Ana Celia Zentella, Ph.D., was born and raised in the South Bronx by a Puerto Rican mother and Mexican father, taught at City University of NYC for several decades before moving to the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, San Diego, where she is now Professor Emerita. Zentella is an anthro-political linguist, well known for her research on U.S.Latino varieties of Spanish and English, language socialization, bilingualism, “Spanglish”, and “English-only” laws. Zentella is presently the Lang Visiting Professor for Issues in Social Change at Swarthmore College (2009-2010), where she is working with her students on the publication of Multilingual Philadelphia: Portraits of Language and Social Justice
I am a proud product of New York City’s public schools in the Bronx where I attended school from kindergarten through high school, as well as college.. It wasn’t a safe or easy journey from my Puerto Rican and Mexican home in the South Bronx to completion of a graduate degree and a Phi Beta Kappa key. I am eternally grateful to the teachers who helped me along this difficult journey. But that was decades ago, and in many ways the journey for the children of immigrants and other linguistically and racially different groups has become even more dangerous.
Based on their recent research in Philadelphia, my undergraduates at Swarthmore College join me in this plea for educators to seek every opportunity to promote linguistic, cultural, and racial tolerance in our schools. This is a pressing issue, given the increasing numbers, and increasing diversity, of immigrant students across the nation. Linguistic tolerance is not only a matter of social justice and of living up to our democratic ideals of equality; it affects the psycho-social development of individuals, family cohesion, and community safety and progress. Tackling linguistic intolerance addresses racial and cultural prejudices directly, as language has become a smokescreen for larger problems of cultural distrust and racial hatred. My research and that of other linguistic anthropologists reveals that negative comments about language are really disguised ways of voicing venomous stereotypes about race and ethnicity in public, as post civil rights gains have made it politically incorrect to voice such stereotypes overtly. But talking disparagingly about someone’s way of speaking is even more insidious than denouncing their race, because no one is expected to change or lose their race, the way they are expected to change or lose their accent or language.
Recent violent attacks in Philadelphia schools provide more evidence that race has been remapped from biology onto language. A news article reported that “in elementary and high schools….Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Pakistani and other Asian youth have been singled out, assaulted in cafeterias, hallways, on city streets, school buses and everywhere in between.” Attackers specifically targeted English learners: “They’d say, ‘You cannot speak English. I can pick on you, “ (personal communication to my student Joslyn Young, November 9, 2009). Asians are not the only victims; violence against Hispanics nationwide has increased by 40% since 2003, and 62% were against Hispanics in 2008 (Philadelphia Inquirer, Jan 25, 2010). The media report many examples of increased hostility toward Spanish in employment and child custody cases, as seen in legislation against bilingual education and in disproportionate school penalties and expulsions. Speakers of languages other than English are not the only targets. African Americans and speakers of other non-standard English dialects are also ridiculed, and stigmatized as unintelligent, although their varieties are as coherent and rule governed as the “Queen’s English”.
Critics forget that a language is formed by all of its speakers and their variations. Sadly, my Swarthmore students found that many schools’ zealous efforts to impose standard English are often counterproductive and rejected, as they unwittingly reproduce feelings of inferiority and insecurity instead of pride in diverse communities’ powerful linguistic abilities. One student researcher (Dowdy) who surveyed African American secondary students learned that almost 100% of them “embraced the way they talk”, although 17% believed the language barrier between the teacher and students “hurt their ability to learn”. Both parties need to achieve a varied linguistic repertoire that expands upon the dialects and languages which students bring to the classroom, and that our nation and the world require in the 21st century. New linguistic research suggests ways in which educators’ evaluation, placement and assessment tools, and our pedagogical practices, can be re-calibrated so that the goal of learning standard English is achieved by capitalizing on what students already do/say with language.
One basic practice is to allow students more time to speak in classrooms—to each other and to the teachers—and to encourage writing and speaking for diverse audiences. Students learn the vocabulary, punctuation, and grammar they need when they try their hand at writing songs, poems, comic books, dictionaries of local lexicon, cookbooks, and letters to international pen pals, to the mayor, and/or the editorial page of a newspaper, etc. Concrete examples from my own college classrooms include student written publications: Multilingual San Diego: Portraits of Language Loss and Revitalization (University Readers 2009), and Multilingual Philadelphia: Portraits of Language and Social Change (in progress). Space limitations preclude presenting an inventory of practices, but for anyone willing to try new approaches that encourage linguistic tolerance, estoy a sus órdenes [I am at your service].