Category Archives: Immigration

Tend the linguistic garden

 

Colin Baker (Baker, 2001, p.53) comments that language diversity requires planning and care. He uses an analogy of a garden to illustrate his point. Smaller flowers may be in need of more protection, and sometimes radical action needs to be taken to preserve particular plants. Baker comments earlier on that language shift is more common than language stability. This intuitively makes sense but it complicates the preservation of languages that are not viewed as high status and/or are spoken by a small group of people. The Universal Declaration on Linguistic Rights (1996) is a beautiful document to read but it is difficult not to view it as a utopia for language communities. It is a critical document to have, imagining other worlds is a powerful liberatory tool, and it is comprehensive, bringing in invasion and colonization and other references to uses and abuses of power. Linguistic diversity is promoted throughout this document as a peace builder, as a key factor for harmonious social relations, and a political framework based upon respect and mutual benefit.

Baker points out that language rights can sometimes be more idealistic than realistic (p.370). He describes the distinction between tolerance-oriented rights and promotion-oriented rights. A tolerance orientation is often legalistic in form, and one of its aims is to protect against discrimination in different settings, schools being one of the most highly charged. A promotion orientation implies the active inclusion of all language communities in question, going beyond the letter of the law. This can be costly to implement and oftentimes impractical. Home language instruction ideally would be offered to all students in the US but it is impossible to provide for all communities. Speakers of Spanish are best served as they make up a large group of non-English speakers in many parts of the country. Speakers of Somali may be served in the Minneapolis area but less so outside of this region.

The territorial principle may also be in play when it comes to tolerance and/or promotion of linguistic rights. In Article One of the UNLR a language community is considered any human society that has developed a common language as a natural means of communication, whether or not there are historical ties to the territory they find themselves in. This accounts for immigrant and refugee communities, among others. Baker reminds us (p.43) that the politics and power situation in which minority languages are situated is important. Beyond hierarchies of language, the power differential between people who believe they belong in this country (and Australia and the UK)-based on being a native speaker of English is vast. Around two thirds of the world’s population is bilingual and multilingual and this number is growing. The UNLR was likely written by people who speak multiple languages, and a challenge to the primacy of English did not have a place in this document (it can be read in the lines however). English is a global and imperial language and monolingual English speakers often feel entitled to the territory that comes with it.

Power and ideology determines whose language is taught, which language practices are valued and which are minoritized (García, 2014, p.89). Hegemonic educational practices in many Anglophone countries draw on the cultural capital of the white, middle-class, English-speaking student. The acquisition of ‘foreign’ languages is seen to be beneficial morally, socially and globally for the white, middle-class student, while the language communities that speak these languages as home tongues are seen as deficient (Baker p.347). Ofelia Garcia (p. 91) states that the most important aspect of language education is having teachers who are educated to respect the multilingual ecology of their classroom and to develop the bilingualism of their students. This happens too seldom in teacher education programs and in ongoing professional development for classroom teachers. Language education pedagogies are products of their time, and often reflect retrograde notions. Until a year or so ago, I carried with me a visual of the purgatory of ‘semilingualism’: people who don’t have academic home language or English. Leaving aside the problematic of the definition of ‘academic’, it was only when reading a recent article (Flores, Kleyn, & Menken, 2015) that I saw how erroneous that visual is. Garcia challenges monoglossic ideologies, in particular the concept that there are fixed first and second languages. She proposes instead the concept of languaging that is complex and interrelated, and does not emerge in a linear fashion. Garcia writes that continuing to talk about L1 and L2 keeps power in the hands of monolinguals that speak the dominant language of the society in which they live at birth and who can acquire a “second” language independently. This “native” speaker is seen as White, monolingual and loyal to their nation, whereas Brown and Black bilingual speakers are marked as ‘foreign’.

Language diversity, language rights, the territorial principle and power and ideology lead us in a circle that is ever expanding. Without intentional and critical reflection on bilingualism and its relation to power and privilege we may subsume language diversity and language rights beneath a neoliberal mantle. We need to crack that mantle and creatively plan for the maintenance and promotion of the rights of all language communities, wherever they reside. It is a complex and messy business, as with so much work in education, but if we don’t ask the questions we remain in purgatory.

 

References:

Baker, C. (2001). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism (3rd ed). 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. https://doi.org/10.1080/15348458.2015.1019787

García, O. (2014). Chapter Six: Multilingualism and Language Education. In C. Leung & B. V. Street (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to English Studies (pp. 84–99). London ; New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

UNESCO. (1996). Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights. UNESCO. Retrieved from http://www.istrianet.org/istria/languages/declaration-rights-unesco.pdf

 

 

Raise a White Flag

Not a piece directly tied to education, but tied to our common humanity on this planet.

Raise a white flag

 

On January 8th, 1994 I turned 21.

 

A few days later I flew to Mexico City from New York.

 

Just after the New Year of 1994 a friend asked me if my travel plans to Mexico had changed because of the uprising in the southern state of Chiapas. I thought he was joking, as that was his style, but his question was earnest.

 

On the 1st of January 1994 the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, came into effect.

In response, the Ejército de Liberación Nacional Zapatista, the Zapatista National Liberation Army, rose up in the southern city of San Cristóbal de las Casas demanding an end to the exploitation and repression of the largely indigenous peasantry of the region.

 

I was 21, and not much scared me at the time. I was used to travelling alone and I think that ability made me feel safer. I was used to watching my back.

I spent a couple of days in Mexico City before taking a bus to Oaxaca. I didn’t go through to Chiapas on that visit, not so much from fear of danger but from fear of being surplus to EZLN needs. I had nothing special to offer the cause. In this white body I knew I was probably safer than the indigenous women involved in the EZLN actions.

