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Commentary on Finex Ndhlovu’s ”The Language Nesting Model” by Matthew Glenn Stuck

In his numerous publications, Finex Ndhlovu has critically examined the relationship between language and issues of multilingualism, identity formation, migration, politics, and policy/planning. At the heart of his recent work, Prof. Ndhlovu is concerned with the complex interplay of social and political factors that make up the sociolinguistics of migration, and how to reshape heritage language planning and policy to better align with the needs of immigrant communities.

Prof. Ndhlovu impresses upon us the need to understand where someone comes from in order to understand who they are, stating “you can’t say you know me if you don’t know the people that I live with.” This notion perfectly captures the spirit of his recently developed Language Nesting Model (Ndlovu, 2014). As Prof. Ndhlovu shows, the model provides a more holistic profile of the unique language-based needs of immigrant communities than has previously existed.

A recurring theme throughout his talk is a call to challenge the “commonsense” assumptions about how we conceptualize heritage languages.  While language planning and policy typically assumes a direct relationship between ethnicity and language, this assumption is often contradicted by the linguistic realities of immigrants, whose language choices are largely influenced by complex migratory patterns and exposure to a wealth of linguistic diversity. Prof. Ndlovu’s research is centralized around two overarching questions: What are the actual multilingual practices of people on the move, and how do specific migration paths influence their linguistic experiences?

In building the Language Nesting Model, Prof. Ndhlovu conducted an in-depth ethnographic study of speakers from East, Central, and West Africa who were residing in Australia. Interviews comprised of people offering personal stories about their migration experiences. Prof. Ndhlovu finds that his participants often speak a HL that is not their native one. In fact, several individuals report speaking pigeons and creoles (new languages having emerged through extended contact between different languages) in their interviews. Pigeons and Creoles receive little to no government support due to their subordinated social status. Prof. Ndhlovu argues it is precisely these languages that serve to bridge relationships and create new and vital social networks. These narratives demonstrate the severe need for governments to provide institutional support for such languages.

Prof. Ndhlovu proposes the Language Nesting Model to account for these and other crucial findings that surfaced through his ethnographic research. The model leverages commonalities across the language experiences of African immigrants to paint a picture of rich linguistic diversity. Central to his model are the diverse language codes and varieties a HL speaker can deploy as linguistic resources. These include varieties of English, discoursal and cultural practices, African cross-border languages, small ethnic languages, and refugee “journey” languages, which are those languages picked up while in transit. The model achieves its goal of breaking down our common-sense assumptions about HLs by showing that the linguistic repertoires of transient populations must be better understood. Prof. Ndhlovu closes his talk by arguing that language policy and planning cannot address the needs of immigrant communities unless it shifts its focus to considering the lived experiences and linguistic realities of people on the move, which show much more nuance than what census data alone is capable of revealing.

Written by

Matthew Glenn Stuck

 

Reflections on Language and Power – Tatyana Kleynat at ARC By Sara Vogel

Language and power are tightly intertwined. That was my takeaway from November 16th’s ARC talk featuring the thoughtful, engaged, and critical scholar Tatyana Kleyn, who is an Associate Professor and Director of Bilingual Education and TESOL in the Department of Teaching, Learning, and Culture at the City College of New York.

This message about language and power came through in the substance of Kleyn’s talk and the film she screened about how transborder young people navigate language, family, and school as their families repatriate small towns in Oaxaca, Mexico after years of living in the United States. The power of words was also a theme that resonated in the post-talk conversation, including in ways that revealed some tensions in our ARC community that we would do well to address moving forward.

I’ll unpack that conversation in a bit. But first: the talk.

