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.

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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 isnow 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 objectsis 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.

 

Why White People Should Stop Pulling a Tim Kaine (or Joe Kennedy)

In his response to the State of the Union address this past week Joe Kennedy made the decision to use Spanish. I immediately saw parallels with Tim Kaine’s use of Spanish that I previously commented on. Kennedy’s use of Spanish was not identical to Kaine’s use of Spanish. Kaine typically sprinkled Spanish words throughout his speeches as the vice-presidential candidate. In contrast, Kennedy choose to use Spanish at one moment in his speech when he directly addressed Dreamers. Yet, despite these differences the key similarity is the communicative function that it served, which was to show the world that both of them knew Spanish.

In the case of Kaine, there didn’t seem to be a specific audience in mind in his use of Spanish. Instead, it seemed to be targeting all Spanish-speakers. Yet, his use of Spanish was fairly minimal in most of his speeches. It is unlikely that a Spanish speaker with little to no proficiency in English would have been able to follow what he was saying. In addition, bilingual English-Spanish speakers would likely not have required any translation as they are able to follow the English parts of the speech. It is clear that the point wasn’t to improve comprehension but to demonstrate Kaine’s Spanish proficiency.

The same is true for Kennedy’s use of Spanish. In contrast to Kaine, Kennedy directed his comments at a specific audience, the Dreamers. By definition, Dreamers arrived to the United States when they were children and so they are typically quite comfortable in English. Indeed, many have been in the US for so long that English may be their primary or only language. In addition, there are many Dreamers from a range of non-Spanish speaking contexts including Africa, Asia and the Caribbean who may not have understood the message that he was directing to them. Again, it is clear that the point wasn’t to improve comprehension but to demonstrate Kennedy’s Spanish proficiency.

Why are Kaine and Kennedy so invested in demonstrating their Spanish proficiency? Because they want to advance their political careers and attract Latinx votes. That is what all politicians do so it shouldn’t be too surprising that Kaine and Kennedy are doing it as well. However, their use of Spanish connects with raciolinguistic ideologies that give white people the autonomy to engage in whatever language practices they want to without social sanctions even when people of color do receive social sanctions for engaging in seemingly identical language practices.

This is certainly the case for Spanish in the US. White people using Spanish are typically thought of as cosmopolitan and well-traveled. In contrast, Latinx people using Spanish are typically thought of as provincial and resistant to assimilation. This is not to say that white people are never criticized for using Spanish. But the nature of the criticism is quite different from the nature of the criticism targeting Latinxs using Spanish. Few people will suggest that their use of Spanish represents their failure to assimilate. Few people will nitpick their Spanish and suggest that it should be better. Few people will suggest that they give up their Spanish and become monolingual English speakers.

But pulling a Tim Kaine is not simply an example of white privilege. It is also inadvertently racist. In his analysis of Kennedy’s use of Spanish, comedian Trevor Noah analyzed how his use of Spanish reinforced racist stereotypes of Latinxs. He argued that Kennedy’s use of Spanish completely undermines the narrative of Dreamers as being Americans by suggesting that they don’t know English. That is, in an attempt to purportedly build solidarity with Latinxs, Kennedy reinforced the idea that Latinxs in general, and Dreamers in particular, are resistant to learning English and need to be addressed in Spanish. In this way, pulling a Tim Kaine is actually a microaggression where a white person’s desire to show off their Spanish serves to otherize Latinxs. Pulling a Tim Kaine may make white people feel good about themselves but will do little to improve communication with Latinxs (most of whom know English) and may actually contribute to their further marginalization.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that white people should never use Spanish. There are many times and places where it would not be a microaggression for white people to use Spanish such as when traveling abroad, communicating with the Spanish-language media and communicating with Latinxs who have indicated a preference for using Spanish. There are also many times and places where it could be a microaggression, which is something worth reflecting on. But more importantly, even if I did want to prevent white people from using Spanish I have no institutional mechanisms at my disposal to do this. white people can use Spanish whenever they want, no matter how I or other Latinxs feel about it.

In contrast, there are many institutional mechanisms that seek to eradicate Spanish in Latinxs. One of the primary institutions that serves this functions are schools. When Spanish-speaking Latinxs enter school they are typically placed into English-Only classrooms where their Spanish language skills are at best ignored and at worse systematically eliminated. Of course, there are many educators everyday trying to challenge these deficit perspectives but they are often fighting an uphill battle against institutional racism. Unsurprisingly, the only time the Spanish language skills of Latinxs are typically valued at the institutional level is when they can be used to help white children learn Spanish in dual language programs so that they can perhaps be able to pull a Tim Kaine in the future in ways that advance their own careers. So until we live in a world where the bilingualism of Latinx children is seen for its beautiful brilliance in its own right, and not only for how it can benefit white people, I will continue to remain unimpressed by white people pulling a Tim Kaine—and as I have said before I will continue to refuse to give them a cookie for it.