Nice White Parents and Dual Language Education

The first episode of the recently released podcast Nice White Parents documents the experiences of a school that experienced an influx of white parents in response to its efforts to create a French dual language program. What happened next is something that those of us who have worked with schools with dual language programs in gentrifying neighborhoods know all to well—white parents enthusiastic to be involved in the school community to ensure that their children receive a quality education steamrolled the existing leadership structure led by people of color and transformed the school in ways that made the families of color who had long been the primary clientele of the school feel unwelcomed and unheard.

With the increasing popularity of dual language programs with white parents, this dynamic will likely continue to emerge as schools trying to attract white parents market programs that were once intended to serve racialized bilingual communities into programs that are framed as enrichment programs for white children. Yet, these dynamics are not inevitable. In line with what the reporter concluded in her exploration of school integration, ensuring that dual language programs do not simply become a new tool for the maintenance of racial hierarchies requires white parents interested in dual language education to be willing to give up some of their power ins service of the greater good—something that the report pointed out hasn’t often happened.

In this spirit, below I lay out some principles that white parents might consider when thinking about how to engage with schools that have an existing dual language programs or (as in this case) how to engage with a school to advocate for the development of a dual language program.

  • Leave your savior complex at the door. A discourse documented in Nice White Parents that I have also come across in other gentrifying contexts are the ways that white parents have convinced themselves that they are somehow saving the school and is the first time that anything positive has happened in the school’s entire history. Guess what? Families of color have been attending these schools for a long time and have been pushing these schools to do right by their children. To suggest that these schools were some kind of urban wasteland before you arrived is not only racist but completely self-serving since it then allows you to promote an agenda that is completely focused on the needs of your child while pretending that you are actually trying to bring positive change to the school community. I’m not sure how your privileged white child receiving a dual language education is helping the many students of color who are either excluded from the program or forced into it because they have not been given another choice. How about instead of positioning yourself as the savior of the school you take some time to listen to the experiences of the families of color who have been attending the school and develop a cross-racial alliance focused on benefiting all of the children in the school, not just yours?
  • Respect the existing leadership structure of the school. One of the most painful moments of the first episode of Nice White Parents are the recorded interactions of the new white parents completely undermining the authority of the Puerto Rican PTA president in a series of tense meetings. Though we don’t hear their perspectives explicitly, I imagine that these white parents experienced the PTA president as overly defensive and perhaps even ill-informed. With this framing as their point of entry, they most likely experienced her as a barrier to their vision for the school. This not only led to her silencing but also worked to undermine the goals of the dual language program by making the families of color even more suspicious of a program they never asked for and didn’t want. Just imagine if white parents interested in a dual language program had met with the PTA first to discuss their ideas and to solicit feedback in the hopes of developing a plan that the entire school community was on board with.
  • Consider the existing languages of the school community when selecting the partner language for a dual language program. In Nice White Parents, the white families unilaterally decided to implement a French dual language program. This was despite the fact that many of the existing students came from homes where Spanish and Arabic were spoken. The result was that white students were celebrated for becoming bilingual or maintaining their heritage language while the longstanding racialized bilingual student population continued to have their bilingualism ignored at best and treated as a barrier to learning at worst. Just imagine if the nice white parents had bothered to do research first and develop alliances with the Spanish and/or Arabic-speaking community to develop a program that offered their children the opportunity to become bilingual while also building on the existing bilingualism of the school community.
  • Don’t ignore the many students who are not in the dual language program. While it is true that dual language programs have unique needs and challenges that need to be addressed, in this case, and in the case of many such programs, it is one program within a larger school community. This means that when developing plans to support the school it is important to think about the entire school so as to avoid the creation of a competitive dynamic that leads families and students not participating in the dual language program to feel like they are getting the short end of the stick. This requires a shift away from discussions of “what is best for my (white) child?” to “what is best for our children (of many different racial backgrounds with a diverse set of needs)?”
  • Understand that you will have to prove yourself to the school community. It can feel demoralizing to be treated with suspicion when you feel like all you are trying to do is to develop an innovative program that will benefit your child and perhaps others in the school community. But what you have to understand, and what this podcast shows over its 5 episodes, is that white parents have been experimenting at the expense of families of color for decades. The only way to show that you are different is through the hard work of community building and compromise—something that white parents have historically not been particularly good at. If you aren’t willing to do this work then you actually are just like all of those nice white parents throughout the history of US education and shouldn’t be upset when you are treated as such.

The podcast does end on a somewhat positive note by pointing to how the school eventually did take stock of the power dynamics that had emerged and worked to consciously work to challenge them in the name of racial equity. Part of this entailed the scaling back of the French dual language programming at the school. While advocates for bilingual education might feel like this was a loss, I would argue that this was a gain. Dual language education is not inherently socially transformative and in this case seemed to be doing more harm than good. Should the school be interested in revisiting a dual language program I hope that they work to develop the program from the bottom-up in ways that ensure that the program fits into a broader vision that ensures that the school is working to service all of its students equitably and with an anti-racist agenda always at the forefront.

Fighting Anti-Blackness IS Real Linguistics

As somebody who does research at the intersection of language and race I am often accused of not doing “real” linguistics. These accusers imagine linguistics to be an objective science and language to be a series of disembodied features separated from actual people. For these people, any political advocacy work is at best something that is done outside of one’s identity as a linguist and at worse a liability that is a threat to one’s objectivity. Aligned with this perspective, these accusers would argue that the current political protests occurring in response to the police murder of George Floyd is outside of the scope of linguistics as an area of scholarly inquiry. I would argue that it is not only well within the scope of linguistics but also offers an opportunity for us to critically interrogate the anti-Blackness that permeates the field.

