In my last post, I examined the raciolinguistic underpinnings of discussions of the bilingualism of vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine. I explored the double standard that exists in US society where the bilingualism of white people is celebrated in ways that it is not for Latinxs. I was also not arguing that Tim Kaine should never use Spanish. However, just because a white person like Tim Kaine knows Spanish doesn’t mean that they should feel entitled to use it with any Latinx that they meet. This begs the question, when is it appropriate for a white person to use Spanish with Latinxs in the United States

If you a white person who finds this question offensive I challenge you to reflect on what it is that you find offensive. The question does not imply that the use of Spanish by white people with Latinxs is never appropriate. It simply implies that there are times when it might not be appropriate. To feel offended at the thought that you might need to adapt your language choices to accommodate Latinxs is a product of the logic of white supremacy that is premised on people of color having to adapt their behavior to accommodate white people with white people never having to adapt their behavior to accommodate people of color.

In the spirit of challenging this logic of white supremacy, below I lay out 5 guidelines for white people who speak Spanish to consider when deciding when it may or may not be appropriate for them to use Spanish with Latinxs in the US. It is possible that some of these guidelines may also be helpful to non-Latinxs people of color who speak Spanish in the US. However, the intersection of bilingualism and whiteness is the focus of my response here.

  1. Mock Spanish is not Spanish. The first point to consider is whether you actually have proficiency in Spanish. I don’t mean that your Spanish has to be perfect—nobody speaks any language perfectly. What I mean is whether you have adequate proficiency to respectfully engage in social interactions. If your Spanish abilities end at the ability to sprinkle words such as “no problemo,” “papi,” or “comprende” you are not really using Spanish but Mock Spanish that is used to denigrate Latinxs. The general rule of thumb here is if you have never actually studied Spanish and/or had any authentic opportunities to engage with Spanish speakers and only know a few simple words then you are probably using Mock Spanish and should stop immediately.
  2. Not all Latinxs speak Spanish. This fact is not surprising considering that many Latinxs currently residing in the United States can trace their ancestry on the lands currently known as the United States to before it was the United States. Just as you wouldn’t assume that somebody whose great-grandparents immigrated from Italy speaks Italian you should not assume that all Latinxs living in the United States speak Spanish. To use Spanish with a Latinx who doesn’t speak Spanish might be offensive to them in that it associates them with a language that they and their family may not have spoken for generations. Alternatively, it is possible that a Latinx who doesn’t speak Spanish is embarrassed by their lack of Spanish proficiency and resents being reminded of this. The general rule of thumb should be to use English as the default language when engaging with Latinxs living in the US unless you receive indication that they speak Spanish.
  3. Not all Latinxs who speak Spanish want to use Spanish with white people. Of course even if you confirm that a Latinx you encounter in the US does speak Spanish it doesn’t necessarily mean that they want to use Spanish with you. There are many reasons why this might be the case. For one, unlike with the bilingualism of white people, the bilingualism of Latinxs is often denigrated in US society. This can lead to feelings of shame about one’s bilingualism that may make Latinxs reluctant to use it outside of familial contexts. In a similar vein, a Latinx who speaks English as a second language may have insecurities about their English exacerbated when a white person tries to use Spanish with them in ways that may imply that their English isn’t good enough. In addition, both US and non-US born Latinxs may prefer to use Spanish as a way of connecting with others in the Latinx community and may simply not want to use it with white people. The general rule of thumb should be to follow the lead of the Latinxs you encounter. If they indicate a willingness to engage with you in Spanish go for it. If they do not give any indication of a desire to engage with you in Spanish then continue using English.
  4. Don’t expect Latinxs to be your Spanish teacher. It can be disappointing to want to practice your Spanish with Latinx people you encounter and have them either explicitly or implicitly refuse to engage with you in Spanish. But disappointment is not the same as oppression. On the other hand, feeling entitled to free labor from Latinxs is oppression that continues in the long history of exploitation of the knowledge of people of color for the benefit of white people. If you are truly interested in practicing your Spanish join a local Spanish conversation group, take a class, watch the Spanish media or volunteer in a Spanish-speaking community. The general rule of thumb should be to receive consent from a Latinx before practicing your Spanish with them and when possible compensating them for their time and effort either monetarily or in some other way. They are doing you a huge service and you should give them some token of your appreciation.
  5. Being bilingual doesn’t automatically make you an ally to the Latinx community. A discussion of the bilingualism of white people should not occur outside of a discussion of the broader policy agenda that you stand for. Knowing Spanish does not give you an automatic pass. You must also actively work as allies in the struggle to improve the lives of the Latinx community. This means listening to what Latinx people are saying—both in Spanish and English—about the issues that impact our community and supporting us in confronting these issues. If you are using your bilingualism more in the service of your own professional goals than the empowerment of the Latinx community you are not being an ally. You are maintaining white supremacy.

