Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Social Influences of Language Assets and Deficits

 by Maria Melendez           
            Language is an ideological functioning of social relationships that influences the role adopted in specific societal contexts.  Depending on the context, different language usages imply different statuses.  The United States in particular is affected by a national ideology that places English as the most important language despite the multicultural reality of the population.  This is made possible by government policies, educational values, and internal and external identification (which is a question of how people view you and how you identify yourself).  These dynamics can be seen by looking at the development of identity in the context of Latinos in a liberal arts college in Bonnie Urciuoli’s article “Whose Spanish?  The tension between linguistic correctness and cultural identity” and Shalini Shankar’s article “Speaking like a Model Minority “FOB” Styles, Gender, and Racial Meanings among Desi Teens in Silicon Valley”  in a Desi high school in California.
            Language is seen as intrinsically linked to culture (Urciuoli 3).  This idea leads to such misconceptions as all people of Latino origins speak Spanish as an inherent cultural trait or a factor of identity.  This issue is addressed in Latina comedian Marga Gomez’s performance “Long Island Iced Latinos”.   Here she brings up a difficult subject of within-group discrimination of Latinos who cannot speak Spanish and are derided for their lack of knowledge by being called “bobo/a” which means stupid.  She says that she is “part of a minority that is oppressed by the majority of Latinos who can speak Spanish.”  She also admonishes the “Anglo-tinos” in Berkeley, California who harass her by speaking Spanish to her and who cannot believe that she does not speak Spanish.  These issues are telling of the issues faced by Latinos when language is naturalized as a part of cultural identity. 
             Therefore, language of Latino students in a largely white population may be expected to be a natural knowledge and necessary for the authentic representation of their culture.  This poses a problem for people who do not speak academic Spanish and also an identity disparity for those who speak with what is deemed an inauthentic accent.  New York University is an example of a college with a low population of Latino students, its previous year’s freshman enrollment percentages ran at nine percent.  Although there are programs and scholarships such as the Higher Educational Opportunity program that allow for Latinos and other minorities to enter this private university, the in-school population presents a disparity with the large presence of minorities in New York. 
            This lack of representation leads to situations where a Latino student may find themselves serving the role of the in-class representative of all Latinos.   For example, in one of my non-Spanish classes at NYU, we were looking at a poem in Spanish and since I was the only Latina in the class, I was asked to read it out loud.  When the professor heard that my pronunciation was not what he expected he relieved me of my duty and asked a non-Latina to read it and to my further embarrassment, her accent was much more exact than mine.  This is one of my many instances of being called on to perform my Latina identity in ways that I was not used to in my pre-NYU career. 
            As Urciuoli points out, “correct Spanish” is perceived as “cultural and symbolic capital” that causes pre-college modes of language to be devalued.  Also, being a Latino is made a more “salient element of their identity” in college where knowledge of Spanish and Latino history are made academically cool.  I definitely agree with this idea as many of my classes at NYU have been Latino courses that have had a large if not complete population of Latinos.  An interest in the subject is significant because much of what is learned in these courses has not been taught in most traditional high schools so this knowledge empowers people and their claim to their identity by ascribing to it symbolic capital. 
            Social associations with knowledge of other cultures differ from this Latino college level paradigm.  The example Shalini Shankar discusses is the cultural contrast of popular Desi teens compared to Fresh Off the Boat (FOBs) in a high school in the Silicon Valley of California.  In this setting, there is an emphasis on differences in appearance, display of cultural knowledge, and income.  For example, FOBs are usually middle class and said to not “adequately following fashion trends, having oily hair, speaking Punjabi in school, and speaking Desi Accented English”. (Shankar 270)  Desi popular teens however still associate with Indian culture but do so in strategic ways that emphasize their upper class position through material ways such as wearing prom dresses that are Indian or blasting Bollywood music, but not openly socially.(270)  For example, their public display of language is mostly in English in order to separate themselves from the FOBs. 
            The use of language even translates into the familial setting where the upper class Desi families tend to speak English at home.  FOBs in contrast speak Punjabi at home and use code-switching in public as a means of creating a unity and even talking about the popular Desi teens.  This position of language as a divider of groups along class lines is an interesting within-group distinction because it relies on many social aspects of identity and divides people not because of lack of knowledge of their heritage culture, but because of lack of knowledge of the American culture.  This may be due to the fact that Indians are part of the “model minority” which suggests that in order to be able to represent this role they have to be able to embody American values and identity.  FOBs also are known to appropriate Latino fashion which is a striking decision because it could potentially diminish their stance as model minorities because they are appropriating the culture of a marginalized group.  However, their use of Spanish language phrases as a means of humor is worth questioning because it could be seen as a way of putting down another culture in order to improve the standing of their own such as was done by non-Anglo whites in their attempts to claim whiteness.(274)  It would be interesting to look at if these social constructions translate to other school settings such as college or if there would be a hipness associated with cultural knowledge as there is in the Latino college experience.          
            These dualities of language knowledge or the lack thereof are telling of the social differences involved with language use.  The context of language use is a determinant of the significance it holds amongst different members of the groups.  Both Desi and Latino groups have an oppressed minority within them that are discriminated against because of their lack of proficiency or their high usage of the language in public spaces, based on the idea that bilingualism can either be an asset or an encumbrance.        


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