View Content #22579

Content Type3
TitleThe Danger of Defining Language for Heritage Language Learners

By Stephanie Knight, CASLS Language Technology Specialist

“Disculpe, Señora. Es que soy Puertorriquena. Sé que nuestro español es…algo ofensivo.” (Forgive me, Señora. It’s that I’m Puerto Rican. I know that our Spanish is.. somewhat offensive).

“¡Esta lista de vocabulario es racista! ¿Cómo es que incluyó la palabra ‘tarjeta verde’? Todos no somos inmigrantes.” (This vocab list is racist! How is it that you included ‘green card’? We aren’t all immigrants).

The words of my students stung. In the first situation, Julieta[1] was about to present for the first time in my class. I was excited because I loved her accent, her beautiful Spanish, and was selfishly looking forward to losing myself in her words. That anticipatory excitement was quickly replaced by a pit of remorse in my stomach. How could it be that she had so much shame about her language? Had I done something to indicate that there was a “right” Spanish and a “wrong” Spanish?

The second situation certainly had a different backstory, but it filled me with the same remorse. In this situation, I provided my learners with a list of key terms for a reading that we were doing about the history of Mexican immigration to the United States. The student’s face darkened when he saw the list. Afterwards, his AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) teacher explained to me that he was upset, so I reached out to him and engaged in the conversation excerpted above. In my brain, “green card” was a neutral term. However, to him, an American citizen in a Mexican-American family, its inclusion on the vocabulary list meant that I was communicating to the class that all Mexicans in the United States are immigrants and not American citizens. Was he being sensitive? Maybe. Was it my responsibility as his educator to mediate that reaction? Definitely.

Ultimately, my takeaway from both of these situations is that perhaps as language educators, and particularly as language educators working with heritage language learners, contending explicitly with the fact that language is emergent, dynamic, and varied is one of our greatest obstacles. If we do not do so, we cannot serve the needs of our students and the contexts within which they use language in their everyday lives. This call to action does not mean that we ignore formal registers and interactions or avoid words that carry political connotations; it does mean, however, that we explicitly value and discuss interactions outside of the classroom-mediated sphere and value how the political climate facing our students impacts their interpretation of language. We must celebrate their linguistic heritage and diversity within the classroom, using it to empower and embolden classroom discussions instead of fitting it into an arbitrary hierarchy. Then, when change happens with language, as it will invariably do, teachers will be well-prepared to do what they always have done best - adapt.

[1] Name has been changed

SourceCASLS Topic of the Week
Inputdate2017-02-09 17:14:58
Lastmodifieddate2017-02-13 03:48:17
ExpdateNot set
Publishdate2017-02-13 02:15:02
Displaydate2017-02-13 00:00:00