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my thoughts

Why I taught about Raciolinguistic Ideologies through the lens of Asian American History

An alternative title for this post could be: I tried to be culturally responsive. I failed. Here's how I tried to do better...


Last month I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade give the keynote address at CERA conference (in Disneyland of all places). In his talk, he referenced how “Culturally Responsive Pedagogy”-- the term– has been over-/mis-used in recent years to the extent that it has deviated from Dr. Ladson-Billings original vision and evolved in attempts at on-the-ground implementation into white supremacist adaptation of or holidays and heroes approach to “Culturally Responsive Pedagogy” that results in a re-inscribing of race as culture. I’ve witnessed this in multiple different teaching contexts in attempts to make content more relevant to students. In fact, I have failed on this account myself.


As an instructor for the SKILLS program which you can read more about here, I teach a high-school sociolinguistics curriculum and cover one unit which introduces students to the framework of raciolinguistics. For many years, I failed to facilitate a critical interrogation of raciolinguistic ideologies successfully. Comments I remember from class discussions on linguistic discrimination and language policing were that– “yeah, but that doesn’t happen here” or “of course, people assume I speak Spanish. I do speak Spanish.” It became obvious to me that I had failed to determine what was relevant and salient about this content for students and that I had erroneously assumed what their experiences with raciolinguistic ideologies might be based on essentialized understandings of their identities. I wrote about this in a book chapter with my co-teacher which you can find here.


Additionally, I never even demonstrated what it would look like to unpack raciolinguistic ideologies in my own life. I hadn’t even considered my own positionality as a multiracial, Asian American, Korean heritage speaker and how my own experiences could illustrate the concepts I was trying to convey to students. I had fallen for the fallacy that racialization of communities operates in silos rather than in relation to one another in very interconnected and dependent ways. Additionally, conversations about race, racism, power, privilege, culture, and language can be very personal and difficult. I began to wonder, “Why shouldn’t I model the vulnerability and openness it takes to discuss these things?” When I had the opportunity to try and improve on past failures, I gave it a lot of thought and I came to some (what I realize now are obvious) conclusions:

  1. I should start early and gather information about students' identities and experiences to inform my teaching choices; I should intentionally create multiple, multimodal opportunities for them to share and then really listen.

  2. Even if my identity is different from my students it does not mean my experiences are not relevant to their lives– after all, we live in the same world and now in the same community.

  3. Rather than telling students how concepts are relevant to their lives, I should make the space for them to investigate and report it themselves and provide models by doing that work first as their teacher.

Based on these conclusions a the beginning of our semester my fourth time around, I made sure to take the time to create a shared language and establish trust by being more open about my own identities and experiences. I set the intention to discover early on what was salient to my students. One way I did this was asking students to participate in a language mapping activity designed by Martînez and Mejîa (2020) wherein they document the different ways that they language with different speakers in different spaces– I modeled it by creating and sharing my own language map first. From this and other activities, I learned in those early days that for my students 1) ideologies of appropriateness at school created pressure for them to modify their speech to sound more “proper” or “articulate” and 2) many of the students experienced ideologies of native-likeness regarding their heritage language, Spanish. My initial attempt at teaching about linguistic discrimination had focused solely on the discrimination from white-listening subjects and I overlooked the reality that these students are living in predominantly bilingual spaces and also experiencing native-speakerism from within their heritage language communities– an experience that is not so different or disconnected from my own after all.


Based on this feedback from students I re-designed our previous 2-part lesson on Language and Race with the learning objective that students will come to understand how stereotypes about language become attached to specific racialized speakers and communities will become familiar with the definition of raciolinguistic ideologies. This time, rather than telling them how it happens and trying to make it relevant by trying to fit them into a box I’ve assembled from assumptions about their identities, I set out to show them how it happens by unpacking my experience as a multiracial Asian American, Korean-heritage speaker first. I’ve annotated the lesson plan for this unit with links to resources below. It very broadly covered the formation of racial stereotypes of Asian Americans (incl. Model Minority and Perpetual Foreigner), how they connect to linguistic discrimination and language learning and use for Asian Americans.

Screenshots of video resources I used for revised lesson plan (links to the videos are available below).