The current political moment points to the inherent anti-Blackness of frameworks that suggest that language can be studied separately from the bodies who use them. This is seen very clearly in the contrasting perceptions of the predominantly white people protesting stay-at-home orders and the predominantly Black people protesting George Floyd’s murder. In one notable case, a group of armed white protestors were permitted to enter the Michigan statehouse to protest the governor’s extension of the state’s emergency order with no violent response from the police officers there charged with protecting the building and the politicians inside. President Trump even tweeted in support of the protestors through calls to “liberate Michigan!” and calls for the governor to “give a little, and put out the fire. These are very good people, but they are angry.”  In contrast, the police response to Black protestors has been much more aggressive with police officers refusing to engage in the de-escalation strategies that they quite effectively used in response to white protestors. In addition, President Trump referred to these Black protestors as “thugs” and threatened violent retaliation through the use of the phrase made famous by the white supremacist presidential candidate George Wallace “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

In these examples, both the police officers and President Trump are inhabiting the role of the white perceiving subject that frames Black bodies as inherently criminal and white bodies as inherently good even when they are engaged in similar behaviors. By white perceiving subject I am not referring to individuals per se but rather their institutional positions. That is, while not all of the police officers involved in these contrasting responses may be white, their position as agents charged to protect the interests of dominant elites who have accumulated their wealth through white settler colonialism and the enslavement and continued exploitation of Black populations, socializes them into these same hegemonic modes of perception. While these hegemonic perceptions are not new, they have been further legitimized and emboldened by a president who has directly and explicitly embraced white supremacy.

It is the anti-Blackness of the white perceiving subject that provides the foundation for the raciolinguistic ideologies that frame Black language practices as deficient and in need of remediation. By Black language practices I do not solely mean features that have historically been associated with African American Language as documented in sociolinguistics—one of the few areas of linguistics that has grappled with issues of race. After all, white people often appropriate these same linguistic features in order to gain social currency in their predominantly white social networks. Instead, what I mean is any language practices that a Black person uses. That is, the inherent criminality associated with Blackness by the white perceiving subject frames any utterance a Black person makes as potentially dangerous and in need of regulation. The logical conclusion to these raciolinguistic ideologies is state violence against Black people.

Insisting that such an analysis is outside of the scope of linguistics is anti-Black. It is anti-Black both in the ways that it refuses to grapple with the inextricability of language and race and by the ways that it serves to keep out of the field Black people who refuse to accept this erasure of their experiences. The apt question that we should be asking as a field is not why Black people don’t feel comfortable in linguistics but rather why white people feel so comfortable in linguistics. The short answer is that the foundational assumption of the field that you can remove language from bodies is steeped in whiteness and allows primarily white linguists to avoid grappling with their own complicity in maintaining white supremacy.

Like everybody else, there are many things that linguists can do to fight back against anti-Black state violence. We can participate in protests. We can engage in conversations with families and friends. We can donate money to Black-led community groups who are leading the organized resistance. But we must do this in ways that also acknowledge our fields continued complicity in reifying the anti-Blackness that makes this state violence possible to begin with. It is not enough for linguists to assume that anti-Blackness is an ideology that exists “out there” making it optional to address in our own backyard.

 

The Bilingual Revolution Will Not Be Funded

Below I share some preliminary notes on a chapter I am working on for my book project examining the ways that the institutionalization and professionalization of bilingual education in the post-Civil Rights era served to maintain racial hierarchies. One dimension that I will be exploring is the role of federal and philanthropic funds in supporting this process of political incorporation. You can get more information on the issues described below in a report based on my research at the Rockefeller Archive Center that explores the role of the Ford Foundation in moderating Latinx community demands for bilingual education in ways that maintained the white supremacist and capitalist status quo.

In July of 1969 the Board of the recently created Southwest Council of La Raza (SWCLR) had a meeting about whether to change their priorities. In their one year of operation they had primarily supported local grassroots struggles focused on improving the lives of Mexican Americans with one of their primary focuses being to support struggles for bilingual education. Yet, supporting these grassroot political struggles had often put them into conflict with the Ford Foundation, who was their primary funder. The Foundation was pressuring the SWCLR to move away from supporting grassroots political struggles. The meeting was tense and became heated as board members debated whether to comply with the Foundations request or risk losing their funding with the Board reluctantly agreeing to the request leading radical members of the Board to resign. Their resignation alongside a $1.3 million-dollar grant from the Ford Foundation led the organization to rebrand itself as a professional advocacy organization known as the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) far removed from its grassroots origins.

The pressure put on the SWCLR by the Ford Foundation connects to the broader role that philanthropic organizations played in moving racialized communities away from militancy and toward professionalized forms of advocacy within the context of the Civil Rights Movement. In the case of the Latinx community, the Ford Foundation supported these efforts through funding the creation of professional organizations, supporting the creation of ethnic studies programs and supporting bilingual education and other educational innovations that promised to improve educational outcomes for Latinx students.

The biggest Foundation support for bilingual education was in the American Southwest with the bulk of this funding being funneled through the Southwest Council of La Raza (SWCLR).  SWCLR’s decentralized model provided space for radical activists to gain leadership roles within the organization and use the funding available to support militant political action against the white establishment. These political actions led the Foundation to be accused of funding militant extremists. Most contentious was the SWCLR’s decision to subcontract funds to the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO). MAYO’s primary focus for community organizing work was challenging what they believed to be the educational genocide occurring within San Antonio area public schools with a major priority being abolishment English-Only school policies and advocating for bilingual education. MAYO’s confrontational tactics were condemned by mainstream white and Mexican American politicians, most notably Congressman Henry González who openly condemned MAYO on the floor of the House of Representatives.

