Zentella picAna 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.”[1] 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].


[1] Miller, G. W. (2009, Sept. 1). Asian students under assault: Seeking refuge from school violence. Philadelphia Weekly. http://www.philadelphiaweekly.com/news-and-opinion/Asian-Students-Under-Assault.html.

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19 Responses to “Promoting Linguistic Tolerance by Ana Celia Zentella”

  1. Jeronda Majors on 3/10/10 3:03 PM US/Eastern

    As a teacher in a urban ethnically and linguistically diverse school district, it is important teachers are taught the benefits of teaching in a culturally responsive way. Often, teachers think tolerance is all they need but fail to realize action is also essential.

  2. Katie on 3/19/10 7:29 PM US/Eastern

    I am in complete agreement that linguistic tolerance is something that needs to both promoted and addressed in schools and society. I like the suggestions at the end of the article that mention that teachers should provide speaking opportunities for students to speak both to each other and to the teacher. We have to be open and willing to try new strategies in our classrooms that promote linguistic tolerance.

  3. Diann Mackey on 3/26/10 12:23 PM US/Eastern

    I am an ELL (English Language
    learner) teacher for a large
    urban school district. This is
    my 17th year. I make home visits
    to my African families as
    transportation is an issue. I
    also teach an adult ELL class
    on Saturday mornings. Parents
    have to trust schools in order
    to help them become successful
    with their children in our
    trust. What I have learned from
    doing these visits has trumped
    anything I could ever have
    learned in a class. I encourage
    more teachers to do this. They
    also have my cell number to
    call on weekends to someone
    they trust. I also do teacher
    training on culturally
    responsive teaching practices.
    It should be a requirement for
    all colleges who prepare
    teachers for diverse schools.

  4. Jennifer on 3/27/10 1:03 PM US/Eastern

    I don’t think the promotion of linguistic tolerance can be primarily a grass-roots movement–a campaign for national awareness would make greater strides in less time. Time is critical for the development of linguistic identities as all it takes is one impactful, negative experience for an individual to cast off their language. As a public school student in Hawaii during the 1980s and 1990s, and as a speaker of the nonstandard dialect Hawaiian Pidgin, I was constantly admonished to speak standard English and consequently taught that Hawaiian Pidgin was a hallmark of the lack of education. Although I know (and I knew then) that the language I and others spoke was not a marker for intelligence, it has been hard to reconcile what we know to be true with what we have been taught.

  5. Deanna Quinn on 4/10/10 7:24 PM US/Eastern

    I agree that the issue of language discrimination must be addressed. However, I do not want to be tolerated; thus, I do not agree with the term linguistic tolerance – please do not allow my issues with the term divert attention away from the fact that I am in agreement with the big picture issue. To reject one’s language is to reject one’s being: in public arenas or in formal school settings. Our country needs to understand that youth with low self-esteem grow into non-productive grown-ups: not responsible adults. The latter does not benefit our country in any form nor fashion. On the other hand, youth who have been valued and respected as a person, will mirror those qualities and share them as an adult. They may possibly even master and respect Standard English and receive all the benefits that are associated with a true bilingual who understands the contexts of situations and speak accordingly in each.

    Moreover, I think it is time for marginalized groups to stop being concerned with what is politically correct or non-correct. Especially, since marginalized groups seem to be the only people trying to fit in by being politically correct, Proven by this study that people are voicing epithets that are clearly “politically incorrect.” On the contrary, we should be more concerned with being respected linguistically and culturally on all terms in all places.

    In addition, I think people are publicly lashing out at language more than race due to a fear of being accused of a “hate crime.” If a law is passed that it is a “hate crime” to verbally attack someone’s language, then people would find another way to attack “non-dominant group races.”

    Finally, I think we are on the right track to make positive changes by documenting stories, researching and creating data for linguistic discrimination, educating educators, and making politicians and society aware that we are not going to sit and “take this blatant discrimination anymore.”

  6. Naomi Tuinstra on 4/11/10 10:25 PM US/Eastern

    I agree with Deanna about the word ‘tolerance’ and its use, as it carries with it a negative connotation that indicates a need for some level of acceptance but not necessarily any understanding of equality or even individuality.

    The conversation about the most effective method for changing the dialogue in our schools and broader society about multiple languages and variations of languages is interesting. I feel that both the grassroots movement as well as the campaign for national awareness are valid methods and could work in tandem to achieve the goal at hand. Perhaps the grassroots movement could lead to a national campaign for awareness with the potential to truly transform the future of the linguistically diverse children of this country.

