Are you a friendly language police?

What is language policing? For some it means anytime somebody is trying to change the way that somebody uses language. From this perspective both chastising a white person for using a racial slur and chastising an African American for using African American Vernacular English (AAVE) are examples of language policing. This individualistic framing of language policing ignores the fact that the social sanctions associated with both of these chastisements are quite different. A white person who says a racial slur can apologize and claim not to have a racist bone in their body and move on with the rest of their life. In contrast, an African American who uses AAVE may be deemed unintelligent, receive failing grades in school, and be denied access to employment opportunities.

A more productive way of framing language policing is within the context of structural oppression. From this perspective attempts at modifying somebody’s use of language are only considered language policing when it is connected to social hierarchies such as racism, sexism, and classism that structure modern society. Language policing would then be most broadly defined as actions to change the way that somebody uses languages that have institutional power in impacting the material realities of this person and the community to which they belong.

Adopting this structural framing of language policing has significant implications for language education. This is because schools are often the first place that language-minoritized children confront language policing as defined in this way. This does not mean that schools are the first place where they are chastised for cursing, using a disrespectful tone or even corrected for making a grammatical mistake. But they are often the first place where these children are told that their home language practices are incorrect and are punished for engaging in these home language practices in ways that impact their material conditions.

Historically, this language policing has been overt. For example, indigenous children were forced to attend boarding schools where they were forbidden from using indigenous languages as part of a systematic process of cultural genocide. Similarly, Latinx children received corporal punishment for speaking Spanish in public school classrooms. It is clear how these historical examples are cases of language policing in that the teachers were literally monitoring the language practices of the students and physically punishing them for noncompliance.

More recently, this language policing has become more covert. This more covert language policing begins from the premise that the home language practices of language-minoritized children are legitimate forms of communication for outside of school but are inappropriate for a school setting. This more covert form of language policing can appear to be progressive with the argument being that providing language-minoritized students with access to dominant discourses will provide them access to social mobility. However, when examined more closely it becomes apparent that though while perhaps more friendly than previous approaches to language policing the end result is the same—the home language practices of language-minoritized students have no place in the classroom.

I have presented critiques of friendly language policing in many different venues. The first question that I often receive is from somebody who is concerned about the pedagogical implications of what I am proposing. They are often concerned that I am proposing that language-minoritized student do not need to learn academic registers. Even as they acknowledge the power relations that I am pointing to they argue that pragmatically there is no choice but for teachers to be friendly language police.

As somebody who used to make this exact argument I completely understand where it is coming from. Aware of the institutionalized racism that language-minoritized students will confront in the world it is understandable that somebody would want to provide them with as many tools as possible to defend themselves. At the same time I have become increasingly dissatisfied with relying on a strategy embedded in a long history of institutionalized racism to prepare language-minoritized students to confront contemporary forms of institutionalized racism. It is time to develop an alternative to friendly language policing.

What might it look like for a teacher to resist friendly language policing? In such a classroom the role of the teacher would no longer be to monitor and control the language practices of their students. Instead, their role would be to support students in exploring the many different ways that language is used. Teachers would support this language exploration by providing students with opportunities to break down and analyze the language choices of speakers and writers to determine if and how they are using particular language forms for particular effects.

Language policing traps language-minoritized students in the position of having to reject their home language practices as inferior to the academic registers of school. Language-minoritized students who are unable or unwilling to conform to these expectations are placed in the solitary confinement of remediation programs thereby continuing the cycle of the miseducation of communities of color. In contrast, language exploration supports language-minoritized students in becoming language architects who are able to apply the knowledge that they gained through their critical inquiry to design language in their own terms and for their own purposes. Supporting language-minoritized students in becoming language architects would be an important first step in combatting the institutional racism that continues to permeate US society.

  1. Cara Forbes - Diversity In All Seriousness said:

    I’m absolutely in love with this post! I’ve heard the term “code-switching” used to describe keeping the home language at home.


    • Thanks for your comment. Some of us trying to move beyond a code-switching model use the term translanguaging to try to emphasize the fluid back and forth that characterizes the language practices of language-minoritized students. Ofelia Garcia and Li Wei have a book about translanguaging that you might be interested in.

      Liked by 2 people

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