The Foundation found itself increasingly under pressure and, in turn, placed pressure on the SWCLR to reign in MAYO and other radical elements connected to the organization. One way that it sought to do this was through imposing stricter rules on SWCLR that mandated the organization to divert its efforts away from community organizing and advocacy toward the development of “hard programs” with measurable objectives that would be pre-approved by the Foundation. As SWCLR began to adopt this new “hard program” approach it also sought to expand its efforts beyond the American Southwest by becoming a national organization focused on advocating for Mexican Americans across the country. This led the organization leaders to change the name to the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) and gradually shift its focus toward serving as a professional liaison to federal government agencies and corporations primarily through the release of public statements on pending legislation and through a focus on business projects within Latinx communities. As it relates to bilingual education, a great deal of NCLR’s efforts focused on compiling research related to best practices along with federal policy analysis intended to inform and persuade lawmakers on issues related to bilingual education.

 In short, while having experienced a few road bumps on the way, the Ford Foundation achieved its overall objective in serving as a moderating force in the American Southwest. It did this by first providing funds to Mexican American leaders who were seen as more moderate to fund the SWCLR. When these leaders used funds to support controversial grassroots political action, the Foundation used its funding as leverage to change the direction of the SWCLR and its subsidiaries away from supporting grassroots community organizing toward supporting professional advocacy work focused on technical expertise. In the case of bilingual education, this led to a movement away from local community-led work focused on dismantling the racist structures and practices of schools as part of broader efforts to dismantle the white power structure toward a focus on sharing professional expertise about the value of bilingual education with a particular focus on federal level policy. More radical elements of the Mexican American movement found other avenues for entering into local community work primarily through electoral politics. Neither of these tactics were particularly successful with most of the most prominent Mexican American activists absorbed into the Democratic Party by the 1980s just as bilingual education began to be systematically dismantled with the rise of the Ronald Regan presidency.

This points to a catch-22 that confronted many Latinx activists working to promote bilingual education within the context of the Civil Rights Movement and its aftermath. On the one hand, financial support provided necessary resources that could be used to mobilize communities in support of bilingual education and other policies that will have a meaningful impact on their lives. On the other hand, accepting this financial support came with certain strings attached that pushed activists to compromise in ways that they felt were politically necessary if not necessarily philosophically aligned with their true vision of bilingual education. Reliance on federal and philanthropic funds led advocacy work focused on bilingual education to become divorced from grassroots political struggles through its professionalization. The result was the emergence of a cadre of primarily Latinx professionals charged with advocating for and implementing bilingual education programs. The ascendancy of this new professional class occurred alongside the ascendency of neoliberalism as the structuring logic of the global political and economic order and, in turn, the structuring logic of educational reform in the United States. The bilingual revolution had become neoliberalized.

 

Are People Who Support the Concept of Academic Language Racist? An FAQ

For the past several years I have been presenting at academic conferences and offering workshops to educators challenging dominant conceptualizations of academic language in educational linguistics from a raciolinguistic perspective. In this post I thought I would offer a FAQ about my perspective based on conversations that I have had over the years.

What are your concerns about the concept of academic language?

I have three major concerns about the concept of academic language. The first one is that it continues the logic of European colonialism that frames the language practices of racialized communities as inherently deficient and in need of remediation. The second one is that it is currently taken up in schools and classrooms in ways that relegate many racialized students to remedial instruction. Finally, its dichotomous framing does not map on to the fluid language use that characterizes the real world that schools are purportedly preparing students for.

But was academic language ever intended to be really be treated as dichotomous with non-academic language?

The introduction of the concept of academic language into language education is typically attributed to Jim Cummins who originally proposed the distinction between Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). In 1980, he argued “CALP is defined as those dimensions of language proficiency that are strongly related to literacy skills, whereas BICS refers to cognitively undemanding manifestations of language proficiency in interpersonal situations.” Not only does this sound like a dichotomy to me but based on this definition when somebody describes children as having BICS but not CALP they are essentially arguing that they only engage in cognitively undemanding language practices. This deficit framing isn’t entirely surprising since Cummins had originally used the term semilingualism before introducing the BICS and CALP dichotomy. It also isn’t surprising that this framing would lead to remediation.

How does this dichotomous framing play out in schools and classrooms?

 There are three unfortunate consequences of this dichotomous framing. For one, it inevitably positions teachers as language police who have to surveil and correct the supposed non-academic language practices of their students. Because of the broader racialized history of US society, it is racialized students who are disproportionately impacted by this type of policing. Secondly, it overdetermines the home language practices of racialized students to be non-academic in ways that overlook the vast amounts of linguistic knowledge that racialized students bring to the classroom that are very much aligned with the knowledge being measured by state standards. Finally, it denies students the opportunity to bring their entire identities into their interactions with classroom texts in the ways that we all do outside of classrooms on a daily basis. Indeed, some of the most gifted racialized authors are celebrated precisely for their ability to utilize a range of linguistic practices in their writing. Why should we deny this opportunity to our children in the name of teaching them academic language?

Are you against the promotion of academic literacy?

I am against the promotion of the normative conceptualization of literacy and biliteracy that undergirds the construction of academic literacy. In my work, I am particularly interested in critically interrogating how children who engage with written texts across two or more languages on a daily basis are framed as illiterate because of their supposed lack of  a “strong foundation” in “academic literacy” in any language. I imagine if affluent white children were engaged in the same exact biliteracy practices they would not be positioned in this way. It is this inequity that I am trying to make central to the conversation.

