Monday, March 14, 2011

Bilingualism and Authenticity

By Ellen Walsh

Bonnie Urciuoli’s article “Whose Spanish?  The tension between Linguistic Correctness and Cultural Identity” explores the complex relationship between bilingual students’ language and culture.  Urciuoli begins her article by talking about the importance of ethnic diversity that is stressed in higher education.  In many institutions it is often very important for a university to represent many different cultures and have a diverse student population.  Even NYU prides itself for having one of the most diverse student bodies in the country.   But as multicultural institutions are encouraged, there are certain specifications that seem to limit people to identify with a certain culture.  With the ideology of a monoglot standard English that is accepted as “good” English and is believed to be readily available for everyone, those with Latino immigrant background are placed in a “sociolinguistic situation described as chiquitafication: the trivialization of their knowledge of Spanish (as non-European), the disparagement of their knowledge of English (as a- or semi-lingual) and the collective identification of such speakers with a generalized mass or horde (Urciuoli 3).  One’s background in a foreign language can benefit them in certain situations such as an educational or from a career standpoint, but it can also lead to questioning their legitimacy when identifying with a culture. 
            As it is generally assumed and explained in Urciuoli’s article, language plays a huge part in the make up of culture.   Because of this, bilingualism can be seen in many different ways as either beneficial or harmful.  When bilingualism is learned in school through Spanish educational programs, it is seen as correct.  But when someone is familiar with another language through family heritage and background, it can often be seen as incorrect.  This idea of an authentic language is seen in schools and institutions.  For those who grew up speaking a certain dialect of Spanish (i.e. Dominican, Cuban, Puerto Rican) their way of speaking was incorrect compared to what was being taught.  In this respect certain cultural aspects of language are being denied when cultural awareness is encouraged. 
            This idea of authenticity that is represented in schools is very different from the way people with Latino heritage judge one another as authentic.  Those who grew up speaking predominantly English are criticized and judged as not being authentic.  Authenticity is also judged by the way you talk or don’t talk.  For Julia, a Puerto Rican teacher who was appointed as the Latino club sponsor because of her background, her identity was judged by her students in the club because of the way she spoke.  One of the students told her that she did not speak like a Puerto Rican and so for Julia “that was definitive.  The verdict was in, [she] was not a Puerto Rican, [she] couldn’t claim to be Puerto Rican” (Urciuoli 21).  Although she identified herself as being a Puerto Rican, she was made to feel like she couldn’t identify as that because that would be inauthentic.  
            Just as many re-evaluate their identities through this lens of authenticity, many people who grew up in a Puerto Rican or Dominican household “rethink themselves as Latino” when coming to a university environment (Urciuoli 6).  When entering the university environment many people with Latino backgrounds may try to figure out what distinguishes them as Latino or how they identify with their background.   As Urciuoli shows, many students’ experiences are very different in terms of how they define themselves as Latino and how they relate to their culture, or even how they construct this idea of culture.  As Gina describes it after graduating “I definitely have created this [sense of] what it is to be Latino for me, and what is, the Latino culture, for me.  I think a lot of people come in, being minority students, formulate their own Latino culture or black culture” (Urciuoli 10).  With this idea that a Latino identity is formulated and can mean something different to a specific person, how can culture and language be questioned by others as being authentic or inauthentic?  How can someone deny someone else his or her right to identify with a certain culture?  While it is so important to have a diverse student body on college campuses, isn’t it backwards to limit Spanish in school to only having one way of speaking it?  
            While bilingualism is becoming more socially relevant and is becoming more important, there are still ways in which it is being suppressed.  But the multicultural image is being supported in media and television.  Dora the Explorer, a children’s show on Nickelodeon, is about a speaking-speaking Latina girl who faces obstacles throughout an episode and always overcomes them in the end.  The show incorporates Spanish vocabulary into its many adventures.  In an NPR’s Morning Edition piece, “Me Llamo Dora: An Explorer in Modern America,” ( the creators explain, “one of [their] goals with Dora was to position the whole idea of being multicultural as being super-special.”  They created Dora as a pan-Latino so that anyone with a Latino background can relate to her.  In the show they avoid using terms that can mean more than one thing for certain dialects.  They also created Dora as a non-stereotypical looking Latina, giving her a tomboyish look with short dark hair as opposed to long wavy hair.  Dora the Explorer promotes bilingualism giving children the building blocks to learn Spanish as well as representing the typically unrepresented Latino population. 
            Bilingualism has become more accepted in culture and society, but there are still many issues that people who are bilingual or people with a foreign heritage face.  While schools encourage foreign languages like Spanish, it promotes a limited bilingualism that shows there is only one correct way to speak Spanish and that one form is superior over the others, which discourages natural Spanish speakers of certain dialects.  While others have the right to identify with their background or heritage, others deny them of this because of the way they speak or don’t speak.  It seems like in our society that promotes diversity and cultural differences, there are major setbacks present even in the efforts to promote it such as bilingual education.   

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