  7. Maria G on 4/13/10 1:32 AM US/Eastern

    As a critically conscious educator, I think it’s important to voice this perspective in all school settings. Through the course of my teaching years, I’ve experienced “soft” xenophobic and racist comments about English language learners by teachers deemed “competent” by the school’s leadership and faculty. I think the conventional thinking is that as long as students of color learn to read and write, this is enough. We (critically conscious educators) know it isn’t enough. Students of color in particular need to understand their reality in order to navigate, negotiate and challenge when necessary those individuals that may interfere with their education. I think it’s important to have students use their agency to navigate the world.

    I was talking to a friend recently, and she mentioned to me that she was talking to a former professor that shared with her the experience of a Latina Ph.D student from an Ivy League school. This young woman felt she was going crazy in the ivory tower because she didn’t quite fit in and didn’t know how to navigate the system. As a result, she committed suicide. When I heard this story I cringed! I thought, this educated woman needed more than her academic skills to navigate her doctoral path. How many of our students “drop out” of high school or college for that matter, because they find it difficult to navigate this world? They feel out of sorts and like they are going mad.

    Given this, it is essential to teach from a critical pedagogy. That is one of the ways students of color may learn to tap into their inherent power and acquire tools to help them navigate their path.

  8. Leticia Ornelas on 4/13/10 1:56 AM US/Eastern

    As I read Zentella’s Blog I thought that to tolerate something means people have to live with something but can still have ill feelings towards something. I say this because a few years back I was involved with the creation of my current school’s mission and vision, and the word ‘tolerance’ was the subject of discussion. We decided that we wanted to go beyond just tolerating diversity and wrote appreciate diversity. However, the reality was that neither appreciation nor tolerance is practiced school-wide. Social justice should be more than tolerance, but perhaps Zentella used the word ‘tolerance’ as a starting point, because as a society we can’t jump to appreciate or embrace diversity until there is tolerance. So that brings me in agreement with the plan to “seek every opportunity to promote linguistic, cultural, and racial tolerance in schools”.
    The part that struck me the most was the section that said that it is more insidious to attack someone’s language than their race, because everyone knows that one’s race cannot be changed, but there is a belief that it’s fine to change or loose one’s accent or language; as if that was not an attack on a person. I think this section would be useful in conversations about bilingual education with staff members and parents.

  9. Gabriela Olmedo on 4/13/10 2:10 AM US/Eastern

    I think that linguistic tolerance is something that must be promoted. A term is nothing but a term until people give its meaning. Tolerance is respect for all things, same or different than our own. Without tolerance this world would be a different place. To me, the term and the idea of linguistic tolerance is used to promote respect for all languages. Respecting the language is respecting the culture and respecting the culture is respecting the individual’s identity. Thus, linguistic tolerance should be practiced and emphasized. In addition, culturally responsive pedagogy should be considered by all who want to value the culture of their students. How can we not consider the student’s culture to be part of the classroom? Isn’t the students’ education our priority? Therefore, we should do what we can to provide and maintain equity in the classroom and school-wide.

  10. Christell on 4/13/10 5:29 PM US/Eastern

    I think that it is extremely important that educators foster linguistic and cultural tolerance. It is estimated that by the year 2020 a large number of the population will be consist of minorities. Immigrant children will continue to struggle in our society in an effort to acculturate and assimilate to U.S. culture as well as learn a new language if they do not have the resources available to them. Educators must be tolerant, and must also be advocates for students and speak up when there is injustice. In order for there to be change, educators must involve their communities to also respect multilingualism and multiculturalism and promote tolerance.

