Thomas Ricento

THOMAS RICENTO

Okay. The English-only movement uh in the United States uh has had a bad affect, I think on the situation for students in school because the message that students get who don’t speak English is that their language somehow is not quite important enough uh to be considered as equal to uh English. Somehow English comes across in this movement as being superior. Uh so the atti – the affect on attitudes is very strong, I think. The evidence suggests that students who go to schools in environments where their language and their culture is not valued tend to uh get greater distance from – from their teachers, from their peers, and feel less invested in the education uh that’s offered to them.

I think it’s a mistake to enforce English-only in the classroom. Uh I – I think – I can say that with confidence because students that come to school with another language and use it – are using it in a natural way. Uh they’re accepted by using that language in most contexts in their life, and if you create one context where their language is not valued or cannot even be spoken, I think it sends a very powerful message to them that – uh their culture and their language because language and culture are very closely tied for all of us are somehow suspect. Uh, so there – there’s no harm in – in using language. Frankly, bilingual education programs uh to the extent their – their well modeled uh can be ideal. But even if it’s an ESL program where you have specialized teachers with specialized training, uh using the non-English language, translating, answering questions, allowing students to talk with each other in the language, allowing students even to introduce their language uh is some aspect of – of the normal course of the classroom activity. It can be fine. It’s – it’s a very reaffirming message.

Yeah. Correcting enunciation a lot. (Interruption) Oh, I’m sorry. Say it again. (Interruption) Okay. Uh teachers can – can send a lot of bad messages by the way they respond to students use of language in the school. If they correct a student’s pronunciation uh by repeating what they – they say constantly, it can be very inhibiting to a student. None of us likes to be corrected. Uh students sometimes can be more tolerant, but if you do it enough I think they become very uh, uh troubled by that. Uh also admonishing them from using their language is a bad idea. Uh I don’t think a child should ever be admonished, or punished, or singled out in any way for using their language in the classroom. Um so those are at least two things that I think are things to consider.

Uh a classroom in which language was used as a resource would – would have evidence in very tangible ways uh to show this. Um certainly you could have literature or poems uh available, for example, on the wall in another language, in two languages, in Hopi, or Navajo, or Spanish, or Farsi. Uh you could have culture days where students could come in pre – and present something in their own language, or even in English and – and talk about something – say something about their culture and language, have students present little skits or dialogs, um bring in tapes or uh – videos uh or movies so that students can – can see the use of the language in real uh – real context, in real media and say, “Yeah, so and so speaks Farsi, or Hopi, or Spanish, and isn’t that – isn’t that nice and there are some poems or songs that we can learn and sing.

The things that determine language status in a community have to do with the perceptions that the dominant culture holds towards speakers of the other language. Uh if they have a stereotype view, that they are of an economically less well off, perhaps, or that they view people that speak a particular language come from a particular part of the world and think that the characteristics of those people are not ones that they can identify with uh then the language that those people speak may be also looked down upon. Um okay.

If students are looking for other ways to approach the – the issue of assimilation, they could think of their students of persons (Interruption) All right. If teachers think about the notion of assimilation, um I think they should also notice – let me start again. If teachers think about assimilation, they should be aware that there are other alternatives to a simple assimilation paradigm. Um certainly many immigrants have maintained um complex identities which involved uh, uh ident – identifying with their cultural ancestral roots, uh perhaps even speaking that language, of course at the same time being able to become functional and successful in the terms of the dominant culture. It’s not an either or situation. It’s not a zero sum game. You can have both. It doesn’t have to be “If I get one I lose the other.”

Boy, that’s a tough one. There’s books written about that. (Interruption) Are you looking (Interruption) That’s a hard one. I mean, do you want to give me – where do you want this to go? (Interruption) Okay. (Interruption) Good, okay. That helps. Uh speech communities um – let me start over. I’ll get it in one phrase but it’s going to be a lot different. Uh we all belong to a number of speech communities. Um we – we have a speech community that’s associated with our closest family members and uh beyond that our neighborhoods. We also have relationships with organizations, it could be churches, it could be other private or public organizations, and of course, schools constitutes another area where they are defined uh parameters for how people talk, how they interact, what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate. And so school is one speech community but it’s not the only one, and teachers need to be aware that students have uh multiple repatras of speaking, multiple styles of speaking and to the extent they do, that’s a strength. I don’t think they should be forced to abandon their uh associations with other speech communities and associations – nor should they prohibit – be prohibited from engaging in those sorts of uh relationships.

The claim that uh immigrants today are not learning English or are rejecting American culture is an absolute myth, uh if there ever was one that’s it. Uh the evidence suggests very strongly that immigrants today are acquiring English so that by the second generation they are dominant in English and by the third generation they are pretty much 100% English and have lost often uh their ancestral language. So this is uh frankly propaganda that is based on – on nothing but suspicion and uh – and – and fear, and it’s nothing that we need to be concerned about.

