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Tongue Tied: Unraveling Language Loss and Rekindling the Linguistic Legacies of Multilingual Learners

By Becca Flores and Joshua Martinez

Tongue Tied: Unraveling Language Loss and Rekindling the Linguistic Legacies of Multilingual Learners
Left: Becca Flores Right: Joshua Martinez

Like millions of non-white, non-English speaking people in the U.S., we share a common injury — the loss of cultural identity and language in our own Mexican families. A long history of racialized mindsets, policies, and educational practices has undermined the cultural and linguistic heritage of generations of students. In a country that has refused to embrace its multilingualism and multiculturalism as a national value, many minoritized communities have felt they had no choice but to repress essential parts of themselves and assimilate in every way they could.

Becca: I realize now my family’s decision to give my sisters and me easy-to-pronounce English names, to move us into a predominantly white school, and to not teach us Spanish at home was a form of protection. A protection against what my father and my grandparents and their parents experienced. But, they couldn’t protect me from the way white supremacist systems infiltrate our school systems. They couldn’t protect me from the bullying and the microaggressions I experienced in school. They couldn’t protect me from the shame and embarrassment I sometimes feel now when I pronounce multisyllabic words in Spanish, my tongue clumsy in my mouth, or the way I feel when I can’t find the words in English, ni español, feeling caught in the borderlands of two languages, two cultures, two identities.

Joshua: It’s been over 30 years, but I still remember the disappointment on my great grandmother’s face when she would speak to my father in Spanish, and he couldn’t respond to her. She immediately looked at my grandparents, a silent admonishment for not teaching their children their heritage. However, growing up in the barrios of Norwalk, a city near East LA, my grandparents were faced with an impossible choice — giving their children an opportunity to assimilate into white, English-speaking culture or be punished in school for speaking Spanish and discriminated against for speaking English with an accent. My father was in high school when thousands of students boycotted classes during the 1968 East LA Walkouts. Latino young people were calling for an end to inequitable educational practices — that included corporal punishment for speaking Spanish in class — and to demand an education that valued their identities. But for my father, it was too late. He is among a large group of non-Spanish-speaking Latinos of his generation in Southern California caught between cultures.

As educators and advocates for multilingual learners, we feel a deep-rooted need to honor students from our communities and multilingual communities everywhere. Because we are now at an organization with a national platform we could only dream about as classroom teachers, we have the opportunity to join others working to disrupt how our students are racialized, managed, and controlled. We are driven by NTC’s explicit commitment to serve multilingual learners as a priority student group and the clarity of purpose provided in the Elephant in the (Class)room to discover and leverage learners’ unique and diverse assets and ways of learning.

To this end, our work is to support teachers across the country to encourage multilingual learners to embrace and preserve their heritage through culturally sustaining pedagogies and to consider how raciolinguistic ideologies continue to impact the educational experiences of these students today. We do this through our coaching support, our consultation with school and district leaders, and our direct-to-educator professional learning.

Cultivate culturally sustaining pedagogies

Culturally Sustaining Teaching, or CST, builds on the core tenets of culturally responsive pedagogy, emphasizing, according to Paris and Alim (2017), “teaching that perpetuates and fosters linguistic, literate and cultural pluralism as part of schooling for positive social transformation.” These practices go beyond acknowledging diversity; they aim to empower students by encouraging them to embrace their heritage and challenge oppressive systems that marginalize and silence them. Here are a few examples from our own teaching experience:

Becca: Lively Middle School’s dual language program is an example of how a community works to sustain students’ home language and provides opportunities for multilingual students to be the experts in the room and critique the injustices they witness in their own life. As an ESL [English as a Second Language] teacher at Lively, dual language teachers work closely to develop thematic units allowing students to investigate their cultural identities and issues pertinent to their community. Through graphic novels, bilingual texts, and Chicano/a murals, students examine de jure and de facto segregation in schools, colorism, and youth-led protests and feel inspired to engage in activism.

