intersectionality Studies: Theory, Applications, and Praxis. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 38(4), 785–810.

Crenshaw, K. (2015, September 24). Why intersectionality can’t wait. Washington Post. Washington, D.C. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/in-theory/wp/2015/09/24/why-intersectionality-cant-wait/?utm_term=.bc30e02123b4

Cruz, C. (2001). Toward an epistemology of a brown body. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 14(5), 657–669. https://doi.org/10.1080/09518390110059874

Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (2013). Discerning Critical Moments. In M. Lynn & A. D. Dixson (Eds.), Handbook of Critical Race Theory in Education. New York, N.Y.: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

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

Gillborn, D. (2015). Intersectionality, Critical Race Theory, and the Primacy of Racism: Race, Class, Gender, and Disability in Education. Qualitative Inquiry, 21(3), 277–287. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077800414557827

Hill Collins, P. (2000). Black feminist thought: knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. New York: Routledge. Retrieved from http://site.ebrary.com/id/10054558

Kuby, C. R. (2013). Critical literacy in the early childhood classroom: unpacking histories, unlearning privilege. New York: Teachers College Press.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2013). Ch. 3 “Critical Race Theory-What It Is Not!” In M. Lynn & A. D. Dixson (Eds.), Handbook of Critical Race Theory in Education. New York, N.Y.: Routledge.

Martínez, T. (2016, October 27). Academia, Love Me Back [WordPress].

McCall, L. (2005). The Complexity of Intersectionality. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 30(3), 1771–1800.

Rosa, J. (2016). From Mock Spanish to Inverted Spanglish. In H. S. Alim, J. R. Rickford, & A. F. Ball (Eds.), Raciolinguistics. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press.

Solórzano, D. G., & Yosso, T. J. (2002). Critical Race Methodology: Counter-Storytelling as an Analytical Framework for Education Research. Qualitative Inquiry, 8(1), 23–44.

Souto-Manning, M. (2013). Multicultural teaching in the early childhood classroom: approaches, strategies, and tools, preschool-2nd grade. New York: Teachers College Press.

Vasquez, V. M. (2014). Negotiating critical literacies with young children: 10th anniversary edition (Second edition). New York: Routledge.

[1] The term “raciolinguistic ideologies” was first used, to the best of our knowledge, by Nelson Flores and Jonathan Rosa (Alim, 2016).

 

Everyone listens to everyone: my visit to Still Waters in a Storm

This time last week I visited Still Waters in a Storm, a community writing center in Bushwick, Brooklyn. I first heard about Still Waters a few years ago when comments regarding the center came across my Facebook feed. I hadn’t visited the center at that time but it was a strong influence on my decision to open a writing center here in San Francisco. I still haven’t opened a center and I’m still listening to know how to best go about it in order to best serve the community, but it will happen.

Last week was my first visit to Still Waters in a Storm and I hope it won’t be my last. It was everything I hoped it would be, and more. The motto of Still Waters is “everyone listens to everyone”. Stephen Haff, the director, set up the program nine years ago. He has a background in theater and was a high school English teacher for close on a decade. The center is everything schooling and education needs to be to truly speak to the hearts and minds of the community it serves.

The Saturday sessions run from 12-5pm and follow a similar structure each week. The children arrive and have time to play and eat lunch before sitting down to start work.

At around 1pm, an invited guest reads an excerpt of their writing and takes questions and comments. The invited guest last week was Emma Brockes, a journalist with The Guardian newspaper and the author of two books, one of which she read from last week. The book she read from is a memoir of a journey to South Africa she took after her mum’s death. Emma wanted to find out what led her mum to leave South Africa to go to England, never to go back to the country of her birth. The excerpt Emma read told the story of a road trip she went on in South Africa when her best friend arrived from England for a few weeks.

The center operates on a drop-in basis and the number of children present may vary from ten to forty. Last week there were about twenty kids there. They varied in age from six to sixteen. Emma’s memoir was not written for children, and from what I could gather, most of the invited guests write for adults. The excerpt Emma read appeared to be accessible to all the people there. It is a highly engaging text with strong visual imagery. The reading was paused on a few occasions to clarify vocabulary or expressions that might be unclear.