In a society where most of the population is monolingual English speaking, anybody who is bilingual, regardless of what their racial background, should be proud of this accomplishment. However, in a society that has historically and continues to be shaped by structural racism, white Spanish-speakers must be willing to directly confront the privileges afforded to you as a product of a white supremacist society. One way of doing this is for you to become comfortable with allowing Latinxs in your lives to dictate the terms and language of your interactions.

It’s official. Hillary Clinton has finally chosen her running mate. His name is Tim Kaine and in case you haven’t heard he is “fluent in Spanish.” I think it is great that Tim Kaine speaks Spanish. Bilingualism is a skill that more Americans should have. That said, I wonder why it is that his bilingualism is being celebrated while the bilingualism of the Latinx community continues to be policed and denigrated.

Apparently, Kaine learned Spanish in 1980 when he worked with Jesuit missionaries in Honduras. That was the same year that Ronald Regan was elected president and began efforts to dismantle bilingual education for Latinx children in the United States. It was also the same year that Miami based an anti-bilingual ordinance making English the official language. The following year, English was declared the official language of Kaine’s home state of Virginia. I am certainly not blaming Kaine for these efforts. Yet, it is interesting that the same year that he as a white man was offered the opportunity to become bilingual that that bilingualism of Latinx communities in the US, including in his home state, was positioned as a threat to national unity that needed to be eliminated.

As another point of comparison, let’s look at the way that the bilingualism of Julian Castro, another potential VP choice has been discussed. In contrast to Tim Kaine he has been described as not speaking “fluent Spanish.” This has raised questions about his viability as a politician. It is, of course, unfathomable to imagine the viability of a white politician being questioned because of a perceived lack of fluency in Spanish. To expect this for Latinx politicians is working under the mistaken assumption that most Latinx people prefer Spanish to English, which is far from the truth. In fact, more and more Latinx people are positioned and position themselves as not speaking fluent Spanish. Castro’s experience no doubt resonates with many of them more than a white guy who learned Spanish as a missionary in Honduras.

Yet, what is most interesting to me is that Julian Castro—like many Latinx people who are positioned or position themselves as not fluent in Spanish—does, in fact speak Spanish. If you don’t believe me, check out this YouTube clip. Is his Spanish perfect? No. But neither is Tim Kaine’s Spanish and nobody has ever questioned his fluency. Neither is my Spanish and though people have questioned my fluency I stopped caring a long time ago. Neither is anybody’s Spanish (or English for that matter). The fact of the matter is that with a little bit of help from the interviewer Castro was able to have a perfectly intelligible conversation in Spanish.

This is a textbook example of a raciolinguistic ideology. For a white politician it is an asset to have any Spanish-speaking abilities. For a Latinx politician it is a liability not to have perfect Spanish-speaking abilities. This stance is particularly ironic for a society that has at many points actually worked to undermine the bilingualism of the Latinx community.

