Is our focus on academic language promoting a colonial mindset?
Monday, October 22, 2018
The month of October marks Columbus Day or, more recently, Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Historically, it has been a day to celebrate the founding of the “New World” and the voyage that Columbus made in 1492.
More recently, a debate has arisen around Columbus Day celebrating and even encouraging colonialism, and has, in many places, been changed to Indigenous Peoples’ Day to celebrate the culture, legacy, and accomplishments of First Nations people.
Colonialism, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, is a practice of domination, which involves the subjugation of one people to another. A colonial mindset, then, refers to an attitude of inferiority of one group, and superiority of another, more dominant group.
In the United States and all over the Americas, colonialism has had lasting consequences. Colonialism has destroyed or severely damaged indigenous cultures and practices and instituted systematic racism that affect many of our students to this day.
Teachers actively work to dismantle the disadvantages our students face, especially in our service to students of color, English learners, students who live in poverty, and other marginalized groups. In the case of this article, and English learners in particular, we should address if our focus on academic language is instilling an attitude in our students of the superiority of the dominant language and culture at the expense of their home languages and cultures.
Given this, is our focus on academic language promoting a colonial mindset? The short answer to this provocative question is, hopefully not.
But it may depend on the way you focus on language and culture in your classroom, and the purpose of learning academic language. While most everyone would agree that academic language is a worthy topic of instruction, that belief may stem from the belief that academia, and academic language, are more important or superior to other types of language.
The goal of language is to precisely communicate ideas, needs, etc., and a variety of language registers can be used to accomplish that goal. Why then, do schools and educators feel the need to emphasize academic language to such a strong degree?
Clearly it is due to the fact that students today, including English learners, will need academic language to be successful in college and/or in their careers. Academic language is indeed a tool for college and career readiness. Because academic language provides both precision and formality to the spoken and written word, it will help students to be able to articulate their ideas more clearly and precisely.
In addition, academic language will allow them access to complex text and literature, thereby giving them the tools they need to study and learn about whatever interests them.
As I have written about in the past, it is important that we teach students about register and how knowing a variety of registers will benefit them in varying situations.
It may not be appropriate for students to use academic language in every setting. For example, while attending a concert or sitting with friends in a park, people may use a more informal language register, and that is not only acceptable but also encouraged, depending on the conversations being had.
Emphasizing this fact with students, and sharing with them that the language they use at home and in their home cultures is valuable and worthy, we are helping students to understand the importance of multilingualism. By speaking a variety of languages and registers, we will be able to relate to and connect with a wider audience throughout our lives.
This, of course, includes the use of academic language. When students learn academic language, they can be more successful in school and in their careers. At the same time, we can help students to understand that it is the setting and the audience that dictates when to use academic language, and that academic language is not inherently better than any other language or language register that students may use.
Ultimately, it is clear that teaching students academic language is critical in terms of their future success; if we can also honor students for who they are, where they come from, and encourage and celebrate their home languages and cultures, we can help students both fight the effects of colonialism and help them to succeed in today’s world.
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