Friday, April 29, 2011

Language Policy and Ideology in the United States

This week’s readings introduced the metaphors of Latinos in American public discourse (Santa Ana), the effects of language policies on linguistic minority communities (Baltodano), the functions of language ideologies in academic settings (González), and the experiences of a Hispanic child distancing himself from his native language by learning English (Rodriguez).

First, Otto Santa Ana offers a brief history of the demographics and academic performance of California schools in “American Discourse on Nation and Language: The “English for Children” Referendum.” Santa Ana discusses Proposition 227, a ballot proposition that advocated the sole use of English in California classrooms and dismantled the state’s bilingual education programs. While describing the legislation, Santa Ana mentions that the state “regularly certified that many school districts with English-only programs performed no better than their bilingual counterparts” (199). Nonetheless, Proposition 227 was passed by California voters in 1998, presumably to combat the perceived correlation between the state’s falling academic standards and rising Latino population. As Santa Ana points out, neither the media nor the public considered “the educational disparity of language-minority children to be the result of structural factors (such as the inferior school plants or weaker teaching staffs) or the economic straits of their working-class parents” (207). It became clear that Proposition 227 was not having the desired academic effect on students—a problem that Santa Ana relates to the common misconception that language proficiency is instantaneous, explaining that language fluency does not imply language literacy (210, 218). He writes that linguistic development is a lifelong process, ultimately claiming: “California’s failure to provide for immigrant and other children is due to chronic underfunding of public education, a devalued teaching profession, society’s degradation of nonmainstream students, and the electorate’s antiquated conception of public education” (224).

Similarly, Marta P. Baltodano argues in “Latino Immigrant Parents and the Hegemony of Proposition 227” that language policies like Proposition 227 have detrimental effects on the education of immigrant children. Baltodano also blames the public education system and school officials for denying opportunities to nonmainstream students, in this case Latino immigrant children and teenagers. For Baltodano, Proposition 227’s classification of the need for bilingual education as a learning disability (as opposed to a skill) solidifies her opinion of the legislation (251). Latino immigrant parents, however, argue that the prohibition of non-English languages in the classroom hurts their children’s academic achievement, claim that school administrators purposefully keep them uninformed about language policies, believe that the procedure to acquire waivers for their children to receive bilingual education is deliberately arbitrary and confusing, and fear the reaction of the state to their submission of bilingual education waivers (248-249). Though these parents may play a generally active role in the education of their children, Baltodano characterizes Latino immigrant parents as “politically paralyzed” and unable to challenge the policies of “wealthy corporate individuals” (251). Thus, she encourages Latino immigrant parents to reformulate community activism by organizing politically, appropriating public spaces, and initiating “systematic litigation” to protest the repression of language rights in the United States (252).

Around the same time as Proposition 227 was being implemented in California, Arizona was also debating language policies. As Norma González details in “Children in the Eye of the Storm: Language Socialization and Language Ideologies in a Dual-Language School,” Arizona Proposition 203 was passed by Arizona voters in 2000 while she was conducting her study of the Bilingual Magnet school. The video below shows a school that employs a similar bilingual education program as the school in González’s study employed for a period of time.

Although the school featured in this news story is located in Virginia and the school featured in González’s study is located in Arizona, many conclusions can be drawn from the atmospheres of both academic institutions. Notice the African American female who speaks at 3:09. Contrary to the initial situation at the Bilingual Magnet school, she is quite articulate in her second language, even though she has only been learning it for a few years. As González explains, the bilingual education program at the Bilingual Magnet school was restructured after teachers observed that English-dominant students were not effectively learning Spanish (165). Once Spanish was established as “the language of academic, administrative, and social interaction,” the school became “a space for children to choose from repertoires of identities and subjectivities by providing them with ideological spaces for trying on and trying out multidiscursive practices,” which is exactly what occurs at the London Towne elementary school in Virginia (165, 170). Furthermore, schools provide “an ideological space not only for the development of bilingualism and biliteracy but also for multidiscursive practices and readings of the world” (173). In the words of London Towne kindergarten teacher Helen Arzola at 2:00, “The goal of the dual-language program is to teach low-income Hispanic children English—good English, social English, and academic English. And that can only happen if they have a good, solid foundation in their first language.” The news reporter also notes at 3:38 how the language practices of Americans compare to the rest of the world and how the lack of funding is hindering language education in America, stating, “American school children still don’t learn languages as well as [children] in other countries. In fact, many U.S. schools are cutting foreign languages to save money while some states are passing English-only laws, but schools like this one still believe multilingualism is the best way to keep the door from closing on their children’s futures.”

The experiences of the children at London Towne reflect those of author Richard Rodriguez, who provides a firsthand account of how it feels to prioritize learning a second, “public” language over preserving a native, “private” language (34). “Aria” chronicles Rodriguez’s childhood realization that, in order to achieve “public success,” he must not only understand the English language, but be able to express himself in it (38). As an elementary school student, Rodriguez had to develop the same skills that the students at London Towne are currently developing, for the very same reason: to become a viable competitor in the market for educational and occupational opportunities. Hence, as Arzola mentioned, Rodriguez needed to learn English so he could communicate efficiently and effectively using different registers of the same language in different situations. To assess the importance of the ability to switch language registers, I have posted below a video of Jamie Foxx performing a comedic skit about the drug scene in Hollywood. For comparison, I have also posted a link to a video of his acceptance speech at the Academy Awards after winning Best Actor for the 2004 biopic Ray. Unfortunately, the video itself would not post into the blog.

In these videos, the registers that Foxx employs are easily distinguishable—in the first, Foxx is entertaining a predominantly African American audience as a comedian; in the second, Foxx is accepting a prestigious award in front of the American film industry’s finest. Not only is there a lack of profound statements and sentimental remarks in Foxx’s comedy, but there is an obvious absence of swear words, racial slurs, and crude jokes in his acceptance speech. It seems as if Jamie Foxx has drawn the same conclusion as Richard Rodriguez: language is the key to success. If these two men can learn to manipulate language, they can achieve the desired public success. In this case, it appears that both men have indeed succeeded; Foxx is an accomplished actor and Rodriguez is a published author.

This week’s readings focused on language policies and language ideologies. The authors of these readings examined various aspects of bilingual education programs. From their depiction of the deterioration of these programs, it can be inferred that the solution to revitalizing bilingual education in the United States lies with the attitudes and actions of Latino immigrant families.

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