Response to Jim Cummins Part 2

In a previous post I responded to questions posed in a previous keynote by Dr. Jim Cummins

Today I had the opportunity to respond to Jim Cummins’ keynote at the 2021 Canadian Centre for Studies and Research on Bilingualism and Language Planning Conference. My comments are a bit rough around the edges since I didn’t have the opportunity to view Cummins’ PowerPoint in advanced and was developing commentary on the fly but some people asked for it so I am sharing it here. You can also see the video of me sharing this commentary here.


My disagreement with Dr. Cummins stems from the fact that we are using different theories of language. For Cummins, language is a set of disembodied features that exist as separate from the people who use them and can be objectively documented by researchers. I reject this premise and instead believe that language is embodied in ways such that the social status of the speaker can impact how their language practices are taken up by the listener, which could include researchers. In my research I have focused specifically on examining both historical and contemporary examples of the role of race in shaping hegemonic perceptions of language—what Jonathan Rosa and I have termed the white listening subject. For example, white settler colonialists described indigenous languages as products of “savage minds” that were at an earlier stage of human development than Europeans. In our contemporary context, I recently heard a teacher suggest that her Latinx students lack the ability to engage in inferencing before they lacked academic language. Inferencing is literally something everybody can do and yet the representations of these students language practices as “non-academic” led this teacher to conclude that these students were unable to do this—perhaps, one might speculate because of their “savage minds.”  I do not think that the similarities between these two ideological representations of language are purely coincidental nor did I just theorize them in the ivory tower—these are ideologies I see in classrooms all the time. In the spirit of Cummins suggestion that we use a classroom reality test to see how are theories are doing I would say based on many years first as a classroom teacher and now researcher and teacher educator that academic language as a concept is failing in the promote racial equity part of the test. 

Despite Cummins claim to the contrary, I have actually written extensively on the role of representations of researchers in producing deficit perspectives in their work that are also taken up by teachers. While Cummins claims that the concept of academic language says nothing about middle class and lower class students, I have shown in my work that the concept of academic language has its roots in the culture of poverty theory popularized in the 1960s as an alternative to eugenics that argued that multiple generations of poverty produced cultural and linguistic pathologies in racialized communities that needed to be remediated. It was within this framework of the culture of poverty that Cummins first introduce the concept of semilingualism to describe racialized bilingual students who purportedly lacked native-like proficiency in any language. Putting aside critiques of the very idea of a native speaker, the concept of semilingualism argued that something about the language practices of racialized bilingual students excluded them from what was understand to be a normative human—namely, being a native speaker of at least one language. This was not an objective description but rather an ideological one that suggested that racialized bilingual students needed to receive remediation to become normative humans who were native speakers of a language perhaps because of their “savage minds.” 

Now it might be that Cummins still subscribes to the cultural of poverty theory that provided the ideological foundations of semilingualism and sees it as an objective description of the world.  If so, I would say that is another fundamental disagreement that we have as I believe all communities have complex cultural and linguistic practices. By starting with an ideologically constructed lack, the culture of poverty theory can only lead to deficit frameworks.  You cannot affirm cultural and linguistic practices that you believe are lacking and need to be fixed and you cannot decolonize a framework that is colonial at its core. You need an entirely new framework

Perhaps Cummins now rejects the culture of poverty theory. If this is the case, my question is what is now suddenly objective about a concept with roots in the culture of poverty theory? Indeed, as Cummins himself acknowledges its roots are in assessments, which was also the case with the construction of semilingualism. What now makes assessments that used to designate racialized bilingual students as semilingual as now lacking academic language objective? While Cummins suggests that this has nothing to do with race or class in my many years in classrooms I have never heard middle class white students struggling on standardized assessments to be described as lacking in academic language. This designation is strictly reserved for low-income students of color. Based on the ways that it is deployed in actual classrooms, my concern is that conceptualizations of academic language continue to universalize the white listening subject in ways that discount local knowledge and perceptions of racialized communities. 

My concern with discussions of additive bilingualism is that it doesn’t account for the role of the white listening subject in shaping the perception of the language practices of racialized communities. It doesn’t account for the fact that since the dawn of European colonialism white colonialists have proposed their ideological perceptions of language onto racialized communities as if they were objective descriptions of the world. Cummins says what he refers to as UTT supports the idea of raciolinguistic ideologies? How does it do this? How does it account for the role of the white listening subject in the production of assessments that are instrumental in the construction of these supposedly objective descriptions, themselves with direct roots in eugenics? A theory that purports to accept the concept of raciolinguistic ideologies must at the very minimum have answers to these questions

Translanguaging offers a point of entry for resisting this universalizing. Specifically, it grapples with the ideological dimensions of all representations of language and as a framework consciously chooses to position itself in ways that frame racialized bilingualism as the norm. Unlike Cummins, I believe this isn’t just a theoretical point but one with profound practical implications—one that has allowed me to change my perspective over the years. The rejection of bounded notions of languages as colonial constructs led me to the recognition of the inherent heterogeneity of all language practices including those perceived as standard and academic. This heterogenous view of language focused my attention on the contrast between the raciolinguistic policing of linguistic features used by students in low-income racialized communities that were deemed non-academic by the teachers and their relative unmarkedness in elite academic spaces. It also eventually led me to the development of a non-dichotomous view of language that I have termed language architecture. 

Despite dominant representations to the contrary, language architecture takes as its point of entry the assumption that racialized students already engage in the types of complex language practices desired in school but that their knowledge is being misrecognized because of the pervasiveness of raciolinguistic ideologies such as academic language. Using this as a point of entry allows for new pedagogical practices to emerge, ones that adopt a language exploration rather than a language policing model and ones that places the existing rhetorical sensibility of racialized students at the center of instruction and focuses on supporting them in developing their own unique voice and style rather than the mastery of so-called “academic language.”

So perhaps we should put academic language in its place as a having direct roots in assessment data produced within the logic of the culture of poverty theory and more distant roots in logics of colonialism. To be clear I am not suggesting that teachers or researchers who promote the idea of academic language are necessarily racist. 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. 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. Therefore, for me, the more productive conversation is not whether translanguaging is unitary or cross-linguistic or who is and isn’t using academic language (a question that I believe is more in the perceptions of the listener than the practices of the speakers) but rather how to develop truly decolonial logics that position the knowledge, perceptions and practices of racialized bilingual communities at the center of our understanding of language and how to incorporate language into our pedagogy and life . It is this conversation that translanguaging and a raciolinguistic perspective had led me to and one that I welcome others to join me in continuing. 

One thought on “Response to Jim Cummins Part 2

  1. A very well written and insightful post. Thank you. I commend you for laying bare fundamental differences in epistemological orientations. Like you, I think it is important to keep dialogues between sometimes radically different theoreticians open rather than sweep them under the carpet. Ongoing dialogue seems a good way forward to recognise, expose and reflect on biases, including our own.

    Liked by 1 person

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