Interrogating Languaging Through Power, Race, and Space in the Schooling of Translingual Student Populations

Karen Villegas, Peng Yin, and Kris D. Gutiérrez

Introduction and Orienting Framework

The teaching and learning of language in urban settings have typically relied on traditional conventions, errors, correctness, and language fluency (mode of native speaker) without contextualizing the notion of language and literacy and broader understandings of language as a cultural tool, let alone an examination of the ways language has served to marginalize certain populations, particularly native speakers who populate urban schools. In this chapter, we highlight how tools can be double sided: language as a tool for pedagogy but also as a tool to racialize and marginalize students. Though we recognize the powerful role of language as a tool for meaning-making/sensemaking, we emphasize the raciolinguistic side of what language has come to mean. We need to rethink how we perceive the role of language and the education of emergent bilinguals, given the historical context and emergent critical understandings of language. Considering this, how might we rethink the role of language? How can we rethink language in relation to diversity and difference?

In order to bring more expansive views of language to the teaching and learning of literacy, our chapter examines language as a (post)colonial practice and its implications in urban education. We situate our examination within a tri-fold conceptual framework — language and power, language and race, and language and space — to understand that the teaching and learning of language are not neutral. We want to make visible the ideologies and histories of practice imbued in language so that language can be used to develop powerful literacies that are not often made available to youth in urban communities.

While this is a handbook on practice, we believe that our best practices are informed by robust theoretical understandings of language, race, and power. Building on the tri-fold framework, we argue in this chapter that the educational issues around language are not really about language but instead are tied to larger ideologies that involve othering youth (Rosa, 2016). In particular, we discuss notions of raciolinguistic ideologies surrounding language and consider what dis-inventing (Makoni & Pennycook, 2005) from vested notions of language can look like. We also explore how these two new analytical frames — raciolinguistics and dis-inventing language — make visible the inherent inequalities in current language practices in schools. Last but not least, we contextualize each aspect of the tri-fold framework, i.e., language and power, language and race, and language and space, in relation to the two examples of the word gap and newcomer students to illustrate these points.

Developing More Expansive Conceptions of Urban Communities

In this section, we honor both the history and contribution of scholarship on urban education as it has brought our attention to critical issues of understanding and preparing teachers to engage in justice-oriented pedagogies in urban context through the development of their subject matter knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge, and racial and cultural knowledge (Howard & Milner, 2013). Similarly, we learn from other literacy scholars the importance of understanding what counts as “urban literacies,” with their complexities, variability, and situated context. As Kirkland (2013) argued, urban literacy refers to more than the interaction between individuals and individual participation, but also on social factors that shape urban literacies and constructions of “literate” individuals. These social factors include race and gender, sexism and racism. Following Bloome (1997), “what counts as literacy at a particular time and place depends on who has the power to define it” (p. 107). Such issues of power are relevant to the argument we advance in this chapter.

We concur that attention to power and rich conceptions of language, literacy, and curricula, as well as the intersectional focus that helps define the scholarship of urban education, can serve as resources for the development of a more expansive analytical frame for practitioners committed to justice-oriented pedagogies. However, we take this opportunity to also push on conceptions of “urban” that can at times (especially in their uptake) convey “urban culture,” “urban youth,” and “urban contexts,” for example, as uniform, homogenous, and static in ways that can actually undermine and subvert the very goals espoused in the scholarship of urban education. As we have written elsewhere (Gutierrez & Johnson, 2017), when writing about nondominant communities, the constructs used to describe, analyze, and make sense of communities’ practices must be interrogated and examined against their history of use and the explanatory power they provide for understanding people-in-practice, both locally and historically (p. 249). Such concepts or constructs can become inert and not very useful if they unwittingly advance conceptions of culture that do not account for the dynamic and instrumental nature of culture, as well as the regularity and inherent variability found across all cultural communities, including urban communities (Gutierrez & Kogoff, 2003). Further, we call attention to the consequences of conflating race and ethnicity with culture, where culture becomes a trait of an individual by virtue of their membership in a cultural community. Thus, we argue the need to move away from descriptors that can be misunderstood or misused, unless such descriptors are contextualized in deep understandings of how people live culturally. Understanding culture as a verb (Street, 1993) is a useful heuristic for scholars and practitioners committed to capturing more nuanced, complex, and respectful portraits of youth from nondominant communities. How might we as scholars committed to justice-oriented pedagogies in urban communities encourage the field to employ conceptions of cultural communities that reveal their fullness and complexity, their regularity and variability, and their expansive humanity and potential?