After the reading, and after questions and comments, the children generated a topic list inspired by what they heard. Some examples that came up last week were misunderstanding, family, animals, racism, helping someone, guns, loneliness and a few more. Nothing was off the table and anything that was raised could tie in to the reading in one way or another. From there the children spent around fifteen minutes writing. They are welcome to write in any genre or format they preferred, including writing a list, writing a letter, whatever makes sense to them. The younger children worked with volunteers who put the child’s words to paper. Once time was up, it fell to the children, and some of the adults, to share their writing with the larger group. Volunteers read for the younger children while the child stood next to them.

“Everyone listens to everyone”. Stephen said that part of the inspiration for the center is for people to participate in a neighborhood ritual. The group sharing time is based on meetings such as Quaker meetings, when people speak as they are moved to do so. There is no talking over one another; there is respectful silence and active listening as the writers share their work. People are reminded to peacefully control their own bodies. Stephen commented that it is rare in today’s society to have to just listen. Thinking back on last week, my heart skips a beat when I recall the work the children shared and the how powerful it was to be part of that community.

 

I came away from my visit with renewed vision and purpose regarding La Pluma Poderosa. I am building ties with the Latina community in San Francisco through my work with Mujeres Unidas y Activas and I am also connecting with people at local schools through USF preservice teacher supervision. Still Waters in a Storm is housed in a dedicated ground floor space in an area with some foot traffic. Stephen taught at Bushwick High School so before opening the center he already had ties to the neighborhood. He has built up participation through word of mouth and from people walking by. It is completely free and all materials, as well as food, is provided.

Stephen has a respectful and good-humored relationship with the children. They are all of Mexican and Ecuadorian descent, reflecting the community in this part of Brooklyn. The writing is all done in English and all the children are capable of telling a story in English, even if Spanish is their maternal tongue. Stephen communicates with parents and community members in Spanish when the need arises.

Inviting guests such as Emma Brockes to share their writing with the children felt to me like a mark of respect. Respect is given when it is assumed that children can relate to a detailed text and can use that text to inspire their own writing. Stephen reminded the children that they had been working on using similes in their writing, in the weekday afterschool sessions. He encouraged the children to use at least one simile in their work. A simple thing, such as reminding the children they can write a list if they like, gives all children the tools to participate and to share in the writing and sharing process.

The multi-age format of the center clearly bears fruit when you hear the detailed stories the younger children tell. They appear to be picking up on the skilled work of the older children and their work is also testament to their listening skills. Stephen doesn’t accept money from financial sources that would demand accountability measures and other forms of standardization. He wants the center to be free from the toxic trappings of school that transform children into data points. A child is not a number on a graph, and measurement does not equal growth. Spaces such as Still Waters in a Storm provide the community with a powerful example of the learning we do together, and what our children are truly capable of.

My goals for La Pluma Poderosa are still the same: a drop-in, multilingual writing center for children 6-18. I knew that there would be a need for more structured sessions, and in fact, I can maybe start with more structured sessions in a temporary space. I am grateful to Stephen and everyone else at Still Waters in a Storm for renewing my faith in the power of holistic and compelling educational experiences for young writers. Right now I need to listen and to reflect on what the next steps for La PP will be. I carry with me the joy and heartfelt emotion of listening to the young writers in Bushwick, an experience that won’t easily leave my side.

To learn more about Still Waters in a Storm and to support their efforts please go to http://www.stillwatersinastorm.org

 

“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).

Toku reo toku ohōho*

*Māori for “My Language, my awakening”

It is increasingly apparent that in the US formal school settings do not adequately support the learning of students whose home languages are other than standard English. Discrimination on linguistic grounds is still permissible, and even promoted, while other forms of discrimination are legally curtailed. Policy matters relating to the education of children who do not speak English as a mother tongue enter the realm of public discourse, with educators often drowned out by bigoted monolingual English speakers, and others who do not value multilingualism. James Crawford (2000), an outspoken advocate of bilingual education, states,

“In a small way when government offers bilingual assistance, it elevates the status of language minorities. It suggests that immigrants and Native peoples need not abandon their heritage to be considered American-or at least to be given    access to democratic institutions. In short, it alters structures of power, class, and ethnicity. The demand for language restrictions, by contrast, is a demand to reinforce the existing social order.”