  11. Shirley Chen on 4/13/10 10:21 PM US/Eastern

    Based on the reading, I think that linguistic tolerance is very important in various cultural communities. Linguistic intolerance suggests that Standard English is the only acceptable language in school systems. This idea not only rejects other languages but also rejects the person who speaks that language (which represents identity), and the culture that person belongs to.
    According to the reading, linguistic intolerance has caused damage to different cultural communities in both psychological and physical capacities. Such rejection of other languages may result in violent attacks on Asian communities. This makes me remember my daughter’s experience on her first day of first grade (she was a five-year old American born Chinese girl). A Caucasian girl did not let my daughter sit beside her, even though it was the only seat left on the school bus. The bus driver asked my daughter to sit down while the bus was moving. However, when my daughter sat down on that seat, the tall Caucasian girl suddenly hit my daughter’s chest with her fist. During this time we lived in a mainstream English-speaking community and my daughter was the only Chinese girl in that elementary school and her English was spoken with an accent. The pain caused by this incident is still demonstrated in my daughter on both a psychological and physical level.
    For the purpose of promoting linguistic tolerance, the article illustrates what a language teacher should do in their classrooms with cultural students. Providing flexible conversation opportunities and diverse writing tasks to promote English proficiency are positive strategies. This will eliminate the language barrier and promote linguistic tolerance.

  12. Brandi Virden on 4/15/10 2:02 AM US/Eastern

    I found this blog to be interesting food for thought, particularly the conversation in the replies about the word “tolerance.”

    To begin, linguistic acceptance and use is crucial in education. I believe that it is often more valuable and easier to communicate with someone in the way they communicate best, instead of forcing them to communicate in the way I communicate. I incorporate this philosophy in my personal and in my professional life as an employee of a 4 year University. When communicating with college students, their parents, and other members of the University community, I try my best to speak in the way they speak: using their language and their vocabulary. We are still speaking English, but it is the language of that department or from that perspective. I know that my department is jargon-filled, so when I explain our processes, programs, and policies to others, I explain them not using our terminology, but using language that is understood by all. This is key to successful and effective communication.

    This same philosophy can be extended to apply to languages in general. As an adult educator, we are able to tailor our language skills and abilities to meet students wherever they are. If the students of my classroom speak Spanglish, then it should be my goal to learn enough Spanglish that I can them where they are. From that point, I can then utilize techniques such as scaffolding and the zone of proximal development to help students move from their non-standard forms of English to standard English. To clarify, this is not intended to replace the non-standard form of English with standard English, but instead to make this student bilingual: home language and academic/professional development. As educators it is important to help students learn and develop their standard English abilities, but we cannot assume that they will be able to learn without first communicating with them in the language they speak at home. Non-standard forms of English is just like a language that is not English; to teach a student, we must first do so in his/her home language until s/he has enough English knowledge that s/he can be educated in English.

    Again, I want to stress that this is not to replace the student’s home language, be is a non-standard form of English or a language completely different than English. But either way we must respect the fact that this student speaks a language other than “standard English,” and as such we must help them learn by us, the educators, learning their language and then using their language to help them learn and learn English.

    It is equally important to remember that language is a socialization key; people are who they are and are members of a specific community based on the language(s) they speak. Even non-standard forms of English have qualities, characteristics, and identities associated with it. The language(s) a person speaks informs their identity; so we cannot disregard their language without belittling or demeaning their identity. This is important for educators to know and understand.

    The word tolerance is a hot debate item in the posts that precede mine. The use of words is extremely important, particularly when the words has an inherent meaning and a meaning that is derived from a community of people or an experience. A modern connotation of TOLERANCE is that tolerance simply means to “put up with” something. For instance, historically communities of people are not in favor of using the word tolerance to mean the same thing as accept, particularly when using this word to describe racial, ethnic, and religious tolerance. There is a difference between putting up with something and accepting something. As educators, and as members of the human race, we should focus on accepting and understanding something, and not simply putting up with it. But oftentimes acceptance and understanding begins with tolerance.

  13. Dallas Richardson on 4/15/10 10:54 PM US/Eastern

    I see language discrimination often in my classroom. Race and language are two factors that play out in the daily interactions with my students. First, I’m a Black non-native Spanish speaker teaching Spanish to high school students. Secondly, I teach Spanish to Latino native speakers in a school that is 99% Latino. Unfortunately, this provides all kinds of opportunity for ethnic and linguistic confusion. I remember the first day I taught, students snickered and giggled when I began speaking Spanish. Some even thought I was just a substitute teacher. In their mind, and in the minds of many Latinos, Black people just don’t speak Spanish. It’s like they are defying gravity, which is also the name of a great song. =) I’ve addressed this to students individually and they are fascinated by me. I think my mere presence breaks down some stereotypes and the linguistic discrimination. They, native Spanish speakers, have to answer to a non-native Spanish speaker in a Spanish class. It sounds like a sitcom. Sometimes they discriminate against my Puerto Rican accent because it’s something they are not familiar with. One student even said “He forgets to pronounce the s’s.” That comment struck me because at that moment I realised that ignorance is what mainly causes this discrimination. I want to show them that there are Black people who speak Spanish, whole countries of them. So, it’s my goal to eliminate as much of that ignorance as possible. I am a teacher after all.