Advancing the Analytical Frame of Race, Space, and Power in the Context of Urban Education

In this chapter, we propose a tri-fold framework - i.e., language and power, language and race, and language and space — to advance a critical understanding of language as a (post)colonial practice. Before delving into a discussion of the tri-fold framework, it is important to foreground that our call for thinking and talking about language practice vis-a-vis power, race, and space is intended not only to contribute to a theorization of the multi-threaded nature of language practice, but also to develop an analytic lens to tap into the politics and ideologies embedded in the communicative encounters experienced by youth, especially those from (im)migrant backgrounds, in their everyday lives. To contextualize our argument concerned with those politics and ideologies targeted towards people from (im)migrant backgrounds, we present in this section a brief examination of a segment of the conversation recorded in a popular YouTube video entitled “what kind of Asian are you” (www. The conversation, as performed by two actors, featured a casual talk between a white male and an Asian American female.

M: Hi, there!

F: Hi!

M: Nice day, hum?

F: Yeah, finally, right?

M: Where you are from? Your English is perfect.

F: San Diego. We speak English there.

M: Urr . . . no . . . ?

F: Well, 1 was born in Orange County (California). But 1 never actually lived there.

M: I mean, before that . . .

F: Before I was born?

M: Well . . . where are your people from?

F: My great grandma was from Seoul.

M: Korean. I knew it. I was like she is either Japanese or Korean. But I was leaning more towards Korean.

F: Amazing (in a flat and sarcastic tone).

M: Ya, Gahm-sah-hahm-ni-da, there’s a really good Teriyaki Barbecue place near my apartment.

I actually really like Kimchi.

F: Cool. What about you? Where are you from?

M: San Francisco.

F: But where are you from?

M: Oh ... 1 am just American.

F: Really? You are native American?

M: Oh ... no ... I am regular American . . . Oh, well, I guess, my grandparents were from England.

F: Oh, well, [mock British accent] Hello, govenver. What’s are this then? Top of the morning to you. Let’s get small tea small tea. Double double, toil and trouble. ... Be aware, Jack Reaper, bloody hell. Pip pip cheerio. 1 think your people’s fish and chips are amazing.

M: You are weird.

F: Really? I am weird? Must be a Korean thing.

In this case, the question of “where are you from?” was activated not so much to gain geographic background information from the Asian American female, as to forcefully reify a dichotomized insider-outsider mentality. The power hierarchy between the two speakers was elucidated through the fact that it was the white male who assumed authority to ask the question “where are you from?” Also, the follow-up comment that he made on the female’s language competence, “your English is perfect,” served to invoke a racialized interpretation of the female’s ethnolinguistic identities in the sense that she didn’t look like her language. His repetition of the question “where are you from?” as uttered in a foreigner-talk format (Ferguson, 1975), further fueled a symbolic displacement of that young woman from being treated as an American even if she was born and raised in the U.S. Such kind of displacement reached its peak when the man asked the last question before he got the answer he wanted, i.e., “where are your people from?” This example illustrates an all-too-common experience for speakers of other languages in the U.S. and highlights the importance of thinking about language practices in terms of power, space, and race.

Language and Power

Powerfully illustrated in the YouTube video, if you are an English teacher in a classroom populated with students of nondominant backgrounds, what would it look like to ask students to reflect on the scenario of “where are you from?” In the video, it was the white man who approached the Asian American woman, with the authority to ask “where are you from?” What would it mean if this became a classroom practice in which we ask students to take that grammatically and linguistically simple question and dissect it according to its power differentials, to divide it into its ideological underpinnings, to divest from such a statement? Makoni and Pennycook (2005) argue for the need to divest and reconstitute languages. This process involves becoming aware of the history of invention to rethink the ways we look at languages and their relation to identity, geographical location, and other social practices. We think it would be productive for both teachers and students to reflect on the scenario of “where are you from?” because diving deep into its underlying connection lends itself to an understanding of the power differentials inherent to language.

