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.

2 thoughts on “Do We Need a Revolution in Educational Linguistics?

  1. Yes to all this. And, I still see very little being done to bring these same ideas to white mainstream students. If we continue to treat the problem of linguistic discrimination as a problem for language minoritized students, then we are missing the mark. The problem is a societal problem, perpetuated predominantly by people who fit the language mainstream. If we begin to bring a transformative approach into white mainstream elementary classrooms (thank you Angie Zapata) and into ELA curricula in predominantly mainstream schools and districts, we begin to impact institutional change. I’m still shocked by the number of pre-service teachers (and in-service teachers) who have never been exposed to ideas of language variaition, linguistic hierarchies, or even the concepts of prescriptive vs descriptive grammar. And most are hungry for it once they’re given a taste. The onus for change should not be placed on language minoritized students, but should be instituted across all curricula in all contexts. It makes me wonder if revolution is less about a change in the messaging, and more about bringing accurate linguistic knowledge to more people at an earlier point in their schooling. No reason to wait for college to give students scientifically sound information about language instead of myths based on tradition and partial understandings.


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