Tatyana is someone I have had the privilege to work with through the CUNY-New York State Initiative on Emergent Bilinguals, a project that brings K-12 teachers, administrators, and professors in bilingual education from across the CUNY campuses together to study and improve education for bilingual kids. As Don mentioned in his opening remarks, Kleyn’s work truly embodies the values and mission of ARC. Her research is interdisciplinary, straddling all of ARC’s clusters. She views phenomena such as immigration and multilingualism through the lens of theories that take into account racial, economic, and linguistic power hierarchies. And she is a public scholar, not content simply to write for narrow audiences of academics. Her films about the experiences of undocumented and transborder youth, as well as curriculum and guides for teachers based on the content of the films, are accessible for free online.

Before showing her film Una Vida, Dos Paìses (One Life, Two Countries), Kleyn asked us to consider the power of film as its own language. She argued persuasively that film can be mobilized as a research method, a medium of dissemination, and as service and activism. At the same time that she celebrated the capacity of the medium to “reprioritize whom we listen to” and to bring research participants’ stories alive for wider audiences, she also described some of the limitations and challenges of this type of scholarship. She has had to build strong relationships with her participants, many of them folks targeted in today’s political climate for their or their family members’ undocumented status. In addition, while she prefers not to use voice-overs in her films so that audiences hear participants “direct from the source,” she acknowledged her and her collaborators’ roles in editing and juxtaposing clips to create cohesive narratives.

The film she screened at ARC introduced us to a group of transborder young people living in Oaxaca, Mexico who call themselves “New Dreamers.” The film captures the complex, mixed emotions that come with “going home” — the feeling of belonging, but also of being “ni de aqui ni de alla” (from neither here nor there). One of the core themes discussed by participants was the role of language in their transitions to life in Mexico. Across contexts in the US and Mexico, languages are used for different purposes and have different statuses attributed to them. While the youth expressed love for the English language, and were often called upon by peers to tutor them in English, they also found themselves lost in classes delivered in Spanish, and felt peers and teachers in Oaxaca sometimes viewed them as stuck-up for their knowledge of English and experiences in the US. In her talk, Kleyn also described how indigenous languages, often regarded as less prestigious in their communities, are a key part of students’ linguistic repertoires, enabling them to communicate especially with older generations.

After Kleyn’s presentation, an audience member asked a question about the young people’s accents. It elicited a strong reaction from some of those present, including one who found it so offensive that he walked out. Rachel Chapman, a fellow ARC student, has provided her take on the question, and her response can be read on our blog here. Kleyn responded by critiquing the premise of the question, arguing that language ideologies about accent are rooted in socially and historically constructed hierarchies that rank speakers based on race, economic status, perceived education, ethnicity, and other markers (see Flores & Rosa, 2015 for more on this).

To me, the strength of ARC is its ability to foster critical conversations about dynamic and complex issues — immigration, inequality, multilingualism, and our digital world — with people at different stages in their academic careers, from different disciplinary, racial, and cultural backgrounds, in order to deepen research and practice in our fields.

Having conversations about complex issues across difference is not easy, however, and this moment at ARC brought those tensions into sharp relief.

Despite a professed desire for open, democratic dialogue, academic communities can reproduce many of the hierarchies they seek to dismantle. As we learned from the student when he returned to the conversation, for people of color, academia can be a violent space. Too often, people of color shoulder the burden and invest much emotional labor into correcting the oppressive dynamics which permeate our institutions. Others (read: white people) need to step up.

At ARC, there are some first steps we can take. There are many incredible organizations such as Border Crossers and the New York Coalition of Radical Educators, among others, which have figured out how to facilitate critical and constructive conversations across difference. I’ve drawn on resources from these organizations as I navigate my role as a white scholar and educator engaged in work with youth of color and their teachers, and have found them exceptionally useful.

To have critical and constructive conversations across difference, relationship-building and setting community norms are key. I noticed that when I began my time as an ARC student, there wasn’t a space devoted to building this community — perhaps such a space could be useful in the future. Some questions for ARC students and fellows to consider as we build community might include:

  • What are the challenges of coming together as an interdisciplinary community?
  • What norms might help ensure our conversations are both critical and constructive?
  • Who gets to study, publish about, and profit from research on inequality, multilingualism, and immigration? Why? In what ways does our community challenge those trends? In what ways does it reproduce them?
  • How might ARC fellows and students not just share our research, but work together to ensure we are also engaged in making our fields more equitable and just?