From my perspective as an instructor, this new approach was a huge improvement. On a post-course survey students remarked that this unit was the most memorable for them. During these two days, they were so curious about this history that 1) had not been included their previous K-12 history curricula (which also speaks loudly about Asian American representation in mainstream classrooms) but also 2) they were almost immediately able to make connections to their own lives and communities on their own and share them with me, allowing me to truly be a co-learner in this process. Reflections from students and my co-teacher and teaching assistants from those two days reveal some of the connections made in their small-group discussions:

  1. “They were able to make connections between immigration patterns and the language surrounding ethnic minority groups. Once I provided some personal examples, they were able to start seeing connections in their personal lives. We were also able to see how it applied to other ethnic groups in America and the constant bans passed. They were able to make connections to the Trump Presidency and the Travel Ban that was passed, and some events that could have led to these ideologies being upheld.” – Teaching Assistant

  2. “It [the way Asian Americans were treated/represented] is like when “jobs” are taken from whites but other communities get paid less (also why they are hired).” – Student

  3. “When watching the Youtube video on using harmful stereotypes to categorize other people, one student said: "I feel a little bad, watching this video. When I first saw Sam, I immediately was like "she looks Korean because she looks like one of the characters from the K-Dramas I watch. I've never met a Korean person in real life. All I know about their culture is what I see in K-Dramas. Does that make me a bad person?".” – Teaching Assistant

  4. “[We talked about] the ways some Hispanics are portrayed in films. As well as the emphasis used when speaking Spanish. The ‘R’s seems to be very prominent” – Student

  5. “I used to only speak Spanish, however when I was 4 years parents wanted me to improve my English as they started to only speak English and we even started to go to church was held in English. I think in order to unpack stereotypes about Spanish is to basically learn Mexican history since I don’t know that much.” – Student

  6. “Something interesting that came up in one conversation I had was that whiteness is also connected to language. The student asked "does sounding whitewashed count?" and we had a good discussion about that. I didn't expect that.” – Co-Teacher

  7. “Many people would think that you’re a main Spanish speaker that you are not very knowledgeable in the English language. I was put into a class to learn English for Spanish speaking students in the first grade when English was the only language I knew.” – Student

In the previous version of this lesson, I leaned too heavily on my assumptions of what was relevant to students. In this iteration, I was able to learn and respond to what students identified as relevant. For instance, they drew connections to contemporarily relevant issues (Reflections 1 and 2). While previously I had attempted to lead students in an interrogation of raciolinguistic ideologies targeted towards them, this modeled and open-ended approach led some students to interrogate how they might have internalized raciolinguistic ideologies themselves (Reflection 3) – this comment also led to a subsequent discussion unpacking internalized racism, sexism, and homophobia in a later unit on Language and Gender. This time around rather than concluding that raciolinguistic profiling and discrimination were natural or inevitable, students began to independently flag moments in their own lives where they could identify such practices and ideologies (Reflections 4-7) that I would not likely have addressed or recognized on my own.


Ending with identifying linguistic discrimination and unpacking raciolinguistic ideologies is frankly depressing and frustrating. We made sure to end the class with recommendations and next steps suggested by Drs. Rosa and Flores (2017) (see Day 2). We also picked up the following week with a review of Linguistic Justice; students had been introduced earlier in the semester to the work of Dr. April Baker-Bell. Additionally, our undergraduate teaching assistants modeled for students some linguistic justice efforts they were engaging in and making space for students to brainstorm their own language justice activism. They created PSAs and posters for proposed school clubs and coalitions. Additionally, some (~10 – two groups of 4-5) decided to take their questions further and focused on raciolinguistic ideologies in their lives and communities as their final projects: one on stereotypes of Mexican Americans’ English and the other on Immigrants Students’ Heritage Language Maintenance.


Altogether I can’t say I’ve arrived at some perfect version of this unit or course but through this process, I was able to see visible results of reflexivity in my teaching practices and a return to the original tenets of Culturally Responsive Pedagogy. Additionally, an unanticipated outcome of this experience is the evidence for a rebuttal to all those who would say that Asian American history is not relevant to students who are not Asian Americans – this record shows that it is simply not true. Finally, it raises some questions for the teacher workforce in the U.S. --80-ish percent of whom are white– a much less diverse population than students. While sociolinguistics is not a part of the standard curriculum, making other content like science or English Language Arts culturally relevant or sustaining should include a discussion of ideologies of appropriateness and standardization which are tied to racial ideologies. If we as educators want to be honest about how students' language(s) will be evaluated shouldn’t we first be honest about how our own language(s) and identities have afforded us privilege or prestige?


I’m coming up on another year of teaching for this program. I earnestly invite any feedback and critique. Thanks for reading!


ANNOTATED LESSON PLAN

Day One

Warm-up

Freewrite: What do you know about Asian Americans? What have you learned in school? Can somebody sound like a race or ethnicity? What do you think that means?