What do you suggest as an alternative to academic language?

Any dichotomous framing of language will inevitably be taken up in ways that reinforce deficit perspectives of racialized communities. In response to this dilemma, in a recent article I proposed language architecture as a non-dichotomous framing of language. Language architecture takes as its point of entry the assumption that racialized students can already engage in the types of complex linguistic practices desired by state standards but that their knowledge is being misrecognized because of the pervasiveness of raciolinguistic ideologies. Using this as a point of entry can allow for new pedagogical practices to emerge. Yet, it is also important to transform the racist structures that constrain the types of practices that can emerge in classrooms.

Aren’t you using academic language in your critique of it?

This question comes from the perspective that academic language is a set of disembodied empirical linguistic features. I reject the logic that undergirds this perspective in favor of one that treats academic language as an ideological construction shaped by the social status of the speaker in relation to the listener/perceiver. As an example, I recently wrote an article that a reviewer recommended for rejection because their perception was that the tone and tenor was not sufficiently academic. When the article was published another person immediately critiqued it for engaging in academic language even as it sought to critique it. It would seem from this example and many others than academic language is in the eyes and ears of the beholder. It is this shift from the speaker to the listener/perceiver that lies at the heart of the shift I am working to facilitate.

Are you calling people who support the concept of academic language racist?

I don’t know most of them personally, so I don’t know if they are racist or not. But that isn’t really the point I am trying to make. Instead, my point is that the discourses that we use have histories and it is important for us to be aware of these histories when we mobilize them. This can be especially important for those of us who seek to promote anti-racism. In the case of academic language, the logic that undergirds it connects to a broader colonial history that was used to construct and maintain racial hierarchies. It can be difficult to fully meet our potential if we continue to rely on this logic in our efforts to promote racial equity. I am hoping to engage in conversations about how to develop new logics and welcome others to join me in that conversation.

 

 

Do We Need a Revolution in Educational Linguistics?

Educational linguistics as a field has historically and continues to promote language education as a tool of social transformation. Yet, the theory of social change (i.e. the theory that identifies the root of the problem and how to fix it) has often remained underdeveloped. In this post, I lay out five different theories of change associated with language education and their implications for educational linguistics.

The most socially reproductive theory of change in language education is assimilation. This theory of change suggests that the most effective way for language-minoritized children to become productive members of society is for them to replace their nondominant minoritized language practices with dominant societal language practices. In schools, this typically comes in the form of a strict imposition of dominant societal language practices and prohibitions on the use of nondominant minoritized language practices. The idea is that this approach will be most effective at assimilating language-minoritized students into the mainstream and eliminating their marginalization. Educational linguists have historically and continue to reject this theory as misguided at best and oppressive at worse. Unfortunately, it still remains a common approach around the world.

A slightly less socially reproductive theory of social change in language education is accommodation. This theory suggests that the most effective way for language-minoritized children to become productive members of society is to master the dominant societal language practices while maintaining their nondominant minoritized language practices in their home. In school, this typically looks similar to assimilation with perhaps some superficial acknowledgement of the existence of nondominant minoritized languages practices. The difference is that it adopts a more laissez-faire attitude toward language use in the home. In this way, the assumption is not that language-minoritized communities have to completely assimilate into the mainstream society, but rather that they must learn to accommodate the mainstream society when engaged in public spaces outside of their homes. As strong advocates for societal multilingualism, educational linguists typically suggest that accommodation is not enough and that we should actively promote language diversity. The fact that a tolerance-oriented educational program is quite similar to an assimilation-oriented educational program provides evidence to prove this assertion.

Moving to the next level we get a theory of language education that explicitly brings issues of power into the conversation. I call this theory of language education evolution. Evolution moves beyond accommodation by suggesting that teaching language-minoritized students dominant societal language practices from a more critical perspective will empower them to become agents of social change. Providing them access to these dominant language practices is important in providing them access to mainstream institutions. Offering them a more critical perspective is important in ensuring that they can become institutional change agents who are able to effectively transform these institutions to better serve their communities. In school, this might mean supplementing the mainstream curriculum with opportunities for critical reflection about the relationship between language and power. The goal would be to provide students with access to “codes of power” while offering them frameworks for challenging the privileging of these codes over nondominant minoritized languages practices. This approach remains relatively popular within educational linguistics.

A step above evolution is transformation. Like evolution, transformation suggests that providing language-minoritized students with access to dominant societal language practices from a critical perspective can equip them with the necessary tools to advocate for social change. Yet, it moves beyond evolution by suggesting that language-minoritized students should not simply master the supposed “codes of power” but should instead transform them by strategically blending them with the nondominant minoritized language practices of their homes and communities. In this vein, transformation would extend the school curriculum beyond simply critiquing the privileging of dominant societal language practices toward the opening up of space for language-minoritized students to transform these dominant language practices even while they work to master them. While existing within composition and rhetoric for many years, this approach is just starting to gain traction within educational linguistics through discussions of translanguaging and translingualism and other parallel frameworks.

The final level that has not been taken very seriously in educational linguistics or the broader society is revolution. According to this theory, the foundation of mainstream schooling has historically and continues to be oppressive to language-minoritized students. Therefore, the only way to truly empower language-minoritized students is to completely restructure the institution. What this looks like in practices remains to be seen. That said, it does seem like it might be a worthwhile thought experiment to think through what schooling that rejects societal linguistic hierarchies might look like. Barring broader societal transformation, such schools may not be possible. Yet, it is important to take time to think about what we are fighting for, not just what we are fighting against.