To understand how power is implicated in language use, we turn to a body of literature that makes visible the power differentials present in language ideologies. Cultural capital lends itself to an analysis of power, by showing how educational institutions contribute to the reproduction of the social structure by welcoming and disseminating the hereditary transmission of cultural capital (Bowles & Gintis, 2011; Anyon, 1980) in ways that are not valued by dominant institutions including schools. We believe that the concept of linguistic cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1986) can serve as a useful lens for educators, as it helps make visible the deficit view that cultural and linguistic minorities are “lacking” in various capacities — an ideology that has been central to the development of Western education systems. Though this deficit model is not rooted in any empirical history and is theoretically overly simplistic, “deficit” has become a longstanding ideology (Luke & Goldstein, 2006) which sees monolingualism as the norm. The deficit model is not a misplaced idea, according to Rogers, Marshall, and Tyson (2006); the deficit model has a particular commonsensical logic that makes it appear “natural” to policymakers, the public, and young educators. The deficit model remains an organic part of many teachers’ inherited “toolkits” (Comber & Kamler, 2004). Heath (1983) also showed how teachers tend to reproduce their own class and cultural values in their classrooms, while unconsciously but systematically valuing the behaviors of children that are most like themselves.

To combat the deficit model, we need to understand how language came to be constructed and how it came to be essentialized. Such constructions are only truly understood if we examine the undergirded ideologies of all too often ignored analysis frames in language teaching and learning. Foucault (1970) acknowledges the significance of the construction of language. Bauman and Briggs (2003), however, argue that Foucault constructs too unified a view of language. For Bauman and Briggs (2003), the work should instead consider how modernism purifies language of any explicit connection with either society or nature. Essentializing language led to the rise of the European nation-states production of language as separate and distinct national entities and thus the very process involved in creating language creates social inequality (p. 9).

Too often, understandings about language rarely bring in the role of language ideologies to make sense of what is really going on. Language ideologies acts as a robust analytical tool, and for this reason, we make it one of the foci of this chapter. Our framework makes visible the state s production of language as a means to disenfranchise non-dominant communities and instead shifts to an understanding of language ideologies, or regimes of language (Kroskrity, 2000; Blommaert, 1999). Kroskrity (2010) terms “language ideologies,” beliefs, feelings, and conceptions about language structure and use which index the political economic interests of individual speakers, ethnic and other interest groups, and nation states (p. 192). These ideologies are typically multiple, context bound, and constructed from the sociocultural experience of the speaker. The American preoccupation with the nation as speaking only monolingual standard English is representative of monoglossic language ideologies. Silverstein (1998) uses the term monoglossic language ideologies to describe “a culture of monoglot standardization” (p. 284), where deep-rooted allegiances to imagined linguistic norms persist regardless of whether or not these norms are adhered to in practice. Here, we emphasize the directionality of power in that white listening subjects (Rosa & Flores, 2017) and dominant institutions dictate “correct” usages of language. Makoni and Pennycook (2007) argue that the metadiscursive regimes that emerged to describe language are part of a process of epistemic violence towards the speakers of those languages.

Language ideologies serve as a useful tool to fully understand language use and local knowledge. Woolard (1999) explains that, “linguistic ideologies are never just about a language, but rather also concern such fundamental notions as community, nation, and humanity itself” (p. 58). Turning to language ideologies shows us that in order to fully understand language use, we need to incorporate local knowledge. The aim is to understand how language may be understood differently across contexts; here the question becomes: how is it that language comes to be understood locally? Attending to local knowledge is a necessary and important way to address power by pushing back on the power differential. Barton and Hamilton (2012), for example, put forward the idea that literacies are part of social practices that are “observable in literacy events and are patterned by social institutions and power relationships” (p. 4) whereby literacy acts as a powerful tool used for organizing social life and normalizing social orders. Their project “Local Literacies” was based on a three-year ethnographic study of individuals living in one neighborhoods of the town in the northwest of England providing a situated account of the uses and means of reading and writing in that particular community. By focusing on everyday literacy practices, they look beyond texts and toward “what people do with literacy, with whom, where, and how” (Barton and Hamilton, 2012, p. xvii) to understand the ways literacy is embedded in broader social goals and cultural practices. Thus, it is important to first understand what people actually do and how they make sense of their practices to see how people learn in specific contexts. Situating learning is fundamental to how we teach and support youth from nondominant backgrounds.