  • Most students responded that the only thing they knew about Asian Americans was that they built railroads and that they were experiencing increased hate crimes throughout the COVID pandemic. Most students also responded that yes, you can sound like a race… but it depends…

  • We used the free-write as a jumping-off point focusing mostly on the second question and kept some notes on the whiteboard of why people did or did not agree with the question.

  • All of the questions were also available in writing on a handout.

Part One

Watch the video as a class-- "Where are you from?" Before starting the video ask students to consider the following questions: What ideology of language is the man demonstrating through his question? In other words, what must he believe about language in that interaction?

  • Students identified that the man assumed the woman could not speak English because she was Asian. I shared how this happened to some of my family and friends and explained the term “perpetual foreigner stereotype”

Discuss: Where does this raciolinguistic ideology come from?

  • Students were already introduced to the term “ideology” in previous weeks when we discussed ideologies of appropriateness – see more about this here.

  • After introducing the term “raciolinguistic ideology” to the class we deconstructed it on the board and we provided a definition from and short biographies for Drs. Nelson Flores and Jonathan Rosa.

  • Most students concluded that people were simply not educated or that they were racist but could not determine how the raciolinguistic ideologies formed in the first place – so I asked them to join me in this line of inquiry.

Part Two

I posed a new question: Where do stereotypes come from? This, I explained requires some historical context. We had already learned about colonization and linguistic discrimination toward Native Americans. Building on that I introduced and contrasted early migration from Europe and then China in the 1800s. Then, I provided a timeline of historical events, migration patterns, immigration and citizenship policies, and demographics in the U.S.-- specifically California and an image from an American magazine in 1878--both pictured below. I asked students to:

  1. Compare both sides of the picture from an American magazine in 1878. What is it suggesting? What stereotypes about Asian immigrants is this type of representation constructing?

  2. Take a look at the second half of the timeline. Who filled in the demand for cheap labor after Chinese Exclusion? What pattern do you notice in the following 50-60 years? Does the pattern ever stop or change?

  3. In your own words, explain where the perpetual foreigner stereotype came from and how it affects expectations about Asian Americans’ language.


  • This took up the longest portion of class time. I wanted students to be able to engage deeply in this inquiry collectively with each other and the instructors. Given the primary sources students were able to analyze and conclude on their own that 1) xenophobia towards Asian Americans was connected to labor, exploitation, and the economy 2) that xenophobic representations sustained the employers’ exploitation of these works and were the result of their unfair working conditions and 3) that exploitation, segregation, and exclusion of Asian immigration led to the “perpetual foreigner stereotype” that assumes Asians are not American and therefore must not speak English. I followed up on this with contemporary representations of Asian Americans that reinforce this still pervasive stereotype.

Wrap-Up

Reflection (in writing individually on a handout or index card): What are some raciolinguistic stereotypes you know about regarding the way people use language? Can you think of any connections between the Asian American history we talked about and other histories or communities?


Day Two

Review

A raciolinguistic framework examines how language is used to construct race and how ideas of race influence language and language use. Those ideas are referred to as raciolinguistic ideologies– ideas that link race and language so closely that someone seems to “look like a language and sound like a race.” Instead of assuming that stereotypes about race and language are true, this perspective examines where these stereotypes come from. We also briefly review the historical context from the previous class.


Part One

Watch the video as a class -- "Asian Americans Try To Speak Their Native Language." Before watching ask students: What is the issue they are trying to resolve? Why are the participants feeling emotional? In groups try to answer the following questions.


After watching discuss: Why do you think so many Asian American children of immigrants struggle to learn their parents’ or families’ language? Is there a difference between learning a second language that is foreign to you and a language that you have some ancestral connection to?

  • Students had a big reaction to this video. Some were emotional and mostly empathetic towards the interviewees. We took notes of our discussion as a class on the board again and some themes that emerged were 1) that English takes priority and there are few opportunities to practice our families’ languages and 2) it is difficult to articulate why, but many of us feel obligated to speak our families’ languages because it is part of our culture.

  • I shared that in my community Korean Americans are often judged for not being able to speak Korean like a “native speaker” and that people assume because of how they are racialized they should sound like a native speaker and that this too is a stereotype. For me as a mixed-race person, that expectation is different and instead, people are surprised when I speak Korean even if it is not “native-like” – to this some students responded that it is the same for them if they are not read as Mexican because of their lighter skin tone and we made connections to colonial histories in Mexico.