This is especially important to do considering the fact that the other four levels laid out here focus primarily on modifying the linguistic practices of language-minoritized communities. Indeed, even levels three and four, which are currently the most widely utilized by educational linguists frame the root of social change being in modifying the linguistic practices of language-minoritized communities. To be clear, providing spaces for language-minoritized students to critically reflect on the relationship between language and power is extremely important. In addition, offering them space for transforming language in ways that reflect their fluid linguistic realities is even more important. That said, I refuse to live in a world where the best we can do is prepare language-minoritized students for a racist society.

What might it look like to treat institutional racism as the problem that needs to be modified rather than the linguistics practices of language-minoritized communities? What role might educational linguistics play in exposing the working of this institutional racism? How might educational linguistics help to lead a revolution that works to dismantle this institutional racism? These are all questions that I believe are worth pursuing.

Why a Raciolinguistic Perspective Passes the Classroom Reality Check

It has come to my attention that a senior scholar in the field has been encouraging his audience to figure out who I am and to give my work the “classroom reality check.” His basic argument is that the frameworks that I have developed alongside my mentors and colleagues have little bearing on the lives of actual classroom teachers. If you have decided to do this homework and have actually found me (since he apparently refers to the concept of raciolinguistic ideologies without citing those of us who coined the term), I would like to take this opportunity to make the case for how the concept does, in fact, pass the classroom reality check.

My journey into developing the concept of raciolinguistic ideologies emerged out of my experiences as an ESL teacher at a high school in the Bronx. The majority of my students were born in the United States and felt quite comfortable communicating in English, with many even reporting to me that they felt more comfortable communicating in English than in Spanish. Using the knowledge gained from my teacher education, I hypothesized that subtractive bilingualism had prevented them from gaining a strong mastery of academic language in either English or Spanish.  I determined that my job was to promote additive bilingualism by teaching them academic language. Yet, as I got to know my students more, I began to experience a big disconnect between the discourses I had available to me to describe their language practices (as lacking) and the fluid bilingualism that I observed them engaging in on a daily basis. Eventually, I began to wonder how it was possible for students who I observed using English and Spanish on a daily basis to be considered deficient in both.

It was this question that led me in collaboration with Jonathan Rosa to coin the term raciolinguistic ideologies. Raciolinguistic ideologies point to the ways that within the context of European colonialism and its aftermath that language and race have become co-constructed in ways that frame the language practices of racialized communities as deficient and in need of remediation. A key aspect of our raciolinguistic perspective is the shift from a focus on the speaking practices of racialized students toward the listening practices of the white listening subject. From this perspective, there is nothing about the language practices of racialized communities that make them deficient. Instead, the problem lies in the ways that they are taken up by listeners who have been socialized into hearing the language practices of these communities as deficient as a legacy of European colonialism.

Providing spaces for classroom teachers to reflect on the ways that their listening practices and the listening practices of their colleagues reflect the hegemonic position of the white listening subject is immensely important. Indeed, when I introduce this shift from the speaker to the listener to bilingual educators, it instantly resonates with their own experiences as teachers working with low-income Latinx students. They witness firsthand the disparities between the ways that the bilingualism of their students is framed versus the ways that the bilingualism of more affluent student populations is framed. They report their frustrations at the ways that other teachers argue that dual language education is not right for “our kids” and that it should be reserved for gifted students in more affluent schools who can already speak English well. The concept of raciolinguistic ideologies provides them with discourse to call out this double-standard and contextualize it within a broader history of colonial relations of power.

In my work with teachers, we push the conversation even further than this. We reflect together on what to make of the fact that contemporary framings of the language practices of racialized communities sound so eerily similar to the ways that the language practices of racialized communities were discussed within the context of European colonialism. We struggle with the ways that dichotomous framings of language into “academic” and “non-academic” seem to imply that the “non-academic” home language practices of racialized communities have no place in the modern educational system. We work to contrast this with a close examination of the ways that students from racialized backgrounds negotiate socially constructed linguistic boundaries on a daily basis. We reflect on the unique affordances these students have for developing an understanding of the importance of considering your audiencewhen making language choices as well as the impact of particular language choices on meaning. We brainstorm what it might look like for teachers to shift their goal away from teaching students academic language toward helping them to make connections between their existing knowledge and the seemingly unfamiliar tasks demanded by the standards. This opens up the possibility of challenging us all to develop new ways of listening/reading that recognizes that the home language practices of racialized communities as inevitably aligned with as opposed to dichotomous with the language demands of school.

The teachers I have engaged in these types of conversations have almost always embraced the conversation with open arms. They feel validated by the acknowledgement of the real structural constraints that they confront as educators working with low-income racialized students in under-resourced schools. They also appreciate the opportunity to reflect on the biases in their listening practices and the space for developing new pedagogical approaches that resist these biases. They express a genuine desire for alternative discourses that help them to name the linguistic dexterity that they observe their students engaging in on a daily basis and the ways that this linguistic dexterity is devalued in school and the broader society. But perhaps most importantly, they appreciate being able to discuss how to navigate the tension between pressures to meet the language demands of their curriculum while positioning the home language practices of their students as legitimate both inside and outside of the classroom. Though there are no easy answers or magic bullets for how to resolve this tension I can’t imagine anything more connected to classroom realities than that.

Stop Making Cases Against Latinx, Start Making Cases for Gender Equity

Every few months my social media explodes with debates related to the increasing use of the term Latinx as a gender neutral alternative to Latino. Most often it is prompted by rediscovery of this case against Latinx published a few years ago or a more recent article making similar arguments. I have been surprised at how often people share these articles as if they are making a useful contribution to the debate over developing more inclusive language. In reality, these cases against Latinx are usually trolling women and non-binary people while hiding behind seemingly woke language.