Perhaps even more ironic is the fact that the most vocal proponents of this raciolinguistic ideology are often Latinx people who have internalized this white supremacist framing of language and see it as their duty to police the Spanish language skills of other Latinx people. A recent example of such policing was the backlash that actress Gina Rodriguez received after posting a message in Spanish on Instagram. Meanwhile, we often celebrate non-Latinx (mostly white) celebrities who “show off their Spanish skills.”

So if you are a Latinx person who finds yourself a victim of this type of language policing follow Gina Rodriguez’s lead and reject their attempt at policing your identity. If you are a Latinx person who finds yourself engaging in this type of language policing of other Latinx people stop doing this. It is a behavior rooted in white supremacy that serves to divide us rather than to bring us together. If you a white person who speaks Spanish who finds yourself engaging in this type of language policing of Latinx people take several seats. You have benefited from a white supremacist framework that has always commended you for your Spanish abilities while criticizing us for our Spanish. And if you a white politician trying to get Latinx people to vote for you, we’re going to need more than a white VP who speaks Spanish.


A few years ago I was talking with an assistant principal of a bilingual school. He cited research about the cognitive benefits of bilingualism as a primary rationale for his school’s bilingual approach. Yet, he also lamented the fact that many of the Latinx students at his school were “lost in translation” in that they didn’t have full competency in Spanish or English. I was left wondering how it was possible for bilingualism to be positioned as leading to cognitive benefits while actual bilingual children were positioned as linguistically deficient.

This deficit perspective of the bilingualism of Latinx students is certainly not new, though its framing has changed over time. Prior to the 1960s researchers argued that bilingualism led to cognitive deficiencies. These alleged cognitive deficiencies were used to explain the low IQ scores of Latinx students. The basic argument was that bilingualism confused Latinx students and inhibited their cognitive development.

This perspective was not without its critics. These critics argued that the bilingualism of Latinx students was not the barrier that prevented them from scoring well on intelligence tests. Instead, they pointed to quality of instruction as the primary culprit, pointing to the ways that Latinx students were being denied access to the knowledge that they needed to do well on these assessments.

In the 1960’s, researchers changed their mind and decided that bilingualism led to cognitive advantages. Did this mean that Latinx bilingual children were smarter than monolingual white children? Perish the thought! Researchers, instead, concluded that while the bilingualism of white middle and upper class children led to cognitive advantages, the bilingualism of Latinx children was still deficient as determined by language assessments in both English and Spanish.  As a result many of these children were labeled “semilingual” or not fully proficient in either language.

Once again, this deficit framing received strong criticism. Critics pointed to the cultural biases of the language assessments used to determine language proficiency. They contrasted these assessments with the rich language practices that exist in Latinx communities. For these scholars, the issue was not one of language deficit but rather language difference. From this perspective, the role of schools should be not to pathologize these language differences but instead to build on the home language practices of Latinx students as they learn the academic language of schooling.

This critique of semilingualism has led to the term essentially disappearing from both scholarly practitioner discussions of the bilingualism of Latinx students. Nevertheless, its specter remains firmly entrenched in how the bilingualism of Latinx students continues to be discussed. One example is the category of so-called Long-Term English Learners, who have not tested as proficient in English on a language proficiency assessment after 7 years. These students have been framed by scholars and educators as having failed to master academic language in either English or Spanish. Once again we have a linguistic categorization in academic research of bilingual Latinx students that positions them as not fully proficient in either English or Spanish.

As has been the case with previous iterations of deficit perspectives we also have scholars trying to disprove these claims. In a recent guest blog post, Maneka Brooks provided data that illustrate the linguistic dexterity of one student who has been designated a Long-Term English Learner. I have made similar claims in an article written with Tatyana Kleyn and Kate Menken. Similar to in previous eras, critics of these deficit framings seek to shift the onus from perceived deficiencies of Latinx students toward school curricula and pedagogical approaches. Our argument has been that schools should treat the bilingualism of Latinx students categorized as Long-Term English Learners as a starting point for teaching them new language practices associated with schooling.

