Long Term English Language Learners and Social Languages

I owe much to Laurie Olsen, Guadalupe Valdez, and Kate Menken, scholars who have studied English Language Learners and helped us to understand the dimensions of their experiences, needs, and schooling.  I also appreciate Kate Kinsella’s contributions to the practical and pedagogical arsenal of teaching ELLs, though I have to admit that I have absorbed most of it secondhand.  From that quite extensive secondhand exposure, though, I have to tease out a nuance, maybe a point of difference between my thinking about ELLs (and especially Long-Termers) and what I’ve seen Kinsella advocate.

First, if you don’t know what I’m referring to when I talk about Long Term ELLs, I encourage you to read Laurie Olsen’s Californians Together report, or for something shorter Menken and Kleyn’s article, or for something longer and broader Guadalupe Valdez’s book on Latino students and ELs.

Kinsella has provided really useful teaching tools to help explicitly teach academic language to English Language Learners.  In a similar philosophical vein to how Lisa Delpit overcame the thesis-antithesis of “teach standardized English” versus “honor children’s own languages and voices” by pointing out the need to explicitly provide students with the language of the culture of power, Kinsella has developed and popularized ways of giving ELLs the linguistic structures (with explicit tools but implicit modes of acquisition, I would say) of academic English.

She has also painted a picture of the English classroom being a place that often doesn’t exist for Long Term ELs, a haven of comprehensible and contextualized academic language, a place where “they get what they don’t get at home but other kids do.”  Not in what Kinsella says but in the way teachers often interpret this, I think there’s the idea that ELs are deprived of exposure to academic forms of language like one might encounter when one’s parents listen to NPR on the drive to school or indulge in reading passages of David Brooks at the dinner table or something like that.    It dovetails nicely with the research about kids in lower-income homes who have language or vocabulary gaps that are powerfully determinative.

But it also rings of the verbal deprivation arguments once made about African American children, and other such arguments throughout history, many of which have been debunked but all of which reflect a certain ideology about what language is valuable and meritorious and what language is less valuable.  I don’t want to get into the circular reasoning about languages of power (such as academic English) being valuable because they are powerful and being powerful because they are valuable.  But I do want to extend the metaphor of certain varieties and registers of language serving as a kind of capital, as sociologist Pierre Bourdieu articulated, or as a kind of currency with exchange value in particular markets.  Yes, languages are like currency or capital.  Yes, it serves children to teach them to how to acquire and use such currency so that in social settings with real economic and psychological consequences, they can transact in these symbolic markets.  Yes, we should explicitly teach kids academic English.

But the thing about currency and markets that we have remember as well is that they hold value because they belong to human, social systems of belief and belonging.  As such, the value differs depending on which social group you belong to or inhabit, or attempt to cross boundaries into.  Anyone who has ever tried to use foreign currency in a US store, or has struggled to understand why any kid (or grownup) would spend hundreds of dollars on a baseball card or Pokemon card or comic book, understands the idea that exchange value exists within certain communities and social circles because .  And that in fact, different exchange values interact, intersect, and conflict in various ways among different social groups, in different communities and institutions, and for different purposes.

This is true of language as well.  My favorite example is the frequently funny and often outrageous use of English words in signage or clothing in Chinese-speaking countries, which English speakers often find inconceivable until they understand that oftentimes the purpose of the English is not to accurately convey descriptive information so much as to serve as a kind of symbolic decoration.  It’s much easier to understand if you think of the phenomenon of tattoos of Chinese characters on non-Chinese Americans, where the meanings, nuances, and connotations of the words in their “native” settings defer to the aesthetics of the words in the new setting.  All of this to say that languages are currencies, but they are currencies that have differential symbolic value for different people, and they can’t always be given, taken, or used in a pure calculation of simple addition and subtraction.

Therefore, while I agree that there is power in teaching children to punctuate properly or use the appropriate pronouns in a job interview, my problem with the “my classroom will be the 100% haven of academic language for these children who are deprived of it” approach is that it assumes that children are already locked in and ready to take on the symbolic exchange values of academic language with the same meanings and same calculations as all other children.  I don’t think this is a safe assumption.  In fact, oftentimes the reasons they have been marginalized from acquiring and appropriating those linguistic markers is not that they have not been read to, had the chance to watch CNN, or been given lessons on subject-verb agreement, especially long term ELLs.  Oftentimes, they have been marginalized because those languages and lessons have not been socially meaningful to them, have not had the exchange value that they have for other kids, and in some cases have even had the reverse value.  For some of them, school language is the language of the other, even the language of the enemy, as much as it may also be at the same time the language of opportunity and important communication.  To teachers, such a resistant attitude seem like a counterproductive, self-inflicted wound, but for kids, there are often good and reasonable, real and often socially and historical rooted causes.

This is not to say that all Long Term ELs resist acquiring academic English or don’t value it.  It’s not so simple.  I would just put it this way: teachers of academic English have to think not only about making academic English explicit and accessible to students, but also to introduce and maybe reconfigure its significance, its contexts, and the people for whom it is meaningful and how students relate to those people.  We have to be thoughtful as teachers about the aspects of identity, belonging, participation, performance, and association that are involved in acquiring academic English for our students, and how we intervene in those social and cultural dimensions.  Besides teaching how to use and value the currency, we have to consider how the community that the currency counts is one that students know, feel part of, have reciprocal significance with, etc.

Which brings me back to the question of whether the classroom should be the haven of 100% academic English.  There’s great value in exposure, in comprehensible input, in saturation and immersion in the target language, in models and tokens and so on.  But if academic English is already somehow isolating to students, if there’s a need for teachers to be models of the way humans move between language groups, can identify with being a Spanish speaker or a culture consumer or a game spitter as well as an academic English teacher, then an injunction to rigid all-classroom-language monolingualism compels the wrong model.  I feel that long term English learners need models of mobility, not of fixity.  If the monolith of standard English was going to be intrinsically appealing to them as a language of the heart, a language of home, a language of expression, it would have become so already.  It has not, and we have to mitigate the alienating effects of it with a greater linguistic consciousness than a blunt either/or raw exposure effect.  This might mean being code-switchers and code-meshers in the classroom.  This might mean showing how different signifiers, different dialects, different registers can be meaningfully mixed and crossed.  This might mean cultivating multi-multi-linguals instead of just better academic English users.  Those social languages, of which academic English is but one, one that has to be made social and relational for students, can’t be artificially divorced and divided when we’re asking kids to manifest their mixing.




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