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.



2 thoughts on “Are People Who Support the Concept of Academic Language Racist? An FAQ

  1. Thanks for this. I have been following your writing on this and the question answer format was helpful to me to sort of synthesize some parts, especially the conceptualization of language as architecture. I do agree that the dichotomy of appropriate/inappropriate is very clearly interpreted by my heritage speaking students as a euphemism for right/wrong.
    One comment I would throw out there is that I think your answer to the question of if people who support the concept of academic language are racist is correct, how could anyone know without knowing all of them. I do think you can answer a very closely related question though. Is the concept of academic language racist? There I think you can make a clear argument that it is, and really thats the point. There are more educators out there than any one person can meet and evaluate; some of them are racist. None of them teach in a context where both current and historical racism are not part of the history and institutions and policies that govern their schools and communities. I think we have to start there. None of us can really afford to leave our assumptions and ideas unexamined.


  2. Thank you so much for this post promoting to have more visibility for antiracist and equitable teaching on language! During a recent job interview I had for a college prep summer teaching position for “ELL/ELD” students who are low-income and first-gen high school students, it was probably naive and idealistic of me to truthfully tell the interviewers (two white people who are in charge of the program) about my teaching philosophy that I teach from an antiracist and rhetorical approach on language and grammar and that I don’t teach students to conform to the rules of “Standard English.” I had a hunch during the interview that they didn’t like my answer. And well, you can tell whether or not I got the job! At least I’m glad that I’m not gonna be contributing to colonial ways of teaching and program environments like that.


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