It would appear that decades of critiques challenging these deficit perspectives have accomplished little more than shift the terminology while doing little to challenge the continued marginalization of Latinx students. Perhaps the problem is that there is no linguistic basis for any of these claims. Instead, they are rooted in the logic of white supremacy that begins from the premise that assessments can objectively determine one’s intelligence and language proficiency. Those of us who have worked to challenge deficit perspectives have often overlooked this logic of white supremacy in favor of calls for building bridges between the homes language practices of Latinx children and the language practices of schooling. But what does it mean to build bridges between Latinx communities and white supremacy? Is that even something that we want to do?

Perhaps it is time for a new approach to challenge these deficit framings of the bilingualism of Latinx children. This new approach would refuse to engage in the debate about the legitimacy of the bilingualism of these children. It would resist the white gaze that seeks to evaluate the language practices of these students from the perspective of their proximity to whiteness. It would, instead, bring attention to the ways that the white listening subject overdetermines these language practices as deficient. But more importantly, this alternative approach would situate advocacy work for Latinx and other language-minoritized children within a larger project to dismantle the white supremacy and capitalist relations of power that are the root cause of these deficit perspectives to begin with.

How might this perspective respond to the assistant principal mentioned at the beginning of this post? It would begin by refocusing attention away from the speakers and towards the listener. It would ask the assistant principal to reflect on his own listening practices and why it is that he hears the language practices of his students in deficient ways. It would push him to imagine alternative framings of the language practices of his students that do not begin with the yardsticks offered by language assessments. It would also push the assistant principal to critically interrogate the institutional forces that have led his initial listening practices to dominate his perspective. But most importantly, it would not except this assistant principal to do it on his own and would instead seek to connect new listening practices with broader efforts at structural transformation.

For so long those of us seeking to challenge deficit perspectives have sought to legitimize the language practices of language-minoritized children. Perhaps it is now time to shift our focus to the white supremacist eyes and ears of the listener.

Those of you who have followed my work know that I am extremely critical of the label long-term English learner. I have argued that the category reflects a raciolinguistic ideology that positions these students as deficient while a white student who engages in similar bilingual language practices would be categorized as linguistically gifted. I have posed a challenge to our field to reconceptualize the language practices of so-called long-term English learners outside of the white gaze and the white listening subject.

One person who has been leading these efforts is Maneka Brooks, currently an assistant professor of reading education at Texas State University. I am honored and thrilled that she accepted my invitation to write a guest blog where she describes her research. This is important work that I hope you share with your colleagues.


There has been an explosion of academic and popular articles lamenting the crisis of long-term English learners (LTELs) in U.S. schools. Although these students have spent many years in the U.S. school system (usually six or more), they remain classified as “learning English.” These publications frequently caution educators not to be seduced by LTELs abilities to use English (and other languages) in multifaceted situations. LTELs are frequently described as lacking proficiency in any language. For instance, a recent publication from the National Education Association describes their language as “imprecise and inadequate for deeper expression and communication.” Every time I read these types of description, I cringe. These characterizations are in stark contrast to the capabilities of the adolescents with whom I have worked.

I draw on the words of 16-year-old Eliza (a pseudonym) to illustrate what a student who is considered an LTEL can do in English. The following quotation was taken from a conversation in which Eliza was discussing her new 20-year-old stepmother:

At least I am smart about my education and me being independent when I grow up. Not just getting somebody you really like and wanting to get with them. Yeah so, I was like…oh yeah I think of her life. I wonder if she would go—like would have gone to college and not just get married right away. It’s like a fairytale in a way. ‘Cause she got married when she was eighteen. I think it’s a fairytale because I know some girls out there that would be like, ‘I wish that somebody could come and get me and take me to another place.’

