Our History with Language

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The bottom runaway slave announcement speaks particularly to a French slave who also speaks English. Makes me wonder, why was it important to note she was bilingual? (more on THAT in another blog)

In the process of completing the literature for research, an historic artifact was uncovered: a posting for a runaway slave which indicated the multiple languages the slave spoke (see above).  Advertisements for runaways placed in mid-18th century newspapers made frequent reference to their proficiencies in German, French, Spanish, Irish and Dutch. Conversely, servants who were monolingual in English were so identified, as if that was something unusual or noteworthy (Read, 1937).

This got me thinking, is there anything anywhere that shows how long African Americans in particular have been speaking more than one language fluently?  The true answer is unclear.  But I did find some information about bilingual Africans in North Carolina during our period of enslavement.  I decided to write about it:

Newton (2010) discusses the presence of Gaelic-speaking Africans in North Carolina during the period of enslavement.  In his historical account, Newton describes an interaction between an African slave and an Irishman just arriving to the United States: “the Irishman assumes the slave is Irish and the slave in turn is able to imitate the Irishman’s accent, suggesting the instability of linguistic identities as well as the necessity to nuance racial categories” (Newton, 2010, p. 98).  This anecdote supports Newton’s argument that “racialism was the only dominant notion of identity to downgrade or neglect the role of language” (Newton, 2010, p. 96).  The speaking of Gaelic presumably served a functional purpose.  But the functionality can be seen as two-fold.  First, it allowed the African slaves to be able to engage with the Irish settlers at the basic communicative level.  But secondly, as inferred by the anecdote by Newton, it allowed the enslaved African to be able to use language as a tool of social maneuvering, allowing the use of language to function also as a means of transcending the racial barriers set in place by the enslavement hierarchy thus making “the disparity between language as identity and race as identity” (Newton, 2010, p. 99) less clear.

This passage from my research uncovers fascinating information about the presence of bilingual African Americans dating back as far as slavery!  There is space (I have already taken up with my own research) to discuss how African Americans used bilingualism as functional tool for survival and transience, that I know I have never seen before.  I know I am a bit of  a language geek so this may excite me waaaaaaay more than it excites you, but hey, I’m still going to share it.  Who knows, you may get excited about it too!

 

 

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Paying attention…are you?

I was perusing through social media and came across this image that struck a nerve:

Children in classroom

There are couple things that I see here and they all relate to why I chose to create this blog.  First, the use of the books.  There is a rhetorical message being sent that the books are stacked under the children the way they are.  Even more telling is the Black child, has no books.  To me, this speaks to the dangers of the academic achievement gap discussion.  Yes, there is one, I don’t deny that.  But what systems are in place in order to perpetuate its existence?  Continue the divide? Maintain the inequities?  More importantly, what role are you playing in the midst of all of that?  Do you sit back and shake your head at the atrocities from the comforts of your own privilege? Do you turn your head and look at funny cat memes hoping that the problem will eventually fix itself?  Do you march right into the thick of the issue and flip tables and shake down “educational crooks” in order to incite change?  Or, are you a combination of those depending on whether or not it’s in your community, someone else’s community, your child, or their children?

The second thing that drew me to the image: look at what the children are drawing on the board.  Despite the fact that two of the children have the books to help them reach more of the board, they are drawing stars. STARS. But the child in the middle with seemingly the least access to the board is drawing the ENTIRE GALAXY!  Why does this matter, Dr. Anderson?  You seem to be making a big to do about this picture.

What I do is language.  I am the driving force behind the Bilingual Brown Babies movement, which is growing everyday.  But what you may not realize is that I know from my experience as a teacher and linguist that there is a phenomenal pool of linguists being overlooked merely because of lack of access.  My own children, still in their single digit ages, have vocabulary on a 5th grade level (in two languages) and are reading beyond their grade level.  Could you imagine if more immersive language programs were implemented in what have been deemed “low performing” schools what that could do to the passing rates for all these state assessments?  I can.  There is a school in my city, with one of the lowest passing rates for the state assessments.  They introduced dual immersion to the school 3 years.  Those students just took the state assessment for the first time and the overall school performance skyrocketed…from one class.

Language is necessary for addressing some of these educational issues.  I truly believe bilingualism is the tool to unleash the galaxies in the minds of our Black children.

Breaking through the stereotypes

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So today’s post is bit more vulnerable.  Not like my rant yesterday was not, but today I am thinking about many of the stereotypes about Black children that limit their potential in ways that is difficult to fathom.  I’m going to stick to my wheelhouse here, because this can lead us down the rabbit hole to think about all the ways this manifests in Black children’s lives.  So let’s talk about language….

With the rise of language immersion programming across the United States, the increasing interest and understanding of the impact of foreign language acquisition on academic achievement and career success has moved to prominence within this country.  However, due to privilege, equity and power practices within academia, what should be seen as a universal approach to cognitive ability has instead been placed into elite and unattainable categories reserved only for those who can afford the opportunity.

What does this mean?  There is still disparity when it comes to a beneficial curriculum model for students of color, due to educational access, and lack of equity from district to district.  This is the age old battle Black students, particularly in major cities have faced since suburban flight in the late 20th century.

So here’s the info about foreign languages and Black children…

There is very little discussion about African American foreign languages learners.  This could be why there is an even smaller collection of research about African American bilinguals.

Lack of equity in, for example, language immersion programs, runs the risk of maintaining the achievement gap status quo.  The emergence of bilingual education, in particular dual immersion, is a development that further separates and distinguishes the middle class economically and racially as it is believed that bilingualism is not a collective asset within the Black community in the United States.  Those Black middle class families that are able to afford their children dual immersion education thus separate themselves from the general Black community.  Ideally bilingualism is an asset for all of society and there must be ways to introduce it to all classes through the educational system. However, it is not.