In many ways, Tatyana’s work offers us a compelling example of engaged, critical scholarship. She began her talk by discussing her own positionality — her own background and experiences, and how she arrived to her topic. She is transparent about how her own power and privilege shape her teaching and research. She forges strong bonds with her study participants, reciprocating in the communities that provide her with data. And her scholarship and teaching go hand in hand with her social justice activism.

I hope the talk from this week is a catalyst for some soul-searching at ARC. Not only might we strengthen and deepen our own work, but we might continue the hard work of dismantling oppressive structures within academia too.

Citation:

Flores, N., & Rosa, J. (2015). Undoing Appropriateness: Raciolinguistic Ideologies and Language Diversity in Education. Harvard Educational Review, 85(2), 149–171. https://doi.org/10.17763/0017-8055.85.2.149

 

By Sara Vogel

PhD Student in Urban Education, CUNY-Graduate Center

Commentary on Tatyana Kleyn’s ”Transborder Children and Youth (Back) in Mexico” by Kahdeidra Monét Martin

According to a recent Pew Research Report, between 2009 and 2014, one million people repatriated from the United States to Mexico. As a qualitative researcher, Dr. Tatyana Kleyn is interested in the stories behind these numbers. In particular, she studies the experiences of children and young adults who undergo these crossings—physical, social, linguistic, and educational. “Transborder youth are crossing many borders,” she said. Indeed, some recurring themes both in her research program and in reactions to her research are the power of language to form community and the need to cross borders in order to understand multiple perspectives. This blog piece begins by exploring the research topics, methodology and general findings of Kleyn’s work, and it ends by discussing the reactions to her lecture and offering practical suggestions for moving forward.

The Research

Kleyn, who is Associate Professor in the Bilingual Education and TESOL programs at the City College of New York, began her study entitled “The Other Side of Deportation Repatriation” as a Fulbright scholar in Mexico from 2014 to 2015.

Through interviews, classroom observations, and collections of art and poetry, Kleyn assembles portraits of transborder youth in elementary, secondary, and tertiary schools in Oaxaca, Mexico. Additionally, she uses documentary film as both a research method and tool for disseminating research findings to larger audiences. She said, “Film is accessible across borders. It does not matter your educational level or what language you speak.” Ethnographic data from her research on transborder youth in Oaxaca is highlighted in the documentary film “Una Vida, Dos Paises: Children and Youth (Back) in Mexico.” The complete film and accompanying unit plans are freely available at www.UnaVidatheFilm.com.

So, what are her findings? First, transborder youth bring their assets of multilingualism and multiculturalism that can be harnessed in the classroom. Differentiating classroom instruction to exploit their English language skills and knowledge of United States cultures can better support everyone in the learning community.

Second, it is important to note that transborder children are multifaceted and have varying degrees of fluency in the languages that they speak. Their linguistic repertoires are formed from the multiple speech communities that they have lived in. For example, one could hear features of U.S. English from the Midwest, Florida, and California; features of Spanish spoken in Latinx communities in Southern California; and Zapoteca, a language indigenous to Mexico. Generally, most of the youth in her study are more fluent and comfortable speaking English than Spanish, and they are least fluent in Zapoteca, which is stigmatized and mostly reserved for speaking with grandparents.