Considering the real material effects of these inventions, dis-invention does not mean returning to a pre-colonial era, but rather to find ways of rethinking language in the present day (Makoni & Pennycook, 2005). So, for a present-day lesson plan, what would it look like to help students think through language as a (post)colonial practice to then appropriate and repurpose the power dynamics embedded in the communicative encounters in their everyday lives?

Language and Race

Adding to the scenario when we asked students to reflect on the “where are you from?” video, what would it look like to discuss language and race? In the video, the white man compliments the Asian American woman’s English — “your English is perfect.” To the white listening male subject, the Asian Americana woman did not look like the language. Furthermore, it did not matter how perfect the woman’s English was, to the white man; she still did not belong or ascend to the forms of legitimacy associated with the mastery of European languages. The video illustrates the co-naturalization of language and race (Rosa & Flores, 2017).

To understand how race is implicated in language use, we turn to a body of literature that makes visible the ways in which language and race are intertwined. This section will expand on our understanding of race and language through the theoretical notion of “language ideologies” (Kroskrity, 2000) addressed previously, and will attend to the historical production andreproduction of language ideologies (Blommaert, 1999). We employ a new conception of the relationship between race and language through raciolinguistics (Flores & Rosa, 2015), to describe the ideological construction and value of standardized language practices that conflate racialized bodies with linguistic deficiency. Similarly, Alim and Smitherman (2012) use the term “raciolinguistic practices” or “raciolinguistic performance” to describe the production of language and race and elaborate their analyses by examining President Obamas political performances. For Alim (2016), the term raciolinguistics is used as an umbrella term to refer to an emerging field focused on highlighting the diverse methods of linguistic analysis to ask critical questions about the relations between language, race, and power across diverse ethnoracial contexts and societies. Alim also uses the term “languaging race” to theorize race through the lens of language to understand the process of racialization by highlighting language’s central role in the construction, maintenance, and transformation of racial and ethnic identities.

Rosa and Flores (2017), on the other hand, use raciolinguistic ideologies to describe ideologies that construct racialized speaking subjects as linguistically deviant, even though these same linguistic practices are considered normative when produced by privileged white subjects. Rosa and Flores’ (2017) “raciolinguistic perspective” can be employed to theorize the historical and contemporary co-naturalization of language and race. To do so, they explore the historical co-naturalization of race in relation to longstanding histories of colonialism and nation-state formation. Here, colonizers used the term “simple communicators” to invoke a fiction that imagines the colonized as less than human communicatively (Veronelli, 2015), in ways that use language as a tool for dehumanization. Some colonial agents saw no role for indigenous language in European colonial projects and believed it should be replaced with European languages (Mignolo, 1995). From this perspective, colonized people could only further their humanity by mastering a European language. However, as Fanon (1967) explains, colonized populations’subordinate positions prevent them from accessing the forms of legitimacy associated with the mastery of European languages. And even when colonized subjects comply with the imposition of European languages, they are continuously positioned as racial Others who will never be fully European — or, by extension, fully human.

As these ideologies grow and adapt through generations, a raciolinguistic perspective makes visible the ways in which racialized speaking subjects are constructed as linguistically deviant. Urciuoli (1994), Lippi-Green (1997), and Hill (1998) have demonstrated the racialized ways in which ideologies of accent systematically stigmatize racialized subjects even when they are engaging in linguistic practices that would likely be perceived as legitimate if they produced by white speaking subjects. In another example of the racialization of language, Flores and Rosa (2015) show how U.S. educational classifications such as long-term English learners, heritage language learner, and standard English learner function by positioning racialized speaking subjects as deviant and inferior from the perspective of white listening subjects.

