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.

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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.

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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.

Is it the obligation of people of color to include white people in discussions of diversity? Jose Antonio Vargas, founder of Define America and #EmergingUS seems to believe so. In a recent tweet he stated, “Too often, when people of color discuss ‘diversity,’ we don’t include #whitepeople in the conversation. That must stop.”  In this tweet, Vargas suggests that it is the obligation of people of color to include white people in discussions of diversity and that creating spaces that do not include white people are counterproductive.

To be fair, twitter is a hard place to have nuanced conversations about race. Indeed, though we had a brief twitter exchange about it, I decided to write this blog post precisely because I struggled to write a critique of this comment in 140 characters or less. My goal in this post is to more clearly lay out the concerns that I raised in our brief twitter engage in the spirit of Vargas’ invitation to engage in “uncomfortable conversations” about race with one another.

Vargas’ tweet overlooks the important structural distinction between the lives of people of color and the lives of white people. People of color can never exclude white people from their lives. People of color have to interact with white teachers, police officers, bosses, the media etc. In contrast, white people either consciously or unconsciously exclude people of color on a daily basis by inhabiting mostly or exclusively white spaces that are a product of centuries of oppression of people of color and that continue to impact the material realities of people of color today.

White people can go to school assured that most, if not all, of their teachers look like them, can be confident that interactions with the police will likely be with somebody of their same racial background, can easily find employment in spaces where their bosses are white and can find an innumerable number of shows and movies about people like them. It is these mostly or exclusively white spaces that are the root of the problem of racial inequality and that should be subject to critique not people of color discussing racial inequality without white people present.

Ironically, it is within these mostly or exclusively white spaces where discussions of diversity that Vargas seems to suggest white people are being excluded from emerged. In a recent article, Ellen Berrey, an assistant professor of sociology, claims that discussions of diversity don’t exclude white people but are only for white people. Discussions of diversity have shifted conversations away from a focus on structural inequality toward a discussion of “a celebration of cultural difference as a competitive advantage.”

This shift allows white people to feel good about themselves for celebrating diversity while continuing to benefit from the privilege afforded to them by a white supremacist society. Therefore, the major impediment to racial progress is not that white people are not included in discussions of diversity but rather the concept of diversity itself, which erases centuries of oppression and replaces it with a focus on everybody just getting along.

Vargas ended our brief twitter exchange arguing that “We need a safe space where people of color AND #whitepeople can talk and hear each other.”  This conclusion is precisely my concern with his focus on the need for more discussions about diversity between people of color and white people as opposed to more discussions about the structural oppression of people of color. It presupposes that people of color and white people are on equal footing in US society and can both be equally “safe” or “unsafe” in US society. White people can easily avoid “unsafe” spaces that include having conversations with people of color about race while people of color cannot easily avoid “unsafe” spaces that include hostility from white people.

Should white people decide to engage in a space that they deem “unsafe” the worse that can happen to them is that their feelings get hurt. In contrast, white people in “safe spaces” may feel “safe” enough to cry in ways that privilege their feelings over the lived experience of people of color, “safe” enough to express microaggressions that have psychological consequences  for people color, or “safe” enough to brand a person of color as “angry” and “confrontational” in ways that exclude them from access to professional opportunities.

For a white person to feel like they are in a “safe space” may, by necessity, mean that the space is hostile to people of color—indeed, this very dynamic can be seen in Vargas documentary White People where a white girl co-opts a discussion about racial inequality by claiming that she feels attacked. Yet, Vargas is suggesting that people of color are at fault for refusing to endure these “safe spaces” without creating spaces of their own to cope with the psychological consequences.

Discussions of race cannot begin from the premise that it is the responsibility of people of color to invite white people into conversations about ‘diversity.’ Instead, they must begin from the premise that discussions of diversity are a tool of white supremacy that erases the ways that structural racism is endemic to US society. From this perspective, people of color spaces are understood to be ways of coping with structural oppression and not as discussions of diversity that unnecessarily exclude white people. These spaces become spaces where people of color can work in solidarity with one another to heal from the wounds of white supremacy without having to justify its existence or cater to the feelings of white people. Indeed, it is through construction these spaces that people of color can continue the struggle to dismantle white supremacy—a goal that must be at the root of any meaningful discussion of race in the US.

