Linguistic Chauvinism

I just finished watching my daily hour of PBS news and I’m irate. Sometimes American insularity and small mindedness is cute and amusing (as De Tocqueville imagined) but sometimes it isn’t. Listening to a Republican senator ramble on about how “English First” is what true Americans insist on, just “got my goat” – a policy and mindset that is simply racist and racism to me isn’t very American. I’m speaking about the Republican fantasy of creating an America where everyone speaks English and drinks beer and goes to church – that’s it in a nutshell.

English Only is something I’ve seen as a teacher in our school system. Question.

A teacher has 1.5 hours a day for “English”. In the grade 4 class are many ESL students. The teacher allows students to read for pleasure for 30 minutes of the period. The students can choose their own book. Some of the ESL students choose books in their own language – Tamil, Irdu, Farsi, Somali, Korean. The teacher allows this, no questions asked. Should the teacher be reprimanded?

I’ll give you my answer in a moment but I’ll first take the long route.

There is a very deep misunderstanding of the relationship bwtween literacy in an L1 and literacy in an L2. Most, many teachers too, believe that they are distinct and separate. You gain competence in each separately. If you want to get better at English, read English. If you want to get better at Icelandic, watch Icelandic movies.

This is a very dangerous myth pervading our profession, us English teachers. Literacy is not discrete knowledge. There is only one kind of literacy and it isn’t language specific. It is something deep and beyond a language itself. It is a way of thinking about text, sound and “fury”. As you build literacy in one language, you so build literacy in another….. The best thing you can do for a young second language student especially is to not neglect their own L1 literacy and language skills. These are crucial and make for a successful, intelligent adult. Here’s a presentation that gives a great overview of this topic – a must read. Also, this book is the ideal reference for any serious teacher’s shelf.

Durgunoglu, A. & Goldenberg, C. (Eds.) (2010). Language and literacy development in bilingual settings. New York: Guilford.

Now back to the question. No, certainly not, the teacher shouldn’t be reprimanded but applauded. But the reality is quite different. That example is true and what I used to do in my own ESL classroom. However, I had to do it secretly, in our little portable, with the children sworn to a code of secrecy (no kidding). Otherwise, I’d have been asked to explain and despite research and truth on my side,  power and old perceptions would win the day. We’d all be “English Only”.

And that’s the card Republican’s are playing. No thought about what’s right, what’s researched, what helps a student succeed in the long term. Only subversive thoughts of purity and cleanliness (to borrow Claude Levi Strauss’ term for the most evil and universal archetype. ).

A country is its people. Period. Not its language or the color of its eyes or the money in its bank. Let’s get our students loving language and the learning will arrive.

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Teacher trainer, technology specialist, educational thinker...creator of EFL Classroom 2.0, a social networking site for thousands of EFL / ESL teachers and students around the world.

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2 Responses

  1. Torn Halves says:

    “A country is its people.” There is a risk here of this collapsing into the assertion that there is no such thing as society.

    The view of an immigrant to Greece: I want to see Greeks promoting Greek culture and defending it against various forms of cultural imperialism, if necessary. In a sense, that would be a Greek First policy. There is a way of doing this that would steer well clear of ethnic cleansing and would allow Greek culture to remain open to positive influences from other cultures and accept that Greek has benefitted in the past from being open to such influences.

  2. ddeubel says:


    What I mean by “a country is its people” is that firm declaration of Jefferson that “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal. . . .” Meaning, a nation is only as great as how it treats its minorities, its less fortunate, its powerless…. and immigrants stand in most cases, in this realm. A government that doesn’t allow immigrants to express themselves inner and outer through language is a tyrant – period. We probably disagree on this but I vehemently refuse that any government should set out the criteria by which a person can participate in society. Culture is not something that should be culled or controlled. It should grow on its own accord, it has its natural laws and place like language. In America and Canada and many places, I think how sad it is for groups of people to be seen as “not true (name your nation)”. Does a deaf and mute person speak English “first”? Are they true Americans? America or any country should be about your character, what you do – not what you speak or wear or look like.

    I don’t deny culture just its place. I deny that we should regulate it. For when we do, we merely project and implement our own prejudices. I just go crazy with all the nationalistic BS in any form but especially with language. Nationalism is best expressed by its people in their daily lives not by caveat and decree or flags and guns. Let Greek culture stand on its own, of its own and through its own natural pride of place. It’s strength can never built on false ideological policies.

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