New scholarship, too, has argued that bilingualism as an institution reproduces white hegemony. Rosa and Flores (2017) critique the common view in sociolinguistics that societies should affirm the language practices of racialized populations while still providing access to dominant ways of using language. Though this framing celebrates multiculturalism and multilingualism, it ultimately focuses on modifying the behaviors of racialized populations while ignoring how white supremacy structures their experiences and societal positionalities (Flores & Rosa, 2015) and this includes additive bilingual programs. Subtractive programs use the home language to support standard English development, and additive programs emphasize that both languages should be maintained — the focus lies on centering the development of standard English or standard Spanish while continuing to ignore variation across home languages (Flores, 2015). From this perspective, bilingual education programs can only succeed when their explicit goal is to decenter hegemonic whiteness rather than appease it (Rosa & Flores, 2017). This is not to suggest that bilingual education programs as unimportant or suggest that they do not improve the education of emergent bilinguals; however, a raciolinguistic perspective does highlight that without also combating racial inequities, language becomes a tool to further Otherize nondominant communities.

The raciolinguistic approach refuses to document the empirical linguistic practices of racialized subjects and instead interrogates the interpretive and categorizing practices of racially hegemonic perceiving subjects (Rosa & Flores, 2017, p. 8). What would it look like to provide educators the space to reflect on the ways their listening practices reinforce the hegemonic position of the white listening subject? What do new ways of listening look like? How may we shift from teaching students academic language and instead help them make connections between their existing knowledge and the decontextualized goals of the standards?

Language and Space

Of significance to our conceptualization of language and space is that in the second half of the conversation featured in the YouTube video, the Asian American woman re-purposed the language practice once adopted by the white male to combat the symbolic displacement that he imposed on her ethnolinguistic identities. Her agentive (re)presentation of her legitimate status as an Asian American living in the U.S. was negotiated at the intersection between a re-signification of her imposed Korean identity — i.e., “I am weird? Must be a Korean thing” — and a re-contextualization of the white male’s essentialized perspective of her cultural backgrounds (as reflected through her utterances performed in a mock British accent). Her language practice brought to the fore the misalignment of the binary insider-outsider paradigm to capture the complexities of the lived experiences of people from (im)migrant backgrounds. The liminal subject position (where she is at and where she is from) that she constructed through her language practice brought to the fore the fluid and hybrid nature of the relationship between language and space.

As illustrated by the YouTube video, the ways in which the Asian American female (re)negotiated her subject positions were tightly connected with her agentive constructions of social spaces that both shaped and were shaped by her (im)migrant experiences. This example prompted us to rethink space as part and parcel of a pedagogical toolkit to develop meaningful learning environments for youth from nondominant backgrounds. As a case in point, Cortez and Gutiérrez (2019) called for attention to the affordances of space-producing practices, as performed by a group of Latinx youth through their translingual sensibility, for challenging and resisting the injustices of everyday life. Through a design-based perspective, the scholars argued for the importance of enacting system-wide instructional reform to leverage the nondominant youth s socio-spatial repertoires to develop consequential and respectful forms of learning. To further elaborate on the potential to leverage the pedagogical opportunities involved in the interplay between language and space, we organize our following discussion in this section around the notion of Third Space, especially its implications for creating meaningful educational opportunities for students from (im)migrant backgrounds.

While the theorization and discussion of the notion of Third Space are not limited to the field of education (see for example Bhabha, 1994; Soja, 1996), we consider it in this chapter in particular reference to the ways in which the notion of Third Space was conceptualized and subsequently applied to inform teaching and learning in culturally and linguistically diverse settings. For the conceptualization of the notion of Third Space, we foreground the pioneering work conducted by Gutiérrez and her colleagues (Gutiérrez, Rymes, & Larson, 1995; Gutiérrez, Baquedano-López, & Tejeda, 1999; Gutiérrez, 2008), who principally laid the foundation for leveraging the affordances of a Third Space pedagogy' in education settings. For the subsequent applications of the notion of Third Space, we provide a critical review of the succeeding scholarship as conducted by researchers from the major subfields of literacy studies and teacher education.