In this excerpt, Eliza engages in multiple sophisticated linguistic moves that are celebrated by the Common Core and other educational standards. For example, she does not solely critique her stepmother’s decisions. She uses a simile to convey her stepmother’s viewpoint. Moreover, Eliza explains how this simile is relevant to this specific context. Eliza’s language is precise and communicates a deep understanding of multiple perspectives and life trajectories.

How can someone with the ability to use English in this manner remain classified as an EL for 11 years? In order to fully understand Eliza’s extended classification as an EL, it is important to recognize that the criteria used to determine students’ English proficiency varies according to their language background. For students who come from households where English is the only language spoken, their home language environment is sufficient to be considered proficient in English. Their academic performance does not play a role in making this determination. On the other hand, Eliza’s EL classification meant that she had to demonstrate her English proficiency through specific levels of performance on multiple measures. Depending on the district, these measures can include assessments of oral English, written English, English language arts, and math. In addition, classroom grades and teacher approval are often included. These criteria expand beyond the knowledge of English to include various measures of academic achievement and compliance with school policies.

The multiple criteria that Eliza needed to meet to be considered proficient in English must be taken into account when understanding her trajectory as a high school student. It cannot be assumed that the primary reason that she remains classified as an EL is because of her English proficiency. This interpretation reflects a very narrow understanding of the various measures that are used to determine English proficiency. For instance, the fact that a student does not perform at a certain level on standardized assessment of English language arts (ELA) does not mean that s/he has yet to acquire English. The existence of monolingual English-speakers with “low” scores on ELA assessments illustrates that there is not one test score that is synonymous with English proficiency. Moreover, there is an extensive research literature that highlights multiple factors that can impact how an individual performs on an assessment. These factors include, but are not limited to, differences in background knowledge, test anxiety, and biases within the test itself. Unfortunately, these considerations are frequently pushed to the periphery when discussing so-called LTELs.

In working with students like Eliza, I have witnessed how the LTEL lens can be harmful when used to guide teaching and learning. The normative LTELs lens obscures what this population of adolescent bilinguals is able to do with literacy, their experiences with literacy, and the nature of their literacy difficulties. For instance, I found that the everyday academic reading experiences of five students who were identified as LTELs were very different from the kinds of reading practices that were used as evidence of English proficiency on assessments. Reading in the classroom primarily centered on oral reading in groups; however, the tests gave priority to silent and individual comprehension. Rather than not “knowing” English, my research highlighted that these students were inexperienced with the tested reading practices. In other publications, I have demonstrated how the prevalent descriptions of LTELs dismiss the way in which students in this demographic are engaging in successful academic literacy practices within the classroom and other spaces.

The predominant framing of the LTEL marginalizes many young people’s sophisticated use of English and erases other relevant aspects of their identities and experiences. I argue that a more productive instructional orientation would center on creating academic environments in which this population can experience on-going success. This orientation entails moving away from seeing, representing, and teaching students who are labeled as LTELs as individuals who have “broken” or “incomplete” linguistic abilities. A first step toward in this journey is for administrators, educators, and researchers to recognize and incorporate the linguistic expertise (in English and other languages) that so-called LTELs bring into the classroom. On a more holistic level, this instructional orientation requires designing learning experiences that are situated in a multidimensional understanding of the academic, social, and linguistic abilities and experiences of these young people. These students deserve an educational experience that provides this kind of respect and academic enrichment.

This week I had the privilege of participating on a panel about Matthew Delmont’s new book Why Busing Failed. When people think of the US Civil Rights Movement images come to mind about overtly racist Southern white people engage in violent political tactics to prevent black children from entering white schools. Though this was no doubt a vital aspect of the Movement, in this book Delmont seeks to complicate this image by looking at the key role that white communities in the North with the support of white politicians and the white-led media played in undermining integration efforts.

As a scholar who studies bilingual education in the Latinx community, I was particularly intrigued by his exploration of an alliance that developed between the black and Puerto Rican community to integrate New York City schools. In 1964, this alliance led a massive boycott of New York City schools in protest of continued segregation—a mobilization in support of school integration that has been pretty much forgotten in the history that many of us learn about the battle for school integration. He notes a primary rationale for the demise of this alliance was the Puerto Rican communities shift toward a focus on bilingual education and community control of schools.