  14. Jocelyn V. on 4/16/10 12:59 AM US/Eastern

    I feel strongly about several of the points that were made on this blog as well as the comments contributed by others. Growing up as a bilingual speaker I internalized my teachers views of my English language skills, where several of them had low expectations of me.
    Our schooling practices especially in states such as California the standardization of English has had an impact in the way in which teachers teach. As educators I think that the best way to push back agaisnt the implementation of standard English is by teaching students the way to succeed. By having students learn what is considered to be the standard form of Engliish but also teaching them to be critical of it.

  15. Britt on 4/16/10 1:25 AM US/Eastern

    As a teacher of non-native Spanish in the inner-city, I get the opportunity to address this issue head-on every day. My students, predominantly African-American, make disparaging remarks about the lack of English skills some of their hispanic classmates possess. As learners of Spanish, some of them are starting to realize the gravity of connecting “second language ability” to intelligence. Through their own experiences of being uncomfortable in the language they are learning that it is the expression of thoughts, and not the thinking of thoughts, that is difficult. I have watched some of my students’ appreciation for linguistic diversity increase in this case and wonder if having an experience like that is what it takes to break down stereotypes and intolerance for multilingualism.

  16. Patricia Urtuzuastegui on 4/16/10 1:21 PM US/Eastern

    My perspective comes about from having been born in the US to an immigrant (Mexico) mom and a 1st generation US citizen dad. I live on that notorious 2000 mile border between US/Mexico. I am a “Border Straddler”. I have direct ties with family on both sides. We have assimilated into the Hot dog and Apple pie Pan Dowdy American way of life to a point. I learned my first language, mother tongue, and the second language of English and I am educated. I read the word tolerance and understand that tolerance is NOT acceptance. I have two Master’s degrees and currently teach bilingual special education. My job appears secure at this time; albeit at 6000, less than 3 years ago. My point is that I find myself defending my position as a dual language individual constantly in my very right wing community. At times, it is a gift, other times it is a condemnation. I feel for all other immigrants who come with their mother tongue that is not the “Queen’s language”. It makes for a strong stock for some and a breaking point for others. I have learned that not all of us are born with the language gene as not all of us are born with the math gene. Let us go back to basics and love one another for what we can give to our humanity and remove ourselves from hate. Hate is simply another word for intolerance. It is up to each one of us to get down to the root of it all and begin anew with love. I think this can happen. All of the comments I read have this underlying love written between the lines. Isn’t it funny how we adore foreigners’ accents but abhor Americans with such? Let us transcend this hipocrisy with respect for one another. Every spirit walking our planet is here with a purpose for humanity. Children, especially, have this gift. I have been teaching bilingually for 20 years and eventhough the pay is humiliating, I indulge myself each day that I teach with unconditional love from many spirits dwelling within our colorful population. Come on people, give peace a chance!

  17. Laura on 4/17/10 5:17 PM US/Eastern

    As a bilingual education professor for an urban education program, I am constantly amazed that my students describe their experiences of language discrimination.Even today, students are told that they have to speak only English in their classrooms.

    I find that really many things have not changed in the past 25 years. We are finding different ways keep people down because of language, ethnicity, or socioeconomices. It’s time for real change to happen in our schools so that all children can become a part of the educational experiences and be successful.

  18. Melissa Meyer on 5/6/10 6:36 PM US/Eastern

    It is true what Zentella stated: “Tackling linguistic intolerance addresses racial and cultural prejudices directly, as language has become a smokescreen for larger problems of cultural distrust and racial hatred.” To promote English-only programs or to eliminate the use of Spanglish, non-standard English, or any other language or variant thereof in schools is to say that these speakers are “wrong” or less intelligent than speakers of the “standard” form of a language. What many do not understand is that this affects their social, emotional, and intellectual well-being.

  19. LeadCast Blog - LeadScape on 6/18/10 5:41 PM US/Eastern

    […] that paint speakers of non-dominant languages as deficient, substandard, and undesirable as Ana Celia Zentella and John Baugh[3] make evident in their […]

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