There are five major critiques of Latinx that I have gathered from these various cases against Latinx. While they may seem reasonable at face-value, on closer scrutiny they point to the real agenda of most of these cases against Latinx—to derail discussions of the ways that patriarchal and heteronormative ideologies are reproduced through language by suggesting that the term Latinx is the problem as opposed to patriarchy and heteronormativity. I will examine each of these critiques below and point to their major flaws.

  • Latinx was a term developed in the US that is being imposed on Latin America. I have seen this argument resonate with many people conscious of the long history of US imperialism in Latin America that continues today. That said, debates about how to make Spanish more inclusive also has a long history in Latin America that continues today. In fact, there is strong evidence that suggests that the term Latinx actually emerged in Latin America. Whether it did or not, the fact of the matter is that it is now used within feminist and queer communities throughout Latin America. To, therefore, suggest that the term is somehow a tool of US imperialism is to erase the many women and non-binary people living in Latin America who use the term as part of broader efforts at demanding equal rights
  • The term is unpronounceable in Spanish. It is true that the pronunciation of the term is in a state of flux. I have heard Latin-ex, Lateen-ex, and Lateen-equis. I am sure that there are also other variations as well. That said, I have never come across a Spanish speaker who wanted to use the term who was not able to pronounce it in a way that was functional for their purposes—namely identifying themselves as connected to a broader political movement for gender equality. In addition, this argument is irrelevant to describing the use of Latinx among bilingual/English speaking Latinxs living in the US. As far as I know, nobody has claimed that the term is unpronounceable in English so the critique is irrelevant to the use of Latinx in this context.
  • There is a slippery slope from the use of Latinx to the complete degendering of Spanish. The basic argument is that adopting Latinx would eventually lead to the imposition of a completely new grammatical structure on Spanish so that terms like escuela and playa would now be escuelx and playx. To my knowledge nobody has called for the complete degendering of Spanish. Indeed, to suggest that degendering the way we describe people will lead to the degendering of inanimate objects is dehumanizing to women and non-binary people whose gender identities are being conflated with the grammatical gender of inanimate objects.
  • Latinx is an elitist term that is only available to highly educated people with access to privileged spaces. While it is true that Latinx may not have wide circulation yet to claim that this makes it elitist is misleading at best. Many terms that marginalized people use to describe themselves begin on a small scale and gradually become more widely used. As an example, when I was in college a similar critique was made about the use of the term queer. Over the past 15 years the term has become more widely used with many young people now identifying as queer either in addition to or instead of as gay or lesbian. Whether the same process happens with Latinx remains to be seen. That said, efforts to promote more inclusive language will continue and to suggest that these efforts are elitist serve to derail this important conversation.
  • Latino is already gender neutral. The whole premise of people using Latinx or other forms of inclusive language such as Latine is that Latino is not gender neutral. To simply conclude that Latino is, in fact, gender neutral is not making a case against Latinx but instead a case against grappling with the patriarchal and heteronormative ideologies that undergird our daily language use. There are no simply solutions to these issues and people will inevitably disagree on how best to address them. But to simply suggest that Latino is gender neutral serves to reinforce the status quo.

To be clear, while I am calling for people to stop making cases against Latinx I am not necessarily making a case for Latinx either. Instead, I am making a case for taking the concerns of women and non-binary people seriously. As an educator, this means bringing these debates into the classroom. But the point of entry of these debates should not be to treat the five arguments listed above as legitimate arguments.  Instead, the point of entry of these debates should be the understanding that language change is always at the forefront of political struggles and that efforts at developing more inclusive language are part of broader efforts to develop a more gender equitable future. If your only contribution to these efforts is to make cases against Latinx, somehow I suspect that your priority may not be gender equity but rather the maintenance of the status quo.

What are the different types of dual language programs?

Recent years have witnessed the expansion of so-called “dual language” programs. One of the primary goal of these programs has been to promote equity by providing minoritized communities access to high quality bilingual education. Yet, as these programs have spread the dual language umbrella has become increasingly large with differences between these programs often obscured in ways that might be detrimental to student learning and the promotion of equity.

In this post, I expand the typology of the different program types that currently exist as a way of beginning a conversation about how best to meet the needs of students who enter these different programs and how to ensure that they do not lose focus on the primary goal of promoting equity for minoritized communities.

There are at least four different program types that I have come across:

  1. Two-way programs: These are programs that serve a balance of students from English speaking homes and homes where the minoritized language is spoken. In order for this to be possible the neighborhood where the school is located must have sizeable numbers of students from these different communities that have a strong interest in the program. As a result, these programs are typically found in relatively affluent neighborhoods with a small but sizeable population of speakers of the minoritized language that either reside in the community or are bused in from other communities. As young professionals increasingly decide to remain in urban areas when they have children these programs are also increasingly found in gentrifying neighborhoods with the danger being that the speakers of the minoritized language may be displaced as property values continue to rise. These programs often grapple with issues of power and privilege as communities with different racial and social class positions come together. When the term dual language was first coined this was often the only program type that was being referred to. Indeed, to this day, some people are only referring to this program type when they use the term dual language. At the very least this program type is often seen as the ideal form of dual language education.
  2. One-way programs: The fact that the US is a segregated society means that two-way programs are often not feasible simply because there isn’t a sizeable population of students from English speaking homes interested in participating in these programs. As a result, segregated neighborhoods with a large student population from one minoritized background will sometimes offer one way programs that exclusively serve students who come from homes where this language is used. Historically, these programs have been referred to as maintenance or developmental programs. Increasingly, these have been placed under the umbrella of dual language. While they have the same explicit goal of bilingual and biliteracy development the context where they are working to developing these skills is quite different. Because of the low social status of the students being served by these students, they often grapple with the perception that they are transitional programs or remedial programs. As a result, they sometimes will be branded as two-way in the hopes of exploiting their higher prestige. Yet, this may lead programs to inappropriately try to sort students into L1 English users versus L1 users of the partner language when most, if not all, of the students are simultaneous rather than sequential bilinguals who use both languages on a daily basis both in and out of school.
  3. 1.5-way programs: These programs exist in similar segregated neighborhoods as one-way programs. The key difference is that while one-way programs are typically found in communities with relatively new immigrant populations, 1.5-way programs are typically found in communities where speakers of the minoritized language have lived for multiple generations. As a result, these programs typically have students with a range of experiences with English and the minoritized language. They struggle with similar challenges as one-way programs in terms of the social status of the students leading to negative perceptions of the programs. Yet, they also struggle with some challenges that confront two-way programs in that their classrooms are typically more linguistically heterogeneous. As with one-way programs they often try to brand themselves as two- way programs and, indeed, better fit the description in that many students are coming in from homes where English is used as the primary language. However, this may lead to students inappropriately being placed into boxes of L1 users of English and L1 users of the minoritized language in ways that erase the dynamic bilingualism of many of the students being served. To date little research has been done on these programs with, to my knowledge, nobody having even proposed a name for them before.
  4. Wrong way programs: These programs are typically founded in affluent predominantly white neighborhoods and typically only serve affluent predominantly white students. The name is only half serious but is meant to illustrate that these programs deviate significantly from the original goals of dual language programs, which was to promote equity for minoritized communities. Whatever good these programs may be doing for their privileged students, they are not promoting equity for minoritized communities. In many ways, they shouldn’t be called dual language programs at all. In fact, historically they have typically been called immersion programs though they have recently been rebranded as dual language programs in many contexts. This is part of a larger gentrification of dual language educationthat is serving to systematically push minoritized students out of these programs while co-opted the equity discourses that have historically been associated with dual language programs.

I’m sure there are other types of dual language programs that already exist and that new types will continue to emerge as these program continue to expand. For example, dual language programs have begun to emerge in predominately African American neighborhoods. This challenges the existing frameworks that presuppose that students from English speaking homes are always coming from privileged racial, linguistic and social class positions and suggests the need for new modifications that meet the particular needs of these students who have often historically been systematically excluded from these programs. It is only by adapting these programs to fit the students being served while ensuring their equitable distributions across different community contexts that these programs will continue to successfully promote equity for minoritized communities.

Making Millions off of the 30-Million-Word Gap

The 30-million-word gap argues that low-income children of color hear 30 million fewer words within the first three years of life than their more affluent peers. It posits that the way to end academic inequalities is to ensure that low-income children of color are exposed to more words before they enter school. The argument is that this will improve their academic performance and improve their life outcomes.

The 30-million-word gap was first popularized by development psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley. It has since gained widespread bipartisan support. In 2014, President Obama created a video encouraging parents to #closethewordgap. More recently, Susan Neuman, assistant secretary of education under George W. Bush argued that the word gap is “very real.” In a society infected with partisan divisions the one thing that people on both sides of the aisle can apparently agree on is that low-income children of color are linguistically deficient and in need of fixing.

Bipartisan support for the supposed cultural and linguistic deficiencies of low-income communities of color are certainly not new. It can be traced back to the War on Poverty, which framed the root cause of racial inequalities to be pathologies of communities of color. Since then billions of dollars have gone into compensatory education programs that seek to fix these supposed cultural and linguistic deficiencies. The result has been continued racial inequalities both inside and outside of school.

The 30-million-word gap continues in this tradition by blaming low-income communities of color for their own marginalization. It suggests that parents and caregivers who are confronting the many barriers produced by generations of racialized poverty including lack of decent jobs, affordable housing, health care and food security can undo their racialized poverty if they just used more words with their children. It amounts to looking victims of generations of racial oppression straight in the eyes and saying “let them eat words.” It also absolves the broader society from addressing the structural racism that lies at the root of the marginalization of low-income communities of color.

While the 30-million-word gap continues to dominant much of the discussion surrounding the education of low-income students of color, it has not been without its critics. A 2015 forum included the perspectives of various linguistic anthropologists seeking to debunk the word gap.

More recently, a study by Douglas Sperry, Linda Sperry and Peggy Miller that attempted to replicate the original Hart & Risley studyhas called the entire hypothesis into question. This study found that there were few statistically significant differences between the number of words heard by children from different social class backgrounds. Instead, they found wide variability within each social class. It received prompt criticism from proponents of the 30-million-word gap who pointed to what they saw as methodological flaws of the study. Interestingly, they conveniently ignore the methodological flaws of the original Hart and Risley study.

The fact that these researchers are so keen at pointing to methodological flaws of the Sperry, Sperry & Miller replication study while completely overlooking the methodological flaws of the Hart & Risley study their work is built on raises some interesting questions. Might these researchers have a vested interest in promoting the 30-million-word gap? Might it have to do with the millions of dollars that are currently going into initiatives that seek to close this supposed gap? Might they be the latest round of education researchers who have received a great deal of funding to reinforce the seductive narrative that if only we could fix low-income parents of color we would fix racial inequalities?