Bilingual education in the United States is at a crossroads. One path has the potential to bridge racial divides and narrow the achievement gap that is exacerbating social and economic inequality. The other turn takes bilingual education down the well-traveled road to exclusivity, privilege, and racism.

When I first began working in bilingual education 15 years ago, I entered a field that was under attack. An initiative outlawing bilingual education had already passed in California and was soon followed by bans in Arizona and Massachusetts. Even states where it was still legal to offer bilingual education were not actively supporting or expanding their bilingual programming. Policy makers wouldn’t touch it.

Fifteen years later the landscape has changed significantly. I recently witnessed Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter along with Philadelphia School District Superintendent William Hite visit a dual language kindergarten classroom at a Philadelphia public school and applaud its innovative approach to education Philadelphia school children. This dual language classroom is one of six such programs that opened in the School District of Philadelphia in the 2014-2015 academic year. This celebration and expansion of dual language education is part of larger national trend.

So how did bilingual education transform from the pariah of education to a mainstream and celebrated innovation? For one, the research that illustrates the benefits of bilingual education can no longer be dismissed. Study after study has demonstrated that students in bilingual programs outperform students in English-only programs. It has become increasingly clear that opposition to bilingual education is political, with little research-based evidence to back it up.

But perhaps more importantly, the primary constituency for bilingual education has also shifted. Historically, the most vocal supporters of bilingual education were Latinos who wanted their children to maintain their Spanish while also learning English. While Latinos continue to advocate for bilingual education, the number of affluent White parents who desire bilingual education for their children has been on the rise.

This shift in constituency has transformed the structure of bilingual education from remedial transitional programs targeting English Language Learners to dual language enrichment programs targeting all students whose parents want them to become bilingual. This re-framing of bilingual education has made these programs more politically palatable and provided them more political legitimacy. This is a great example of cross-racial solidarity that has worked to ensure that more children are able to receive bilingual education.

At the same time, this re-framing has led to troubling trends as these programs become re-branded as selective programs. For example, the city of Holyoke has a dual language program that is reserved for gifted and talented students. A similar phenomenon can be found in Miami-Dade, where the district attempted to phase out its traditional Spanish instruction available to all students in favor of a dual language model available only to students reading at grade level in their dominant language. In Illinois, dual language programs are more likely to be found in affluent White communities than low income communities of color. Tucson has taken this phenomenon to the most egregious level possible by requiring English language proficiency in order for students to participate in dual language education. So while dual language programs are proliferating, they may be doing so in ways that are excluding the original benefactors of bilingual education.

Yet, it is not just English Language Learners who will be affected by this attempt to rebrand dual language education as a selective program for academically gifted students. Instead, any attempt at systematically excluding students from dual language education is likely to impact students of color, low-income students, and special education students as well. Research has demonstrated the benefit of bilingual instruction for all students. This exclusion is nothing more than a new form of discrimination against the most vulnerable students in U.S. public schools. This discrimination will have wide-ranging consequences as affluent White children develop bilingual skills that will make them more attractive to colleges and employers that low-income students of color are denied access to.

Many supporters of bilingual education understand the possible consequences of this rebranding and have rejected it. In Miami-Dade a cross-racial coalition that includes the NAACP and LULAC have demanded more equitable access to bilingual instruction for all students. New York City has framed its expansion of dual language programs around the need to increase the achievement of English Language Learners. And Philadelphia has strived to ensure that dual language options are available in low-income communities with large Latino and African American populations. It is important to continue to support these kinds of initiatives that strive to make bilingual instruction as equitable as possible while continuing to remain vigilant about attempts to re-cast dual language education as selective programs.

Support for bilingual education is stronger than it has been in decades. Yet, a disturbing element of this support is attempting to make bilingual education a privilege available only to certain students. We must build on the momentum in supporting bilingual education while ensuring that these programs are available to all students.

I recently met with representatives of a school district with a large and growing number of Latino students. The consensus of these district representatives was that their Latino students were struggling academically because they have failed to master the “academic language” that was needed for school success. I have heard variants of this narrative throughout my career as a teacher and researcher with the language proficiency of Latinos dismissively referred to as “playground language” that provides little foundation for the type of academic language that they need to be successful in school. But what exactly is academic language?

