Category Archives: Mother tongue instruction

Beware the apologetic stance of liberals


“Ignorance is never innocent and is always shaped by a particular ideological predisposition”. This quote from Donaldo Macedo (Macedo, 2000) is in response to educators objecting to the term “colonialism” to characterize the present (writing in 2000) attack on bilingual education (an attack that is still underway). He comments that the apologetic stance of some liberals, faced with the ignorance of educators who blindly oppose bilingual education, is not surprising as classical liberalism always prioritizes the right to private property. Market forces and neoliberalism are a logical extension of classical liberalism. Whiteness and English go together to suppress people of color and other people whose lives are pushed to the margins. English is not the only colonial language but it is the most widespread. It could also be argued that it is the most insidious as it continually morphs and spreads its webbing, increasing its influence.

Cheryl Harris introduced the concept of “whiteness as property” (Harris, 1993)and this can be extended to “English as property”. Speaking English is too often equated with ‘intelligence’ despite clear evidence that native English speakers do not have a monopoly on complex thought. In fact to even enter into that debate shows the dominance of English expression at the expense of other languages and mother tongues. In reference to Prop 227, empirical evidence that showed that in San Francisco and in San José bilingual graduates were outperforming their English speaking counterparts (Macedo, 2000) was deliberately ignored as it didn’t fit the deficit narrative pushed by politicians, the media, and English Only proponents. The days of overt punishment for speaking home languages other than English may be over, but students from lower socio-economic settings are still punished when forced to abandon their mother tongue in formal school settings.

“And then I went to school..” Macedo (2000) states that the ideological principles that sustain debates over bilingual education and the primacy of Western heritage are consonant with a colonial ideology designed to devalue the cultural capital and values of the colonized. It is impossible to extract relations of power and privilege from language teaching, and from teaching in general. The supposed ‘objectivity’ of Dominant American English plasters over the legacy of colonialism and exploitation, that is still very much in play. It is heartening, however, to read the work of researchers in the field, and educators in various settings, who challenge deficit thinking when it comes to students who speak non-Dominant American English. The authors of a 2008 review of research (García, Kleifgen, & Falchi, 2008) posit that the central idea to emerge from the report is that there is a growing dissonance between research on the education of emergent bilinguals and policy enacted to educate them. Eight years on we are fortunate to have even more work focused on the education of emergent bilingual students, work that may serve to buttress the hatred and intolerance now legitimized in too many places.

In terms of policy, the 2001 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act, renamed No Child Left Behind, pushed nails in the coffin of education of ELs. Instead of linguistic references to bilingual education the goal was English acquisition at all costs. There is little doubt that the assault on bilingual education is directly linked to the number of Spanish speaking emergent bilingual students. At an event to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Lau v. Nichols, one of the attorneys on the case mentioned that it was a strategic decision to have Chinese families file the class action suit, and that if it had been, for example, Sanchez v. Nichols, the result could have been different. It’s hard not to react to that viscerally, but it reflects the attitudes of the time, and prevailing attitudes of today. Around 80% of emergent bilinguals speak Spanish as a home language, providing critical mass in terms of presence and policy. It is impossible, however, to generalize about people who come from vastly different countries and vastly different cultures. The 2008 report provides us with an overview of the data and an overview of programs set up to support emergent bilingual students. The authors contend that the recent shift toward teaching Spanish-speaking English language learners in English alone with no use of Spanish to scaffold their learning appears to be the result of the public’s misunderstanding of the nature of bilingualism and its benefits, as well as cultural politics that have little to do with what is educationally sound for the children.

A report from 2007 authored by the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill found that in a preschool setting when the Spanish speaking children spoke with their teachers in Spanish, conversations were more elaborate, children were rated higher by their teachers in terms of character traits, and there was less bullying and anti-social behavior. The amount of Spanish that children experienced in the classroom was significantly related to teachers’ ratings of children’s frustration, tolerance, assertiveness, task orientation and peer social skills. The use of Spanish in the classroom had no influence on their English language acquisition. When we talk about academic language and academic achievement we must bring in social and emotional hooks, as that is what home languages provide in abundance. These hooks can also come about when children learn native languages relevant to their cultural identity. As these are often languages not used much in the home, the complexity of expression may be mooted, but the importance of the language is not.