Echoing these thoughts, Jill Kerper Mora (2000), questions what society hopes to accomplish through language restriction as an official language policy. “At the heart of the matter”, Mora states, “are the core principles of democracy in a culturally and linguistically diverse society”. Mora goes on to ask, “Is the use of other languages really a threat to our national unity, or are not intolerance and coercion a far greater threat to our unity?” The Ethnic Studies Now! campaign has seen over six school districts in California pass legislation to make Ethnic Studies a graduation requirement. Diversity of experience can only make our lives richer, and questioning hegemony and dominant power structures is essential to combat intolerance and coercion. Language plays a key role in rehumanizing education.

With formal education failing too many language minority students, the more we know about nonformal bilingual education the better we can play to student strengths. There is no doubt that mastery of academic English is of benefit to students, however years of research now unequivocally points to fluency in the home language as key to acquisition and learning of social and academic language in subsequent tongues. Language use can never be taken out of context. The languages and discourses a child grows up with are an integral part of what makes them whole and their use surpasses mere communicative goals. We build bonds with those around us with language, and language colors family life, and ties us to our communities.

Bartlett and Bajaj (2015) outline the importance of understanding and supporting ‘nonformal bilingual education’. The distinction between ‘learning’ a language and ‘acquiring’ a language is not as clear-cut as some would have us believe. Acquisition can be seen as the lesser of the two actions, when it is viewed as a ‘subconscious’ activity, rather than an intentional act. Bartlett and Bajaj affirm that (language) acquisition can be planned (not unconscious) or unplanned. They state, “bilingual speakers pragmatically access and assess their multiple linguistic and cultural resources as they participate in plural social networks”. Drawing on qualitative interviews with US students classified as LTELLs (long term English language learner), Flores, Kleyn and Menken (2015) recognize that students classified as English Language Learners “utilize a vast and flexible linguistic repertoire that allows them to negotiate many different cultural spaces and create fluid identities”. But “because of the epistemic racism of idealized monolingualism, the fluid bilingual use of language reported by students in this study does not translate into academic success”.

I was having a hard time pulling this post together but today when I flew into South Africa I thought about the term bilingual, and how it should not necessarily imply proficiency in the second (third, and so on) tongue. On the plane I watched a documentary that discussed art in Ghana. A singer who was interviewed commented that she sang in a language that wasn’t as popular as another language (I can’t remember the specifics). I’m pretty sure she mixed about three languages into her songs, in any case. There are formal uses of the term bilingual, such as in a work situation, but I would not hesitate to call many of the children at Joe Slovo (the children I work with here in South Africa) bilingual. As I write this Ofelia Garcia’s introduction of the term ‘emergent bilingual’ makes more and more sense. The further away we can get from terms that reinforce a deficit view of children (such as English learner) the greater the chance of potentially changing mindsets in the classroom and altering policy that pushes students into a corner, with limited means to escape. It’s exciting to the see the work that is being done in this field, but change never happens overnight, especially when addressing such a politically charged issue that threatens English dominance and hegemonic posturing.

References:

Crawford, J. (2000). At war with diversity: US language policy in an age of anxiety. Clevedon [England] ; Buffalo [N.Y.]: Multilingual Matters.

Flores, N., Kleyn, T., & Menken, K. (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. http://doi.org/10.1080/15348458.2015.1019787

Lesley Bartlett, & Bajaj, M. (2015). Chapter 25: Nonformal Bilingual Education. In W. E. Wright, S. Boun, & O. García (Eds.), The Handbook of Bilingual and Multilingual Education (pp. 428–446). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Mora, J. K. (2000). Proposition 227: Two Years Later. Retrieved from http://coe.sdsu.edu/people/jmora/Prop227/227YearTwo.htm