Previously, I have mentioned processes which lead to the valuing of a standard dialect or variety of a national language over other languages and dialects (see Language, Power, and Nation-Building and Oppression, Power, and Policy In the Classroom). This hierarchizing according to perceived value relates closely to certain aspects of capitalism. Pierre Bourdieu introduced the concepts of cultural and linguistic capital in an explanation for the ways that class distinctions are maintained in part through access to certain valued ways of being and speaking (Dimitriadis & Kamberelis, 2006).
David Corson (1993) discusses barriers posed by lack of linguistic capital for children from families in which the standard variety of the official language is not spoken. Discussing Bordieu’s theories, Corson comments that schools “demand competence in the dominant language and culture” (p. 9), operating as if the valued forms of linguistic capital are equally available to all children even though they are not. This contributes to a “well attested lower success rate of children from minority or low-income backgrounds” (Corson, 1993, p. 11). Furthermore, Corson claims that in the face of being expected to use linguistic forms which have not been made available to them in the language habits they develop at home, these students “systematically adjust their expectations in schooling downwards” (p. 11), perpetrating norms expected of their groups. In other words, children from low-income families or minority backgrounds (in both cases, from homes where the standard variety of the official language is not spoken) are greatly disadvantaged in learning the valued form of the language and may lower their standards to accommodate this difference.
These realities bring up questions: how can educators equip these minority and low-income students with the linguistic skills needed to succeed? Should accommodations be made for their home languages or varieties? If so, how?
Unfortunately, in a society built on capitalist ideals of “getting ahead,” an unspoken function of schools is to perpetuate social hierarchy by maintaining conditions which almost guarantee success for children of higher classes while ensuring that most marginalized children remain unsuccessful in acquiring the capital needed to move up the ladder (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990). Linguistically speaking, Corson (1993) notes that intellectual strength is judged based on students’ command of language and that students who have strong skills receive “the rewards of power” (p. 14) to the extent that language performance determines whether they will graduate. This stands to reason when we consider the fact that success in any liberal arts class, and even to an extent in maths and sciences, typically depends on students’ ability to synthesize and clearly articulate information in written or spoken form. Thus, linguistic and social stratification perpetrate themselves, with schools taking a central role.
Let us consider that. Teachers work in this system—but do we have to reproduce values that serve to promote advantaged children and further disadvantage the rest based on their language use?
I believe that the reality is that we can’t escape those values, but we also don’t have to conform to them unquestioningly. When I think of my time teaching ESL in an academic prep school, I am certain that I would have done students a disservice if I had focused on communication at the expense of form. They needed strong skills in the dominant language to have a chance at succeeding in their future endeavours. Just because I disagree with social stratification in education does not mean that I can simply disregard social requirements and expect my students to succeed.
On the other hand, it is completely unnecessary for me to teach standard English from the perspective that it is the only legitimate way to use language. While I may require attention to form in some assignments, I could create others that focus on content, in which students would be graded on integration and coherence of ideas over adherence to grammatical rules. In doing so, I allow them an outlet of expression in which they can feel valued for their ideas rather than judged by their command of linguistic forms that do not come naturally to them. I could also show them different varieties of English to help them cultivate awareness and a sense of value for linguistic diversity. Finally, I did some work at that job to create outlets for my students to use their first language as a valued and productive part of class.
The ideas above are supported in by the literature of other scholars. Hult and King (2011) affirm that “educators can enact positive changes” (p. 23) and challenge monolingual or restrictive curriculum through their practices. Corson (1993) describes certain criteria that aid in doing so. First, he describes the need for teachers to understand the value of groups who are linguistically oppressed. For the grammarians out there, this means not writing a kid off if she says things like “I never seen him” or “He don’t have that book.” Corson also contends that schools (and teachers) can have an active role in bringing about changes that reduce language-based social injustices through ascribing a place to children’s home language or variety while helping them “widen [their] mastery of the dominant language too” (p. 17). These steps legitimize other ways of being and speaking. By doing so, they also reinforce students’ identity, which may well help children become more confident and successful with the dominant language as well.
Knowing that teachers can help to enact positive changes, what ideas do you have? Is there anything you have tried or experienced in a language classroom that you feel gave value to children’s home languages and varieties? Did it have an effect on their overall performance?
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Bourdieu, P., & Passeron, J. C. (1990). Reproduction: In education, society, and culture (2nd ed.). Newbury Park, California: Sage.
Corson, D. (1993). Language, minority education and gender: Linking social justice and
power. Philadelphia: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Dimitriadis, G., & Kamberelis, G. (2006). Pierre Bourdieu, in Theory for education. New York: Routledge.
Grenfell, M. (2011). Bourdieu, language and linguistics. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.
Hult, F. M., & King, K. A. (Eds.). (2011). Educational linguistics in practice: Applying the local globally and the global locally. Toronto: Multilingual Matters.
A photo from a special party my colleagues and I hosted to celebrate the successes and accomplishments of all of our ESL students. I felt that it goes nicely with the idea of valuing students and affirming their identities. ☺