Too often decisions on how to teach emergent bilinguals are being made not in the classroom but in legislative chambers and voting booths; not on the basis of educational research data but on the basis of public opinion, often passionate but rarely informed (Murray, 2007). An outspoken advocate of bilingual education, James Crawford (Crawford, 2000), stated, “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.” Education is always political and bilingual education tends to elicit greater political involvement than other areas of education due in no small part to the colonizing power of English and English-only movements. It is this colonizing power we face and we need creative solutions to support our students’ hearts and souls.


Crawford, J. (2000). Anatomy of the English-only Movement. In At War with Diversity. Clevedon [England] ; Buffalo [N.Y.]: Multilingual Matters.

García, O., Kleifgen, J. A., & Falchi, L. (2008). From English Language Learners to Emergent Bilinguals (Research Review). New York, N.Y.: Teachers College, Columbia University.

Harris, C. (1993). Whiteness as Property. Harvard Law Review, 106(8), 1709–1791.

Macedo, D. (2000). The Colonialism of the English Only Movement. Educational Researcher, 29(3), 15–24.

Murray, M. (Liz). (2007, May 23). Current Political Realities and their Impact on Young English Language Learners. Hunter College, CUNY, New York, N.Y.


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.


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.


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.


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

Cruz, C. (2001). Toward an epistemology of a brown body. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 14(5), 657–669.

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.

Hill Collins, P. (2000). Black feminist thought: knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. New York: Routledge. Retrieved from

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).


Molweni! Ndiyavuya ukukwazi.

Molweni! Ndiyavuya ukukwazi J[1]

The issue of home languages and their place in the classroom is one very close to my heart. I am naturally curious about language and while I speak three languages that are among the most common (English, French, Spanish) I try to learn little bits of other languages that don’t come as easily to me. Right now I’m learning conversational Xhosa for my upcoming trip to South Africa. This will be my third time in South Africa and so far I’ve learnt some basic words and phrases but I’m trying to use a bit more. I’m at the stage of being able to say certain things but I don’t always understand the replies. In South Africa I’ve been working with children in Joe Slovo township in Port Elizabeth. A good friend of mine runs an excellent program for the children there. Everyone in the community speaks Xhosa as a mother tongue and they learn English at school. On the books, South Africa has eleven official languages: (in order of number of speakers) Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, English, Northern Sotho, Tswana, Sotho, Tsonga, Swati, Venda and Ndebele. The national exam however is only in English and Afrikaans. Considering the Soweto uprising was sparked by the introduction of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in schools, this continued dismissal of Bantu languages shows how much further South Africa needs to go to truly represent all South Africans.

Language is indivisible from culture and as Jim Cummins (Cummins, 1999) says, “if the mother tongue is not supported, leading to the rupture of relationships with family as well as dismissal of the child’s experience up to then, we are contradicting the very essence of education”. Cummins is speaking about the North American experience but his words resonate throughout. South Africa is the only country in Africa I’ve been to and it’s the most multilingual place I’ve ever been to. English is the lingua franca but almost everyone I met spoke a couple of other languages as well, their home language and whatever else they may need. The children at Joe Slovo start learning English at school and it appears to me that English soon becomes the one language of instruction. Many of the teachers teaching in English are mother tongue Xhosa speakers. I’m not sure what the answer is in regards to language learning and Xhosa literacy, and the issue of the instructional language competes, in terms of importance, with issues such as teachers taking food from the students, corporal punishment, among other egregious behavior on the part of the teachers. I would like to see Xhosa take on a more important role in South African society, along with Zulu and other Bantu languages. Some of the soap operas have people speaking a mix of English and maybe Xhosa or Zulu, and sometimes Afrikaans. These soap operas are subtitled so everyone can understand. I would like to see more programming in Bantu languages on television, and newspapers in Bantu languages.

With my third South African visit on the horizon I will look more closely at the linguistic issues that arise in South Africa. I hope to interview people I already know about their thoughts and beliefs in terms of language use and language as repository of culture. They say the third time is the charm, and I hope the charm coming to me this winter is a greater understanding of what it means to live in a multilingual country, and how this affects culture and personal identity. I can say I’m aware of my privilege as a native English speaker but I know I have to check it at times. I am in no way advocating not learning English, as it’s crucial in today’s world to have a good command of English. Xhosa is, however, spoken as a mother tongue by the vast majority of people living in the Eastern Cape so it has critical mass behind it and in my view it is critical to promote alphabetization in Xhosa and English. I’m excited for the trip and the chance to explore this issue in more depth.



Cummins, J. (1999, 2003). Bilingual Children’s Mother Tongue: Why Is It Important for Education? Retrieved from



[1] Hello! I am glad to know you J in isiXhosa