The notion of Third Space, as developed by Gutiérrez and her colleagues, focuses on how multiple and simultaneous social spaces are (reconstructed through linguistically and culturally mediated interactions between youth and adult instructors in both formal and informal education settings. By highlighting the dynamics of teaching and learning as a hybrid and multivoiced process, Gutierrezs conceptualization of Third Space attends to the ways in which power and knowledge, as two defining features that undergird educationally related activities within and across contexts, are (re) negotiated through pedagogical practices conducted within and outside the traditional classroom environment. In particular, Gutiérrez et al. (1995) called attention to the potential of developing effective classroom practice through a strategic interplay between the teachers script and the students’ counterscripts. As argued by the authors, while the teachers script is indicative of dominant cultural values, it can be re-signified through a “Third Space” wherein the teachers script is put into dialogue with the students’ counterscripts that give rise to the contestation of those dominant values. Along this line of thought, Gutiérrez et al. (1999) brought to the fore the two main building blocks of the notion of Third Space, namely hybridity and diversity. To illustrate the implications of these two building blocks, the scholars presented in the article an ethnographically based inquiry into a dual immersion elementary school classroom wherein “cultural and linguistic resources of the diverse participants were strategically combined to promote learning” (p. 300). Combining the evolving conceptualizations of the notion of Third Space as previously discussed with Vygotsky’s (1978) notion of the zone of proximal development, Gutiérrez (2008) further advanced a critical understanding of Third Space as a collective zo-ped, which attends to learning and development that happen in the movement across various temporal, spatial, and historical dimensions of activity (we use Michael Cole’s term of zo-ped [personal communication, 2005], where zo is an African word for “wise man” and ped refers to “pedagogy”; hence, “the pedagogy' of a wise man”). To exemplify the collective and expansive nature of Third Space, Gutiérrez (2008) reported findings from a longitudinal study conducted to examine the learning experiences of migrant students enrolled in the UCLA Migrant Scholars Leadership Program (MSLI). The study provided a vivid account of the agency demonstrated by the migrant students as they actively engaged in the “sociohistorical reconstruction” of their subject positions through a range of literacy-based activities that occurred vis-a-vis a network of multiple, layered, and conflicting social spaces.

It is beyond the scope of this chapter to offer a comprehensive account of how the notion of Third Spaces informed the succeeding scholarly endeavors to interpret the processes of teaching and learning as laminated and imbued with mediation strategies to navigate the dynamics between power and knowledge. Nevertheless, we believe it is important to include a critical review of the implications of the notion of Third Space for the development of two specific bodies of scholarship that have offered crucial insights into designing and implementing educational reforms in urban school settings. The first body of scholarship is concerned with literacy studies. The second body of scholarship is concerned with teacher education. Of significance to our review here is the ways in which the notion of Third Space has contributed to negotiating, appropriating, and even transcending the material and symbolic boundaries as pre-established among varied social spaces involved in educational contexts. In the field of literacy studies, for example, Cook (2005) drew on the notion of Third Space to illustrate the affordances of site-based classroom role play as a means of ensuring continuity of text construction between home and school. Based on a description of a hypothetical continuum of text construction between home and school, the author argued that curriculum continuity between home and school entailed the creation of Third Space to leverage the linguistic and cultural resources circulated beyond the boundary of formal class time and place. Based on an (im)migration-oriented lens to contextualize the notion of Third Space, Kostogriz and Tsolidis (2008) illustrated the usefulness of Third Space in understanding diasporic identification, as mediated through transcultural literacy practices initiated by the diasporic subjects to construct their hybrid identities. In a similar vein, Stornaiuolo, Smith, and Phillips (2017) proposed a transliteracies framework to capture the mobile dimensions of people’s everyday experiences. Echoing the notion of Third Space, the authors made an urgent call for acknowledging that critical and creative social semiotic practices, both within and outside formal instructional settings, principally arose within “complex ideological networks and [were] characterized by the movement of people and things” (p. 72).

In parallel with the boundary-crossing trend advanced by scholars in the field of literacy studies, in the field of teacher education, Flores and García (2013) drew on the notion of Third Space to illustrate an alternative pedagogical approach to educating multilingual students. Through this pedagogical approach, the teachers featured in their study contributed to the creation of linguistic Third Spaces in ways that transcended current hegemonic language ideologies as emerged within the nation-state paradigm. With a focus on issues surrounding urban teacher preparation, Klein, Taylor, Onore, Strom, and Abrams (2013) argued for the potential of a Third Space model to tackle the longstanding knowledge divide rooted in the field of teacher education, which entailed the development of a dialogic framework that attended to the varied voices associated with stakeholders from communities, schools, and research institutions (see also Taylor, Klein, & Abrams, 2014; Zeichner, 2010).