Part Two

I gave the following definition of heritage language: a language that you have some ancestral connection to but is also a minority language that you are learning or using within a larger dominant society that speaks some other, majority language. I asked: Is it important to maintain a heritage language? Why (not)

  • The definition I used was based on some of my previous work on Korean as a heritage language which you can see listed here.

I offered the following statistic and introduced this new term: Language loss occurs almost across the board by immigrants’ third generation; for Asian Americans, it is typically lost by the second (Au & Oh, 2009; Cho & Krashen, 1998) What are some factors that may contribute to either case?

  • In our discussion, most students again returned to the emphasis on speaking English and some raised the importance of having a local community of speakers of your heritage language.

Part Three

Watch the video. -- "Why do we call Asian Americans the Model Minority?" The video provides a great review of the historical context from the previous class and picks up where we left off to introduce the formation of the model minority myth. We stopped at about 7:00 for the sake of time.


We reviewed the definition of the Model Minority Stereotype and how it emerged from the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. At this point, I shared with students how this history was connected to our shared community in Santa Barbara. From some research I had done in preparation for this class, I found that our town had been home once home to a thriving Japanese American community that had been displaced and their local history subsequently erased after their internment. I found pictures of this ethnic enclave and juxtaposed them with images of the buildings that stand there now and that would be familiar to my students.


  • This revelation drew a big reaction from several students who were familiar with the area but had never been told this history. The building that stands now where Santa Barbara’s little Japantown used to be is a replica of a building that was constructed during the Spanish colonizing mission that attempted to displace the local Chumash peoples. Students had raised several times throughout the semester the impact of colonization on their ancestors and families and were aware of its legacies in this town but did not know about this geographic, historical connection to other racial/ethnic groups and other forms of discrimination and displacement. Just more evidence of the relevance of this history even for students who don’t identify as Asian American.

Returning back to the emergence of the Model Minority Myth we discussed how anti-Asian sentiment created pressure to assimilate and to speak English as part of that process. Specifically for some groups and individuals, the negative experiences of racism could lead them to resist assimilation and identify more with their minority community. For others, the experience may lead them to assimilate and prove their loyalty and “Americanism” in different ways, including language.


I shared how the model minority stereotype casts Asian Americans as “better than” or “preferable to” other racial minorities. In other words, they “model” how Black, Latinx, or Indigenous Americans “should” behave (according to hegemonic society) because they are stereotyped, as meek, submissive, and willing to assimilate. This ignores civil disobedience and resistance by Asian Americans and the fact that regardless how much one assimilates, they can still experience racism– we connected this to the previous connections students made to the increased hate crimes against Asian Americans.


Wrap-up

Rather than assuming that “Asian Americans are ‘bad’ members of their community because they failed to learn their heritage language” we can glean from historical context and personal narratives that “Asian Americans face a lot of pressure to assimilate and ‘prove’ their belonging because of racial stereotypes and therefore often prioritize the acquisition of English over their heritage languages”


More broadly rather than positioning all heritage learners as ‘bad’ members of their community because they can’t speak their heritage language like a native speaker we should remember (as we had discussed in previous classes) that all forms of communicating are valid. Just because the variety does not resemble standard or dominant practices, does not make it a less effective or valuable form of communication.


Reflection: How do language attitudes and raciolinguistic ideologies impact people’s actual language use? Think about the previous class and today’s discussion. Can you apply this to examples in your own life? What history do you think you would need to learn about in order to unpack stereotypes about your language? What questions do you still have? What more were you like to learn about related to raciolinguistic ideologies?

  • Students responded to these reflection questions in writing and I responded to all of them in writing as well. They raised several interesting questions that I encouraged them to take up for their final project which they did!

References

Au, T. K. F., & Oh, J. S. (2009). Korean as a heritage language. Handbook of East Asian psycholinguistics.


Cho, G., & Krashen, S. (1998). The negative consequences of heritage language loss and why we should care. Heritage language development, 31, 39.


Lee, J. S., Meier, V., Harris, S., Bucholtz, M., & Inés, D. (2020). School Kids Investigating Language in Life and Society: Growing Pains in Creating Dialogic Learning Opportunities. In Reconceptualizing the Role of Critical Dialogue in American Classrooms (pp. 52-77). Routledge.


Martínez, R. A., & Mejía, A. F. (2020). Looking closely and listening carefully: A sociocultural approach to understanding the complexity of Latina/o/x students’ everyday language. Theory Into Practice, 59(1), 53-63.


Rosa, J., & Flores, N. (2017). Unsettling race and language: Toward a raciolinguistic perspective. Language in society, 46(5), 621-647.











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