Naming themselves the New DREAMers, transborder youth negotiate their identities using language practices that are rooted in cultural and political hierarchies. Sociolinguists often refer to stigmatized language varieties or specific features of language, what lay people refer to as “accents,” in regards to prestige. We often criticize the less prestigious, stigmatized variety of a language while praising the dominant, higher prestige variety. Furthermore, higher prestige speech patterns that are considered normative or standard; one focuses on the content that their speakers are conveying. On the other hand, lower prestige varieties are considered irregular and substandard. Listeners tend to focus more on phonology and syntax rather than the substance of what the speaker is saying. These New DREAMers may speak varieties of Spanish that are lower prestige because they are different than what is spoken in Oaxaca. Conversely, their fluency in English is an asset that may be perceived as threatening by their teachers. These power dynamics and cultural fissions reflect the politicized nature of language.

The Reactions

After hearing about the project and viewing the 30 minute documentary on immigration, language, race, and class, audience members undoubtedly were feeling a mass of emotions. Personally, I was thrilled. I was impressed by Dr. Kleyn’s integration of mixed methods qualitative research and multimedia to magnify underrepresented voices. Her scholarship provides a model for me in several ways. As an Urban Education Ph.D. student who has been studying sociolinguistics since my freshman year of college in 1999, one could say that I have a close relationship with these topics. I’ve had time to mull them over, clarify questions, process strong emotions, and formulate my positions. But, this is not the norm.

Scholars from other academic disciplines and thematic clusters were processing their thoughts in the moment, perhaps unaware of the potential volatility in the atmosphere. The very first comment expressed in the discussion period was an anecdote about teaching multilingual children and a separate comment that drew attention to the fact that although youth had lived in the United States for several years, they still spoke English with a “Spanish accent.”

I am not sure where the comment was leading, or if there were a follow-up question planned after the anecdote and comment. However, I noticed that several audience members appeared to be uncomfortable and perplexed. What I heard in the comment was a lack of awareness about linguistic repertoires and the role of speech communities in shaping our linguistic repertoires. At the same time, I heard an ideological assumption of linguistic purity in the United States that is false and has been used as an instrument of racism in education, housing, and employment. It is this last piece that triggered some audience members, including my colleague who stated, “I’m sorry, but that is a racist statement!” He made other comments about being tired of racism at the Graduate Center before hurriedly leaving the room.

What happened? It was a charged context. We all hear and process information according to our own individual experiences and social positions. Bodies matter. Words matter. In recent months, my colleague and other Ph.D. students have experienced blatantly racist remarks such as being called ‘the N-word’ and ‘oriental’ in classes devoted to the scholarly study of language, power, and culture. They also have been subjected to sexist remarks in the same classes, and the individual rights of the offending parties—who are White—were prioritized over the rights of students of color and women.

Despite news articles to the contrary, I can attest that professors at the Graduate Center do in fact support the views of “conservative” and “right wing” students. They do in fact support academic dissent, even when it appears that comments teeter on racial and sexual harassment. And in this context, we students seek refuge in the lectures held at the Advanced Resource Collaborative with its stated commitment to promoting equity and critical, interdisciplinary dialogue. This work will not happen by itself. We must be intentional about forging community across boundaries of academic title, race, ethnicity, class, gender, linguistic background, and religion.

If a graduate student becomes enraged, do not question his intelligence or maturity. As Audre Lorde told us in “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” there is a place for eros in the academy. There is a place for rage as a defensive mechanism against the protracted, systematic oppression of our psyches. The academy is not neutral. There is a place for passion that can be transformative in our relationships, but reflexivity is key. What triggered our strong reactions to certain comments or actions? What are our “non-negotiables” as scholars? What experiences and teachings inform the values that we bring with us? Is it possible to understand someone else’s values and perspective? Can we apologize for our offenses and forgive others for offending us? Let’s assume the best of each other and receive each other with patience and compassion. Those are the first steps to navigating these often dangerous crossings of memory, of lived experience, and of perspective. As an ARC community, this is the work that we are uniquely called to do in these times, and to the extent that we are successful, the reverberations of our efforts are manifold.

 

Written by Kahdeidra Monét Martin, M.S.Ed.

Ph.D. Student in Urban Education

The Graduate Center, CUNY

Mellon Humanities Alliance Graduate Fellow