There was certainly a tension between the goals of bilingual education, which were to instruct Latinx students bilingually, and the goals of integration which were to promote racially diverse classrooms. In many ways the goals of bilingual education were more naturally aligned with the goals of community control advocates who did not see integration as the solution to the educational challenges confronting communities of color and instead saw the solution in communities of color controlling the institutions that exist in their neighborhoods. This natural alliance is illustrated by the fact that within the context of the community control struggle in Ocean Hill-Brownville, a Puerto Rican principal of a predominately Puerto Rican school started a bilingual program.

While many white communities in the North were mobilizing in the ways documented by Delmont to prevent school integration, many of these same communities began to mobilize around dismantling bilingual education programs. Interestingly, one of the primary rationales for their objection to these programs was that they segregated students. As attacks on bilingual education became more pronounced beginning with the Regan administration some critics even accused bilingual education programs of “Balkanizing” the nation. In short, the only legitimate forms of segregation in US schools are those that serve the interests of white communities. Attempts by other communities to mold similar spaces for themselves have always been framed as a fundamental threat to the very fabric of US society.

After the systematic dismantling of bilingual education, there has now been a recent upsurge in dual language bilingual programs. Because they are open to white students, these programs have been framed as a possible path forward for integration efforts. Yet, the opening of these spaces for integration is available only because white communities have something to gain—bilingualism. That is, while bilingualism was seen as part of the balkanization of the country when it was reserved for Latinx students, bilingualism is now being reframed as a commodity that white professional parents can seek for their children to give them a leg up in the global economy. What are the consequences of relying on commodifying Latinx children in the hopes of improving educational outcomes? And what does this commodification of diversity mean for the black community that is the focus of Why Busing Failed?

In many ways, Why Busing Failed provides a compelling case of how the anti-blackness of US society is so pervasive that blackness is not commodifable for educational purposes. That is, while black culture may be commodifable, the diversity that black children bring to classrooms is not and their presence in schools cannot be used as a marketing tool for attracting white parents back to public schools. In this way, commodifying diversity for the purposes of encouraging integration will do little to address the continued segregation of the black community. One way that this can be illustrated is through the underrepresentation of black children in many of the dual language bilingual programs that are supposedly working toward integration.

And now that bilingual education has been re-framed as a tool for integration, what has happened to the community control elements of the advocacy work of the 1960s? Bilingual education is no longer framed as a political struggle but rather a choice on a menu of options on the educational marketplace. This is part of a broader discursive shift away from community control into a neoliberal framing of empowerment through school choice. In this way the burden of social change shifts away from institutions and toward individuals and segregation becomes about individual preference.

This shift toward individual responsibility has created wedges within communities of color in many urban areas. On one side you have black and Latinx advocates applying to open new charter schools to meet the needs of students of color. On the other side you have black and Latinx advocates demanding a moratorium on new charter schools because of the ways that they are undermining neighborhood schools. These two sides are fighting over the scraps that have been left to them as a consequence of neoliberal educational reform.

It would appear that attempts at integration have been politically incorporated in ways that benefit white communities. Similarly, demands for community control have been politically incorporated in ways that promote a neoliberal agenda that exacerbates existing racial inequities. The only logical conclusion that can be drawn from this is that attempts at educational reform will always be institutionalized in ways that reinforce existing racial hierarchies until we actually address the white supremacist framework that has made educational inequalities possible to begin with. What Why Busing Failed illustrates so clearly is that such an endeavor is much easier said than done.

In a previous blog post I called for a moratorium on academic language and called for the development of a new conceptualization of language. In this post I seek to further develop what this alternative conceptualization of language might look like. In order to explore this new conceptualization of language allow me to present two different passages related to language contact, a major topic in sociolinguistics.