When I ask this question I often receive a variant of two responses. The first response is that playground language is the contextualized language of social interaction while academic language is the decontextualized language of schooling. The argument is that the contextualized nature of playground language makes it less complex and easier to master than academic language. I sometimes wonder if people who make this argument have every actually observed students on the playground. As a life-long socially awkward nerd who has always received good grades but often struggled to negotiate the complex social relations of the playground I can personally attest to the fact that there is nothing inherently more contextualized or less complex about the negotiations that happen on the playground.

The second response is that academic language is the language associated with specific content areas. The argument is students who have mastered academic language are able to speak and write like historians, mathematicians and scientists. Yet how exactly does a historian, mathematician or scientist speak and write? Let’s take prominent scientist Stephen Hawking as an example. A quick google search of his work indicates a wide range of language practices that include peer-reviewed journal articles targeting other scientists, books such as A Brief History of Time that attempt to make scientific concepts more accessible to a general audience and even videos such as Intro the Universe with Stephen Hawking that augment this more accessible approach with visuals and narration. In which of these capacities is Stephen Hawking using the language of science and which of these should be the goal when we are trying to teach students academic language?

Both of these definitions reify a rigid dichotomy between “academic” and “non-academic” language that has little basis in actual language-in-use. But might such an oversimplified conceptualization of language still be useful in some regards? Imagine walking into classroom with the expressed purpose of determining whether you observe academic language. You overhear a student offering a linguistic analysis of the different ways that her name can be pronounced and how that relates to the identity of the speaker. You witness students debating the nuances of translation as they determine the best way to say a particular word in another language. You observe a conversation about whether “nigga” is a term of endearment or a racial slur. As an educational linguist I certainly see evidence that students are engaged in the language of sociolinguistics. They are discussing the relationship between language and identity, reflecting on the important of an understanding of cultural context in translation and debating the ways that words may have different meanings in different contexts. So, do these types of social interactions constitute academic language?

These interactions are not fictional. They were actually observed by members of my research team in first grade classrooms at an elementary school serving a primarily low-income Latino student population. You might wonder what kind of innovative pedagogical approach is being used to support these students in engaging in such sophisticated linguistic analysis. After all, if dominant representations of Latino students are true it is difficult to imagine these students being able to engage in these language practices using their playground language. Perhaps the teaching is providing scaffolding techniques that are facilitating the student discussions. Or maybe the teacher has special training in teaching academic language to “at-risk” youth. How else would these Latino students be able to engage in such academic tasks? Actually, the teacher did not play a role in any of these interactions. They all occurred as part of unofficial student interactions that were not directly related to the teacher’s lesson.

How is it possible for the dominant representation of the language practices of Latino students to clash so starkly with the unofficial interactions that we have observed in our research? This is possible because the concept of academic language is fundamentally flawed. It begins from the premise that language can be dichotomized into “academic” and “non-academic” forms and presupposes that Latino children inevitably come to school without a strong foundation in the academic forms. The deficit perspective produced by this narrative has become so ingrained that regardless of what Latino children do with language they will always be positioned as lacking a strong foundation in academic language. Indeed, members of my research team have overheard teachers describing the Latino students that we observed engaged in sociolinguistic inquiry in precisely these terms. Were these children White middle-class children and engaged in this type of sociolinguistic inquiry it is doubtful that questions related to their mastery of academic language would be raised.

It is for this reason that I am calling for a moratorium on current discussions of academic language. To be clear, I am not suggesting that we stop talking about academic language. Instead, I am calling for a moratorium on uncritical framings of academic language as an objective set of linguistic forms that are dichotomous with the playground language of Latinos and other language-minoritized students. Declaring this moratorium would transform our task away from attempts at objectively defining and assessing academic language toward an exploration of the ways that certain populations become recognized by school and society as using academic language and the ways that other populations become recognized by school and society as lacking academic language. The ultimate goal would be to develop a new conceptualization of language that is situated within a larger critique of racial inequalities that current conceptualizations of academic language normalize.

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