Is it time for a moratorium on academic language?

I recently met with representatives of a school district with a large and growing number of Latino students. The consensus of these district representatives was that their Latino students were struggling academically because they have failed to master the “academic language” that was needed for school success. I have heard variants of this narrative throughout my career as a teacher and researcher with the language proficiency of Latinos dismissively referred to as “playground language” that provides little foundation for the type of academic language that they need to be successful in school. But what exactly is academic language?

When I ask this question I often receive a variant of two responses. The first response is that playground language is the contextualized language of social interaction while academic language is the decontextualized language of schooling. The argument is that the contextualized nature of playground language makes it less complex and easier to master than academic language. I sometimes wonder if people who make this argument have every actually observed students on the playground. As a life-long socially awkward nerd who has always received good grades but often struggled to negotiate the complex social relations of the playground I can personally attest to the fact that there is nothing inherently more contextualized or less complex about the negotiations that happen on the playground.

The second response is that academic language is the language associated with specific content areas. The argument is students who have mastered academic language are able to speak and write like historians, mathematicians and scientists. Yet how exactly does a historian, mathematician or scientist speak and write? Let’s take prominent scientist Stephen Hawking as an example. A quick google search of his work indicates a wide range of language practices that include peer-reviewed journal articles targeting other scientists, books such as A Brief History of Time that attempt to make scientific concepts more accessible to a general audience and even videos such as Intro the Universe with Stephen Hawking that augment this more accessible approach with visuals and narration. In which of these capacities is Stephen Hawking using the language of science and which of these should be the goal when we are trying to teach students academic language?

Both of these definitions reify a rigid dichotomy between “academic” and “non-academic” language that has little basis in actual language-in-use. But might such an oversimplified conceptualization of language still be useful in some regards? Imagine walking into classroom with the expressed purpose of determining whether you observe academic language. You overhear a student offering a linguistic analysis of the different ways that her name can be pronounced and how that relates to the identity of the speaker. You witness students debating the nuances of translation as they determine the best way to say a particular word in another language. You observe a conversation about whether “nigga” is a term of endearment or a racial slur. As an educational linguist I certainly see evidence that students are engaged in the language of sociolinguistics. They are discussing the relationship between language and identity, reflecting on the important of an understanding of cultural context in translation and debating the ways that words may have different meanings in different contexts. So, do these types of social interactions constitute academic language?

These interactions are not fictional. They were actually observed by members of my research team in first grade classrooms at an elementary school serving a primarily low-income Latino student population. You might wonder what kind of innovative pedagogical approach is being used to support these students in engaging in such sophisticated linguistic analysis. After all, if dominant representations of Latino students are true it is difficult to imagine these students being able to engage in these language practices using their playground language. Perhaps the teaching is providing scaffolding techniques that are facilitating the student discussions. Or maybe the teacher has special training in teaching academic language to “at-risk” youth. How else would these Latino students be able to engage in such academic tasks? Actually, the teacher did not play a role in any of these interactions. They all occurred as part of unofficial student interactions that were not directly related to the teacher’s lesson.

How is it possible for the dominant representation of the language practices of Latino students to clash so starkly with the unofficial interactions that we have observed in our research? This is possible because the concept of academic language is fundamentally flawed. It begins from the premise that language can be dichotomized into “academic” and “non-academic” forms and presupposes that Latino children inevitably come to school without a strong foundation in the academic forms. The deficit perspective produced by this narrative has become so ingrained that regardless of what Latino children do with language they will always be positioned as lacking a strong foundation in academic language. Indeed, members of my research team have overheard teachers describing the Latino students that we observed engaged in sociolinguistic inquiry in precisely these terms. Were these children White middle-class children and engaged in this type of sociolinguistic inquiry it is doubtful that questions related to their mastery of academic language would be raised.

It is for this reason that I am calling for a moratorium on current discussions of academic language. To be clear, I am not suggesting that we stop talking about academic language. Instead, I am calling for a moratorium on uncritical framings of academic language as an objective set of linguistic forms that are dichotomous with the playground language of Latinos and other language-minoritized students. Declaring this moratorium would transform our task away from attempts at objectively defining and assessing academic language toward an exploration of the ways that certain populations become recognized by school and society as using academic language and the ways that other populations become recognized by school and society as lacking academic language. The ultimate goal would be to develop a new conceptualization of language that is situated within a larger critique of racial inequalities that current conceptualizations of academic language normalize.

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