The first passage is from The Guidebook to Sociolinguistics by Allan Bell:

When languages come into contact, there are a range of linguistic and sociolinguistic repercussions. These depend on the kind and degree of the contact, and the social and linguistic relationship of the languages:

  • Language choice. When languages make contact, speakers have to begin making choices on which language/s to use and when.
  • Language stratification. Languages become socially stratified in relation to each other, for example through ‘diglossia’
  • Language change. Languages interfere with each other linguistically in different ways and degrees—they borrow words, lose or borrow structures.

Most readers would agree that this passage would count as academic language. It uses disciplinary-specific vocabulary such as ‘language stratification’ and ‘diglossia’ and includes complex sentence structures. Let’s contrast this with a second example from Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldúa.

Pocho, cultural traitor, you’re speaking the oppressor’s language by speaking English, you’re ruining the Spanish language,” I have been accused by various Latinos and Latinas. Chicano Spanish is considered by the purist and by most Latinos deficient, a mutilation of Spanish. But Chicano Spanish is a border tongue which developed naturally. Change, evolución, enriquecimiento de palabras nuevas por invención have created variants of Chicano Spanish, un nuevo lenguaje. Un lenguaje que corresponde a un modo de vivir. Chicano Spanish is not incorrect, it is a living language.

On one level this passage is very different from the first passage—the most obvious differences being its autobiographical nature and use of both English and Spanish. Yet, do these differences disqualify it from being sociolinguistics? After all, Anzaldúa is providing a concrete example of the general sociolinguistic phenomenon that Bell was describing in his text. In addition, Anzaldúa’s text is regularly read in academic settings. Indeed, I actually assign both Bell and Anzaldúa in my sociolinguistics class.

So instead of deciding whether Anzaldúa’s work counts as sociolinguistics a more productive framing would be to examine how these two different texts engage in sociolinguistics. What affordances for engaging in sociolinguistic thinking are made possible by the different rhetorical styles of the two texts? Why might the authors have chosen to adopt these contrasting rhetorical styles? What can we learn from them as we construct our own sociolinguistic texts?

This reframing of language offers a new perspective for understanding the language practices of language-minoritized children. Let’s continue with the example of sociolinguistics. Rather than trying to determine if language-minoritized students engage in the “academic” language of sociolinguistics a more productive framing is to determine how they engage in sociolinguistic thinking.

My research team has collected many examples of this. We have observed students discussion language variation as they describe the differences between the words “habichuelas” and “frijoles” as meanings of the word beans. We have also observed students engaged in discussions of pragmatics in debating whether “farted” or “passed gas” was more polite. We have even observed a student pondering the gendered nature of Spanish and whether the term “amigos” includes both boys and girls. All of these examples are of students engaged in sociolinguistic thinking.

So why isn’t everybody talking about language-minoritized children as gifted sociolinguists? This is because researchers and teachers remain trapped in a raciolinguistic framing of language as “academic” and “non-academic” in ways that presuppose that language-minoritized children inevitably come to school without a strong foundation in the academic forms necessary to be sociolinguists. This deficit perspective is so ingrained that even well-meaning teachers have few available discourses that could even imagine these students as gifted sociolinguists. It is time that we rejected this deficit perspective and recognized language-minoritized children for the gifted sociolinguists that they are.

What might it look like to position these students as gifted sociolinguists? In such a classroom the role of the teacher would no longer be to teach “academic” language. Instead, their role would be to engage students in metalinguistic conversations that support students in reflecting on the different ways that they currently use language to discuss particular topics as well as in exploring other ways that language is used to explore these topics. These metalinguistic conversations would provide 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.

This language exploration would support 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. This shift in pedagogical stance may seem small but it has radical implications. Specifically, it moves away from efforts to sort language into academic and non-academic variants in favor of a more nuanced perspective of language that brings attention to the diversity of ways that one can explore a particular topic and the rhetorical and political effects of each.

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.

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