But my question is:

WHYYYYY

Short answer: there’s no interest in it.  So again, “WHY?” The convenient little box that allows for the school to prison pipeline, that limits the academic success of a controlled number of Black children and other things are contributors.  This convenient little box includes stereotypical statements such as:

“You can gauge a child’s academic success by 3rd grade.”

or,

“Language programs are of little use in lower income schools because we just need them to get their assessment scores up.”

This last one, right here, miss me with that.  Here are the facts by way of example:

In the state of Texas, testing data from the district found that 10th graders from K–5 dual language programs scored higher than those in the district’s regular programs on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge (TAKS) statewide tests in reading, math, science, and history.

One’s ability to speak in more than one language has been proven to boost standardized test scores in vocabulary as well as improve one’s chances of being considered for employment in the globalized world.

For me, I see the fight to push for bilingualism in the African American community as activism.  I see me trying to increase the strength in number of African American children who are able to speak more than one language as a direct challenge to the school to prison pipeline.  I see it as adversary to the notion that all Black boys are inherently misbehaved in the classroom and need special accommodations or to be removed from the classroom.  I see it as (part of) the answer to the academic achievement gap that folks like to spit out when talking about our Black children despite countless examples of contradictions to that statement.

AND

In a very basic, yet petty nature, I want to looks of astonishment that my children get for speaking Spanish “so well” to fade in non-reaction as it is the norm.

What say you?  Are you ready for The Movement?

It’s not just about Ebonics!

This is the first post for this blog and my apologies that it has to be a rant.  I am ON FIRE right now!

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Seriously, I’m HOT right now! Can we stop with this foolish stereotype now?

I recently submitted an article to a journal for bilingualism about the lack of inclusion of African American bilinguals in current research.  It was rejected.  Now, that part does not bother me.  Rejections are more a part of the publishing process than you could ever imagine. No really.  As scholars we get hundreds, HUNDREDS of rejections for our research.  But I digress.

It’s not the rejection, but the comments from the reviewers that has my blood boiling this morning.  Both reviewers could not understand why in my research I don’t talk about how African Americans are really bilingual in Ebonics (the word they used) or African American Vernacular English, or AAVE (the technical term that should be used).  It was beyond their scope of understanding why I would talk about African American bilinguals and not talk about Afrolatinx, as they are the ones who are “truly bilingual.”  If I may, let me just share an excerpt of my introduction here:

This paper seeks to outline the current research regarding African Americans and language in order to establish the need to specifically address the role bilingualism, beyond the use of African American Vernacular English, as a viable critical assessment of the connections of language and identity within the African-American community.

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I mean, did they read the article? That excerpt was on page 2.

I specifically say that it is NOT about AAVE or Ebonics but rather about the other languages African Americans may speak.

Here’s my issue:  why is it that mainstream society has a hard time seeing beyond its little box of Blackness?

I have been writing about, studying, getting grants to research and LIVING African Americans speaking more than one language.  In fact, here’s a link to my book: Language Identity and Choice: Raising Bilingual Children in a Global Context.  I’m not asking you to buy it (although you should), just providing proof of my knowledge and expertise.

Let me make sure I say these two things loud and clear for the people in the back:

  1. AAVE is a variant of English and NOT a foreign language.  Here’s some research for you:

A vernacular is defined by Holmes (2001) as “a language which has not been standardized and which does not have official status” (p. 74).  However it can be argued that this definition of vernacular implies a vertical analysis of language and sociolinguistics and assumes that all vernaculars are lower in position.  All dialects of a language have a vernacular, and therefore even the “standard” language in a society has a vernacular.  Vernacular is the “language used for everyday interaction” (Holmes, 2001, p. 75).  Vernacular can be explained as the authentic expression of the masses not monitored by form found in the standard.  It is highly creative, “the most colloquial variety in a person’s linguistic repertoire” (Holmes, 2001, p. 74).

2. African Americans can speak more than one language fluently to the point of near native ability and thus can be conversant in languages other than English and its variant, AAVE.

I speak Spanish fluently.  My children speak Spanish fluently.  I am not of neither Spanish nor Latinx heritage.  BUT we are STILL bilingual.  By not seeing anything beyond our use of AAVE, you are silencing and ignoring our true capabilities.  More research:

This can unknowingly support the presence of “linguistic racism” (Wolfram, 2001, p. 346) regulating linguistic diversity within the African-American community to only dialect diversity and not addressing linguistic repertoire diversity.  By including the African-American bilingual to scholarly work on linguistic diversity, it is possible to address the issue of linguistic racism with counternarratives and voices from the margins.

We don’t want to be linguistic racists, people.  We want to fully and completely acknowledge the broad scope of language capabilities within the African American community.  I’m here to help change the narrative.

This  post is a start.  But there will be more.  This blog is now here for two reasons:

  1. To add complexity to  the narrative about language and African Americans.
  2. For evidence, scholars can be ruthless.  Y’all need to know where you heard it first.

More to come…..

References

Anderson, K. J. (2015).  Language, identity and choice: Raising bilingual children in a global society.
     Lanham, MD: Lexington Books
Holmes, J. (2001).  Introduction to sociolinguistics (2nd ed.). Harlow, England: Longman Publishers.
Wolfram, W. (1997).  Dialect in society.  The handbook of sociolinguistics. Malden, MA:
     Blackwell Publishing, 107-126.
Wolfram, W. (2001).  Reconsidering the sociolinguistic agenda for African American English:
     The next generation of research and application.  In Sociocultural and Historical Contexts
     of African American English (Sonja L. Lanehart, Ed).  Amsterdam, The Netherlands:
     John Benjamin Publishing Co. 331-362.