It’s ironic that people say that English is threatened. Uh English is probably the most widely spoken language in the world that’s ever been spoken at any time in the history of the planet. Uh over 95% of the people in this country speak English well or very well. English is simply not threatened by any language and passing laws to try to protect English would be only counter-productive. It would, in fact, make those people who speak other languages consider ways to protect their own languages when in fact there is no need to do that since they are readily learning English. In fact, our concern should be “How can we help preserve the languages that immigrants, and indigenized people, and native peoples uh have available to them. So…

Okay. Um in the United States there have been attempts to try to force assimilation among Native Americans by taking away their language and taking away their culture. The result of this has been two – there’s been two results. One is that they – their languages are in danger. Um most – something like 15% of the extent languages in the Untied States of Native American are still viable, that is to say they’re being spoken intergenerational by parents and children. Um this pol – this came as a result of policies which tried to remove their language but it did not allow the Indians or Natives to assimilate. They were prevented from assimilating even if they could speak English because of prejudice towards them as a group. So what happened was they lost their languages and they gained English but they lost their cultures and they were not able to be effectively assimilated. It has only been relatively recently that attention has been paid to trying to preserve the languages and to try to (telephone rings) that’s okay. That was too wordy anyway so we can do that again. (Interruption) Yeah. (Interruption) As a result towards Federal policies towards Indians uh the Native population – let me start again because I was looking at the camera. (Interruption) Yeah. Okay. As a result of Federal policy, Native peoples lost their language, lost their culture, uh and in return they were not allowed to assimilate – to be assimilated. So basically they – they lost everything uh and this – this explains the situation that many Natives have uh found themselves to be in. The attempts to improve the situation have been encouraging, although the problem is, is that by this time many of the languages are threatened and there are efforts going on in Arizona, in particular, to try to help revitalize these languages, and this includes programs to promote instruction through these languages in the public schools.

Teachers need to be aware that if they speak language and if they’re particularly of European background and they reflect a dominant culture, that they are privileged uh in a way that they may not be aware of. They may take for granted that – with the way that they see the world and the way they have experienced the world is the way in which other people perhaps should. Uh and so I think we need to be aware of the fact that speakers of a dominant language like English um have a status – have higher status and uh – forget that part – no, discard that – up to that anyway. (Interruption) Pardon? (Interruption) Okay, is that at the last part you mean? (Interruption) Oh, okay. About the status? (Interruption) Right. Didn’t I already say that or do you want me to say that again? (Interruption) Yeah, I’m trying to think of what – in terms of what (Interruption) Right. (Interruption) In terms of practice. Uh what kinds of things – where do you think I should go with this? (Interruption) Teachers need to be aware of their st – dominance – their status? Okay. (Interruption) Okay. All right. Teachers need to be aware of the status that they have as members of the dominant group, speaking the dominant language. In the United States that means being from probably a European background, heritage. And it’s not that they need to feel guilty about that, that’s a silly notion. Uh there’s nothing the matter with being who we are. That’s perfectly fine. The question is how – how do we act in the classroom in a way that helps in situations where our status um can be used in an authoritative way versus how our status can be used to – in an understanding kind of way so that if you hear students making comments about other languages or other cultures, it’s something that should never be tolerated. Um and teachers need to understand that they have a responsibility in particular to understand the outlooks to the extent they can, the views, the cultural backgrounds, the practices at home which may be different from dominant culture practices, the way in which language is used and not used in formal instructional settings. Students will eventually have to learn how to deal with those things but the way they get there is crucial because if they feel that their language or culture is not heard, they’re less likely to want to learn those kinds of so called “mainstream behaviors.”

I – I would say – I think teachers should be aware of a number of things. Let me start because my throat is getting raspy. (Interruption) Um I think teachers need to – to remember that although we may be from a dominant culture and speak that the national language, in this case English, that each of speaks a dialect, each of us has our particular experience as a member of a family or a society, we have multiple identities and multiple memberships, and we have culture. It’s not the absence of something but the presence of something. So when we act it’s through our experiences, our cultures, and our views. And that’s fine but we have to understand that people, even of our same culture let alone of different cultures, may have very different approaches to understanding their world and the way in which they express that. So I think we need to be humble and I think we have to be open-minded, and not think we always know the answers, and not even think that we understand our culture the way other people may understand it. Just because we are from a particular culture does not mean we are the spokesperson for that culture. And it would be very dangerous, for example, to talk to an African-American student and say, “What do African-Amer – African-Americans think or what do Mexican-Americans think?” We have to be careful to see people as – students as individuals, as well as having memberships in other kinds of – of groups.

Mandy Marvel: Bernhardt, Burns, Ricento, Gottlieb, Malone