Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Language Ideologies: For Consuming and Policymaking

(((By Ilene Palacios)))

A number of weeks ago in class I had the class watch a short Toyota hybrid commercial that utilized that related to the Woolard reading about metalinguistic metaphors as well as Glen Martínez reading about code switching:

Toyota Hybrid commercial, circa 2005.

The first utterance in the commercial is the Spanish word “papá” (“dad”), which is the only word in Spanish the child says for the entirety of the commercial. This opening word establishes the commercial’s audience as Spanish speakers or people who have an understanding and utility of Spanish at some level. The father mostly speaks in English, establishing it as the Matrix (i.e. dominant) language of his code switching, which is intersententional. The Spanish is separated from the English and marked by gestures (e.g. the father points to the screen when he says, “Mira. Mira aquí,” i.e“Look. Look here”), therefore making the commercial potentially more coherent for a larger audience who may not understand Spanish. Use of a typical American Standard English voiceover might indicate that this ad addresses an audience of Latinos that probably, speak English very well, hold beliefs about the utility of English and of being ‘eco-friendly’ through certain kinds of technology, in addition to having the income/class status to buy a hybrid car and being – for lack of a better word – assimilated.

There were a couple of things I personally found unsettling about this ad in regards to the production choices. Perhaps I digress, but I it seemed that they chose the Whitest looking Latinos they could find to star in this commercial. The child could pass for any White American child because he has not only light skin but also no ‘Spanish accent’ when speaking in English. And call me crazy, but it seemed that the line, “Mira. Mira aquí,” was dubbed in. The father’s lips do not sync with the words and the voice tone and sound quality change.

In addition, there are a few overlapping narrative techniques and ideological suggestions made in this ad that I think contributed to my finding it unsettling and lend themselves to be analyzed in relation to some of our recent class readings:

1)    A hybrid car’s use of both gas and electricity is mapped onto the father: he is a “hybrid” as well because he uses English and Spanish. He thus functions an icon of hybridity through his language capabilities and use in the commercial.

  • 1)    A hybrid car’s use of both gas and electricity is mapped onto the father: he is a “hybrid” as well because he uses English and Spanish. He thus functions an icon of hybridity through his language capabilities and use in the commercial.
    2)    In this “hybrid analogy” between the hybrid car and the father, English would be the ‘electrical power’ (i.e. good for the environment, progressive, modern, ‘for the future’) and Spanish would be the ‘gasoline’ (i.e. bad for the environment, backwards, outdated, ‘not for the future’).
    3)    The “hybrid analogy” places Spanish in an intrinsically inferior position, one that is only ‘acceptable’ when used in combination with English much the way a hybrid car’s use of an inferior source of power, gasoline, is acceptable and progressive because it also uses electric power (i.e. that which has the power to compensate for the use of gasoline). This might indicate that when the father becomes fully English-speaking and eradicates his use of Spanish (i.e. when a car is fully electric) he will be better off.
    4)    The hybrid car itself is modern because of its hybridity and use of technology in both the structural and luxury components, therefore the father became modern and progressive because he learned English and bought a hybrid.
    5)    Because the child doesn’t seem to really speak Spanish (and his dad has him riding around in a hybrid car), it is implied that he is inherently ready for ‘the future’. The child, unlike his father, is not a “hybrid” – he’s all electrical, all progress, all modern, all ready for the future.

These implications underlie a large part of the content of the commercial; without accepting the above suggestions, the positive message about the hybrid car and what it means for an individual, for the Earth and for humanity does not make much sense. That message is basically that having this hybrid car is good and necessary for a (better) future much in the same way learning Spanish and assimilation are useful for a better future (i.e. in America, economically and socially).

The father and son had – as the Toyota motto says – “The Power to Move Forward”. While the commercial was obviously talking about the Toyota company and its customers having that power through cars, it brings up an interesting claim. What kind of power are we talking about? Electrical power? Technological power? Economic or “buying” power? Social power? Linguistic power?

Symbolic things like technology, progress and power, among other things, are also being sold to consumers by means of a car. Oftentimes hybrid car commercials from other companies I found consisted of delusional images about saving the planet with a hybrid car, showing plants and sunshine and harmony and happiness and every aspect of the self being connected to the Earth.

Toyota Prius Hybrid Ad

So maybe promoting such kind incorrect linguistic and ethnic ideology is not too far off into la-la land for hybrid car ad writers. While it is obvious that these ads function to capture a consumer audience (or at least a perceived one) the media, especially advertisers, utilize all kinds of ideas that have meaning in people’s lives, often aiming to reflect and prey upon ideologies and images that people hold and respond to, respectively. Such ideologies in a non-advertising context can have much more substantial political and social consequences than making a Spanish-speaking Latino like me feel awkward or included or want to buy a hybrid car.