 

My white skin is a bulletproof vest.

 

Around Easter this year I visited El Paso, Texas for the first time. El Paso looks over the Rio Grande into Ciudad Juárez and the Mexican state of Chihuahua. The El Paso and Cd. Juárez region is the largest bilingual and binational work force in the Western Hemisphere.

San Cristóbal and Cd. Juarez are about as far from each other as Mexican cities can be; Chiapas is one of the most fertile parts of Mexico and Cd. Juarez lies in the heart of the Chihuahuan desert. Yet they are both Mexico and the impact of NAFTA on both places is heartbreakingly devastating.

In the decade after NAFTA took effect real wages in Mexico declined by 20%. The minimum wage plunged 50%. A practice known as “twin plants” by companies such as Lexmark means that the tedious, back breaking manual labor is done by young women in Juárez who earn around $5-6 a day in maquiladoras. The white collar work, such as accounting, is done in El Paso where people are paid at least twice the daily maquiladora salary in one hour. This practice was around before NAFTA but this policy has surely deepened the impact.

 

My white hands have always guaranteed me a living wage.

 

El Paso has been ranked the safest US city over 500,000 people four years in a row, yet it abuts one of the most dangerous cities in the world for a woman. Apparently the murder rate has dropped significantly in Juárez but women are still killed with impunity and their bodies are still seen as dispensable/disposable.

Over a thousand women have been killed since 1993 and almost all these murders remain unsolved. The femicides largely target women who work in the maquilas, and who are mostly poor and dark-skinned, coming from rural parts of Mexico. So not only are women being severely underpaid but their lives are on the line with each passing day.

It is difficult to think of a greater contrast between two cities and NAFTA merely rubs salt into the wound. As we well know, the border is becoming increasingly militarized but nothing is being done about the vicious murders and rapes that almost define Juárez. If white bodies were on the line, the response would be much different.

 

My white body holds up under intense fire.

 

I didn’t go through to Juárez, not because I was afraid but because I could not deal with the cognitive dissonance of my white body moving effortlessly through this world, while women in this Mexican city have no such freedom. I could go and grab a taco on the Mexican side, and then be back to have a beer in the US without a second thought. Women in Juarez are exploited with impunity and there is little hope for escape.

 

My blood is not different to the women of Juárez, my heart is not different to the women of Juárez, my lungs are not different, my liver is not different.

My skin is different, my hair is different, and that is what determines our disparate fates.

 

My white skin, my white hands, my white body are a flag of protection.

 

The EZLN asks for justice and dignity for the people of Chiapas with the understanding that justice for Chiapas is justice for all the oppressed people of Mexico.

 

Twenty-two years after the passage of NAFTA the people of Mexico are suffering worse than before. The EZLN is still a presence in the Lacandon highlands and their grito is still being heard, but progress is a slow road.

 

As my white fingers type this, ready to present aloud, I am well aware of the journeys I’ve been able to make and the places I’ve been able to go to, risk free and with dignity and justice.

 

Under the covers we are all the same, our hearts beat the same, our lungs breathe the same, we all share the same skeleton. It has long been time for the covers to be thrown off and for us to revel in our unique differences with dignity and peace.

 

Unheard voices must now take center stage. We ask for a life lived with dignity for the women of Juárez, for the women of Chiapas, and from there, for all the women of the world.

The Arrival

Thoughts from a recent trip to Japan:

A couple of days after arriving in Tokyo I took a taxi from our hotel to Ueno Park, about a half hour drive. I was reminded of the Shaun Tan masterpiece The Arrival. All the signs around were in Japanese and the modern feel of the place put me straight into a world reminiscent of Blade Runner and other futuristic sci-fi settings. Tokyo doesn’t have flying cars or apparent androids but it’s a city like no other I’ve visited before. The first time I read The Arrival I had an inkling of what it might be like to be in a place that uses a language you are completely unfamiliar with. The protagonist arrives in this city to escape a threat in his homeland. He is hoping to bring his wife and his daughter with him once he is set up. There are no words in this story but you can identify what passes for written language. You can identify signs and labels without knowing what they say. This highlights for me that you only learn to read once, and that once you are able to see abstract symbols standing in for concrete and abstract words, you can recognize what is script in foreign languages. The dizzying feeling of my first reading of the book never came back, and as a native English speaker it’s rare I’ve felt that way since. No matter where I go I can expect that someone will have at least a smattering of English. Riding in the taxi I wasn’t completely at sea as street signs often use English as well as Japanese, some ads have English words in them, and inside the taxi there is information in English. Most taxi drivers we met spoke only a small amount of English but we had place names written in Japanese to help with directions and hotel staff also helped translate when needed. Inside all taxis there is a ‘point and (something)’ sheet. Anyone travelling to Japan from elsewhere needs some English to get by. There were a couple of people we met in shops who were native French speakers and one who was a native Brazilian/Portuguese speaker, but they all spoke English too. The day tours we went on were all conducted in English. When I googled English monolingualism I came across this article regarding English as a lingua franca. It’s a quick and interesting read that gathers quotes from elsewhere so I’m not able to synthesize the points raised. There is no doubt English is useful for any travellers, but native English speakers benefit so much from learning even a few words in another language as it truly opens up the heart and soul. It helps you see the world through different eyes. Science fiction and speculative fiction stories also open up hearts and minds to a different reality. This is why I enjoy reading them so much. The next time I visit Tokyo I’ll be on the lookout for more experiences like the one in the taxi. I know it’s tricky to truly get lost, and to be in an unforeseen locale, but if it’s going to happen, there is no better place than Japan.