it’s not about you

In short what I really want to say is:  “Dear Becky, HL and Code switching isn’t about you. That’s cool your great-great-great grandmother was Dutch and you studied in Guatemala for a semester, but you are neither a HL learner nor are you code switching.  Instead Becky, take a seat and think about how you are perpetuating white supremacy.” —

I am getting my doctorate in Spanish linguistics / Latinx cultural studies.  It is strange to study with people who grew-up in the midwest, studied abroad and decided “Oh the Spanish language is so beautiful, the people are so nice, I want to study it.”  That isn’t how it works for me.
My Spanish comes from colonialism. My Spanish is seen as inferior and discouraged in public spaces. My English is viewed as inferior because of the influence of my Spanish. My Spanish made me a “high risk” student. My Spanish is now mocked as inferior to the variety spoken in Spain. My Spanish is resilience, and despite being discouraged from using it in this country, the fact I have maintained any of it should be applauded for my resistance–yet white people get applauded for learning it.  It frustrates me when my classmates and instructors don’t understand their privilege and their own white supremacy–but why would they ever stop to understand it?
For example, we were discussing Heritage Language (HL) learners, a term often used to describe those who speak a language that is the non-dominant language of the culture within which they live.  I dislike the term “heritage” because it connotes something archaic when really for example Spanish speakers in the US are vibrant and dynamic.  How can we call something a “heritage language” when there are more Spanish speakers in the US than there are in Spain or Colombia or Venezuela?
Anyway, when looking at the broad definition of “heritage language learners” which includes anyone with any ethnic ties to a language, my classmates started listing off Western European countries of which they too like me were HL learners because they were 5th generation Dutch for example.  This was frustrating as it minimized the racialization that happens with language, no one expects you to actually speak Dutch but people feel very comfortable asking a 5th generation Chinese-American “Why don’t you speak Chinese?” or asking a Chicano “Why did you get a B in Spanish?”  there is a racialized expectation of language that white people don’t face.
This lack of understanding in a how the term is used to describe resilience isn’t just found when white people choose to describe themselves in the broadest definition of a HL but also with the term code-switching.  When for example, a white person, who studied in Spain for six months, describes their speaking in class as “code-switching”, it is a complete lack of understanding of who actually uses code switching.  Having two items, two sets of ideas, two languages, two of anything and going back and forth doesn’t mean you are code switching and it is insulting to those that use code switching as a racilaized form of survival.

From the article Future Educators’ Perceptions of African American Vernacular English (AAVE):

In spite of such research, the language that African American children speak in the classroom is devalued in the school setting because of its lack of conformity with the teachers’ language and language expectations.”

If a child is devalued for their language which is associated with their race, and then chooses to use the more prestigious variety of English (that spoken by white people) their resilience in finding a way to implement code switching to maneuver language as survival should not be minimized by white academic elitists who want to pretend they are code switching too.  The same goes for the use of Spanish and English—combining the two or using a word in English while you speak in Spanish does not mean you are code switching.  Code Switching has structure and necessity.  Code switching springs to life as a beautiful form of resilience and everytime someone misuses the term in failing to recognize the power of the language tool that has been developed by disenfranchisment, they minimize the people and the necessity from which code switching evolved.

TL DR. Dear Becky, take a seat.

5 thoughts on “it’s not about you

    • 1. It is a really good thing I love you. I am familiar with code switching, diglossia, polyglossia, translanguaging etc.
      2. You’ll probably agree with me, all of these terms suck.
      3. I would not call AAVE switching to “standard” English if it weren’t for the fact that community has chosen to use that term (in a non academic setting). If they are using it, I am going to call it that.
      4. You sure you want to be commenting using that email address?
      5. It is a really good thing I love you.

      • When one tries to frame something fluid and complex (and used to administer and hinder power) like language by using static terminology, it is only going to end up in frustration. I do like the distinction of critical and lifestyle diglossia.

        Have you read Zentella’s work on growing up bilingual?

        What’s wrong with the address?

        • yeah, you are totally right, about how it will only end up in frustration—will I be less frustrated once I am a prof like you? tell me it gets better?

          yup, I’ve read Growing Up Bilingual—and other work by Zentella but I’d like to re-read it on my own again — as in not in the context of an assigned text.

          Nada, i just try not to affiliate myself.

          • No, it doesn’t get better. If your lucky you will find a handful of colleagues you can commiserate with. You can take out your frustration on students – sometimes. But you do learn how to let things go quicker, sometimes out of necessity because the next frustrating thing pops up.

            The one positive is tenure, so you can affiliate yourself, for better or worse. You can speak your mind, for better or worse.

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