Joshua: When I was a 4th-grade educator at KIPP Raíces in East Los Angeles, one of the top-performing elementary schools in the state of California, I always taught our entirely Latinx, mostly multilingual, student population about the cultural heritage of our community through an engaging unit on the East LA Walkouts. We learned that our community organized and fought for equitable educational opportunities. The goal was to build cultural pride and a place-based identity and reframe education to gain access to social power.

Acknowledge and address raciolinguistic ideology

To understand raciolinguistic ideology, consider how a white, English-speaking student is celebrated for learning another language. In contrast, a non-white multilingual student (ML) studying English is viewed in deficit terms. Jonathan Rosa and Nelson Flores urge us to examine this intersection of race and language and consider when, where, and why we perceive the language practices of MLs to be inadequate.

In our time as teachers, we did a great job of affirming our students’ assets. But we also unintentionally reinforced problematic social hierarchies with implicit messaging that certain languages and cultural content were not “appropriate” for the classroom. We did little to teach our students to engage and confront deeply ingrained beliefs about language and race that perpetuate harmful stereotypes and marginalization. It is our responsibility to work hand in hand with students in their quest to imagine and establish more radically inclusive alternatives, ultimately leading to true social transformation.

To do this, we must first investigate how our own biases around race and language impact our policies, programs, and practices. A notice-reflect-act approach in the following questions might help to detangle harmful deficit-oriented perspectives from the linguistic expertise of our multilingual learners.

How do we “listen”?

To disrupt hierarchical views of language with roots in our colonial past (and present), we must examine how subtractive ideologies permeate how we “hear” the language practices of our multilingual students. For example, ask yourself if you tend to think about a student’s language use in (false) binaries — “academic” and “non-academic,” basic and advanced, good and bad. Rather than placing the language students use in hierarchical binaries, what if you viewed students’ language practices as a reflection of the cultural knowledge of their homes and communities — language practices that are rich and complex in their own right? When we stop listening and start labeling, it minimizes our students’ accomplishments and cultural knowledge.

How do we move past deficit perspectives to affirming stances about our students’ language practices?

One big-picture example that challenges the deficit-based mindset that surrounds language learning and endeavors toward acknowledgment of students’ strengths is the ongoing shift across the field to refer to students as “multilingual learners” (ML) rather than “English language learners” (ELL). For teachers, and especially those who don’t speak students’ home languages, one way to demonstrate support for MLs is to use affirming language like this that acknowledges students’ intelligence and linguistic skills.

Another asset-oriented mindset shift teachers can make is recognizing that most multilingual students already employ complex and sophisticated language practices. These students make discerning language choices for different purposes and contexts all the time, a standards-based skill that is essential for school, home, and community life. Consider, for example, translanguaging (using multiple languages simultaneously to communicate more effectively). What if educators acknowledged that translanguaging involves deep expertise and knowledge of languages and that when students employ this skill, they demonstrate their engagement in meaning-making, that translanguaging involves precision and skill in the same way that figurative language does. It’s also important to consider that students create a linguistically just space when they use this skill in the classroom, advocating for multilingualism and inviting their teachers to learn who they truly are.

How do we repair harm?

NTC’s Elephant in the (Class)room is a call to action for learner-centered, assets-based instruction that :

  • leverages every student’s community, cultural, and linguistic capital
  • commits to understanding their experiences and stories
  • validates their competencies
  • recognizes and names their challenges

Embracing language and culture in education is a means to empower our learners and heal the painful experiences of language and cultural loss that many of our multilingual communities have faced, including our own. Using culturally sustaining pedagogy to create more inclusive, equitable, and loving classroom environments will help honor and sustain our multilingual students by acknowledging who they are, where they came from, what we can learn from them, and how they enrich our classrooms.

Becca Flores is an instructional designer in Programs and Innovation, and Joshua Martinez is advisor, Professional Learning Systems, at New Teacher Center.