Prevalent or popular ideologies about language, however based in facts or not, can have more substantial effects in people’s real lives. We saw this in the assumptions about the superiority and absolute educational and economic utility of (Standard) English in the debates concerning Ebonics in the classroom and bilingual education. In the Woolard reading, we saw how many aspects of life and identity were popularly perceived to be connected to acceptable levels of English language knowledge.

Woolard discusses the metaphors used to speak metalinguistically, particularly about language education policy. In one section he wrote:

“Some Latino parents also believe that oral English language fluency will remove the so-called linguistic shackles of poverty…For them conversation fluency, which is an unremarkable consequence of growing up in the United States, is not differentiated from the real key to economic betterment, advanced literacy practices, which only come in time, with structured educational preparation, and with much practice…Yet the language as barrier and as prison metaphors are particularly persuasive calls to limit bilingual education and to prematurely transition these children into mainstream because they are congruent with metaphors constructing education in this society… Nevertheless, language as prison metaphor was effectively used by conservative campaigners to reconstruct bilingual ballots as a hindrance to participation in the electoral process. (232)”

Woolard’s analysis of Ron Unz’s ideas about eliminating bilingual education is essentially that Unz was wrong, particularly that “bilingualism leads to educational failure”, that language acquisition was the same as literacy development and that using other languages was a ‘handicap’ in education and in life, (234).

The ideologies that include such metaphors about language are obvious in the commercial. The father says he learned English (and bought a hybrid) for his son’s future. Ideologies about the English language’s utility in obtaining a bright economic and social future are among the justifications for English-Only initiatives and groups that aim to make English the official language of the United States. In class we looked at the website for U.S. English, an organization that considers itself of the latter, more ‘moderate’ groups. In the “Facts & Figures” section of the U.S. English website a list of statistics is given, such as:
  • 68 percent of Hispanics say that the goal of bilingual education programs should be to make sure that students learn English well. (Source: The Latino Coalition survey of 1,000 Hispanic adults, 2002)
  • Three-in-four foreign born adults believe that schools should teach English to immigrant students as quickly as possible, even if it means that they need to catch up in other subjects. (Source: The Latino Coalition survey of 1,000 Hispanic adults, 2002)
  • Nearly 90 percent of Latinos believe that adult Latino immigrants need to learn English in order to succeed in the United States. (Source: Pew Hispanic Center/Kaiser Family Foundation survey of 2,929 Hispanic adults, 2002)
  • 86 percent of Americans call the ability to speak and understand English an absolutely essential or very important obligation for all Americans. (Source: National Opinion Research Center survey of 2,904 adults, 1996)

(i.e. Englishß à American; English à bright future; Hispanic ≠ American?)

This section attempts to provide the U.S. English movement with objective evidence that supports their claims that having English as the U.S.’s official language is beneficial to American citizens, immigrants and Hispanics/Latinos – everyone. Ideas that somehow language policies mostly affect and are concerns of Latinos/Hispanics are prevalent notions expressed in the media, not just by groups like U.S. English.
The following news clip shows how a news program has a section called “Immigration Nation”, a section whose logo is the American and Mexican flags; this is interesting because most of the people who have concerns with the English-Only bill in the clip talk about Cherokees and the bill makes an exception for Native American languages. Additionally, this clip shows use of “English” vs. “other language(s)” (i.e. English as natural) and  popular confusion about what is and is not “English-Only” vs. “official English”, such as when one politician thought that ‘English-Only’ means governing personal language use, which would be unconstitutional under the First Amendment:

(Sorry, it won’t let me embed this video.)

In this clip, the supposed point of the bill is to encourage learning English and save tax dollars. Just as Woolard noted that the perceived problem addressed by ‘English for the Children’ was not education, the real, underlying issues seem to be xenophobia, immigration policy, and budget crises. This is similar to the way that the issue addressed by the Ebonics resolution in Oakland and by the bilingual debate was not language. Utilizing Ebonics in schools and eliminating bilingual education would not solve larger problems of inequality along race and class lines, nor the crisis in public education. Making English the official language would not help all immigrants and Americans magically get better jobs and become enfranchised and assimilated, nor will it rid our country of its massive debt. Buying a hybrid car will not change how our economy is structurally unsustainable and damaging to the Earth on individual and international scales.

Language development, Woolard argues, may be beyond the direct reach of legislation, but structural components can be changed and fixed, just as cars can be made more efficient and sustainable with new technologies and people can be enlightened to make better decisions in their ethical relationships.

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