To be clear, I am not suggesting that language is irrelevant to fixing racial inequalities. I am an educational linguist after all. The problem is that the 30-million-word gap not only obscures structural racism, but is also informed by a flawed theory of language. I have previously written about the flawed theory of language that lies at the core of the the 30-million-word gap. Here I would just like to add a simple argument: teachers who are working from a mindset that their children are broken and in need of fixing are not going to be effective at educating these students. Yet, this is exactly what the 30-million-word gap is suggesting to teachers. Ironically, these programs are getting millions of dollars to disseminate a racist message in the name of challenging racial inequalities.

What if instead of accepting deficit perspectives of low-income students of color, we worked with teachers to understand and value the rich linguistic practices that all of their children bring to the classroom. What if instead of creating programs that seek to fix low-income students of color, we created programs that would support teachers in building on their linguistic resources in the classroom? What if instead of spending millions of dollars on modifying parenting practices in communities of color we invested that money in economic development in the segregated neighborhoods where most of them reside?

Some people will think that the argument I am making here makes biased. I certainly am. I reject the expectation that communities of color undo their own oppression by modifying their cultural and linguistic practices. I reject a theory of language that suggest language is just a series of decontextualized words. And I reject policies that suggest we should be telling teachers to fix their students rather than build on their strengths. I own my ideological commitments. I just ask that proponents of the 30-million-word gap own theirs as well.

#MeToo Comes to Educational Linguistics

Recently, at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, a note was posted next to a picture of Dell Hymes, a former dean at the school and the founder of the Educational Linguistics Division where I currently work. It stated the following:

Dell Hymes took advantage of female students, groped women, and used his power to discriminate against female scholars. Penn covered for him then. GSE honors him now. Why?

A recent Daily Pennsylvanian article documents some of the archival work that Penn GSE graduate students have undertaken to corroborate these claims. Somehow this documentation had been erased from the official narrative that has been associated with Dell Hymes and replaced by rumors that are whispered through the hallways or over drinks but never publicly stated. This is no longer possible with Penn GSE graduate students loudly declaring “Me too” as an indictment of the entire field of educational linguistics.

As a Penn GSE faculty member who in some ways has inherited the legacy of Dell Hymes by working in the program he founded, I have spent the last few weeks reflecting on both what confronting this history means for my work as a scholar as well as what it means for the field of educational linguistics. How do I come to terms with the fact that somebody who is considered to be one of the founders of my academic discipline has been accused of not only sexually harassing women but also actively working to sabotage their careers? What does it mean for educational linguistics, a field that has prided itself on bringing attention to and combatting social inequalities, to come to terms with this history? And how do we move forward in ways that make amends for this past while working to ensure more gender equity in the future?

The most obvious first step in promoting gender equity both within educational linguistics and throughout academia is to work toward combatting sexual harassment in the ways that the #MeToo movement has challenged us to do. In order to do this, we must ensure that the voices of those who are the most marginalized in academia, typically students, are front and center in any conversation about how to improve policies that seek to combat sexual harassment. To this effect, I feel compelled to amplify their voices on this important issue. Here is a link to the recommendations that the students are proposing to improve sexual harassment policies to prevent what Dell Hymes got away with from happening again in the future: https://docs.google.com/…/1g9Gb46-pYiKpGZAi-TJBKybAr91…/edit

Yet, stronger sexual harassment policies must be understood as not an end in and of themselves but rather a means to a larger end of gender equity throughout academia. In the case of educational linguistics, we have to reflect on the history of our field and why it is that white men such as Dell Hymes have been crowned as its founders. No doubt this was because they were brilliant scholars. Yet, might it also have been that some of them, like Hymes, actively worked to exclude women from the conversation? How many women scholars’ voices has our field lost over the years because of this institutional sexism? After all, for every documented case of sexism and sexual harassment in the field of educational linguistics there are no doubt countless more that got lost to history. For every woman who was able to overcome Hymes’ attacks and still thrive professionally, there are probably countless others who were not as lucky, whose careers were destroyed and whose perspectives and insights we have lost as a field.

It is this systematic erasure of the voices of women that our field must come to terms with. While we can’t change the past, we can be reflective in the present and in the future on how we ensure gender equity. One way of doing this, which is especially important for male scholars to keep in mind, is to recognize our ethical responsibility to ensure that every academic initiative we participate in is gender inclusive. For example, when putting conference symposia together it should be non-negotiable that at least half of the panelists be women. There are many brilliant women scholars doing amazing work in educational linguistics and I have never had any trouble meeting this non-negotiable. Anybody who suggests otherwise is just making excuses.

A second way of promoting gender equity is through being more mindful about who we are citing in our work. To continue to unproblematically cite Dell Hymes as a founder of the field may erase the sexism that allowed him to reach this status and, in this way, continue to silence the women who he victimized. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that people should stop citing him. That is a personal decision that each of us will have to make on our own. What I am suggesting is that we all continuously reflect on who we are citing, how we are citing them, why we are citing them and to what effect. If our citation list is mostly men, we may want to reflect on why that is and how we can remedy it. Men are not doing better work than women. We typically get more attention for it than women do as a continuation of the institutional sexism that has historically and continues to plague our field.

Educational linguistics as a field has prided itself on promoting social change in the world. It is time for us to turn the lens inward and promote change within our own discipline. One way of doing this is by confronting the institutional sexism that shaped the founding of our field and that continues to inform many of the dynamics that continue to permeate our field today. Importantly, we must be intersectional when we engage in this work. Women of color have historically and continue to experience the same sexism that white women experience while also having to confront the institutional racism of academic institutions. This is why it is important to especially include the work of women of color in our academic projects and through our citation practices. Only by amplifying the voices of the most marginalized within our community can we truly begin the work of dismantling the power structures that have shaped our discipline.