Our tri-fold framework — language and power, language and race, and language and space — intends to advance a critical understanding of language as a value-laden and power-imbued practice. This framework also reminds us that people are socialized to and through language. We see this through the asking of “where are you from?”; when a white listening subject asks this to a racialized subject, they are not really asking where the other person is from but instead trying to figure out how it is that the other person belongs. The question does not come from geographical curiosity but instead the indexing of a particular kind of ideologies that are consequential and high-stakes to determine whether you belong — whether you are an insider or outsider. While this video so clearly exemplifies the racialization of language, as commonly experienced by people from nondominant backgrounds (e.g., Latinx and Asian immigrants), these frameworks are not always as visible in educational views about language. While this video so clearly exemplifies the racialization of language, these frameworks are not always as visible in educational views about language. These very same things are at work in educational spaces. We hope our tri-fold framework will help make them visible. In the following section, we apply the tri-fold framework to two salient issues, the word gap and classification of newcomer students, to show how these deficit, remedial views, rooted in a long history of eugenics, have real pedagogical and social implications.

Disrupting Deficit Notions in Urban Communities

The word gap: when deficit notions of language and language communities become common sense

In 2014, the Obama administration announced its Bridging the Word Gap initiative with coordinated efforts from federal agencies. The word gap refers to the claim that by age 3, low-income children are exposed to 30 million fewer words than middle-class students. Hart and Risleys widely contested research (1995) found that the vocabularies of low-income children were significantly lower than those of middle-class children, and that the language deficiencies in poor children and their families would play a significant role in perpetuating cycles of poverty. This research relied heavily on the Coleman Report (1966) and the Moynihan Report (1965). Several scholars (e.g. Dudley-Marling & Lucas, 2009) explain that Hart and Risleys (1995) research findings are strongly influenced by the conceptualization of difference as deficit while relying on a raced and classed “norm” of language, family, and society more generally (and methodologically flawed). As a case in point, based on longitudnal language data collected from five American communities, Sperry, Sperry, and Miller (2019) provided counter evidence that put into question Hart and Risley (1995) s definition of vocabulary environment (speech of the primary caregiver to the child). The scholars argued that such essentialized perspective on the vocabulary environment vis-a-vis childrearing led to a disproportionate underestimation of the number of words to which poor children were exposed in their everyday lives.

Here, culture is based on its relation to a deficit understanding of the practices of cultural communities as homogeneous, unchanging, and deviant from dominant practices and rooted in mono-glossic language ideologies. And yet, state and federal programs continue to support initiatives to close the “word gap.” These programs tell nondominant communities that the way they parent and care for their children is in need of perpetual reform. Aggarwal (2016) explains that these programs are indicative of the regime of racial liberalism, an effort to resolve problems of inequality through measuring, monitoring, and reforming nondominant communities while ignoring how language, as a form of culture, is cultivated in everyday relationships.

To illustrate the affordances of the tri-fold framework for developing a critical understanding of the roots and consequences of the notion of “word gap,” we situate our discussion here in relation to a collective call made by a group of linguistic anthropologists in the article entitled “Invited Forum: Bridging the Language Gap” that was published in the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology (Avineri et al., 2015). It is worth noting that while in our discussion, the three lenses of language and power, language and race, and language and space are presented in a sequential manner with regard to a recapitulation of the arguments made by those scholars in that article, these three lenses are always intertwined throughout the collective efforts made by those scholars to tackle the problematic nature of “word gap.” For the purpose of highlighting the usefulness of the tri-fold framework, we selected the most salient aspects from the scholars’ arguments wherein language practice was examined through the lenses of power, race, and space, respectively.

From the perspective of language and power, Elinor Ochs and Tamar Kremer-Sadlik argued in that article that the language gap studies were undergirded by a pervasive cultural ideology that equaled language with knowledge. Likewise, Netta Avineri and Eric Johnson critiqued the trend of “implicating home language patterns in academic struggles” (Avineri et al., 2015, p. 67) as it served to perpetuate and intensify the deficit perspective toward nondominant groups. From the perspective of language and race, Jonathan Rosa and Nelson Flores pointed out that what constituted the core of the language gap were not so much empirical linguistic practices, as histories of class stratification and white supremacy in the U.S. In this vein, the scholars argued for a paradigmatic shift from a mere examination of the language practice of members from low-income racialized communities to an analysis of the ways in which racial and class positionings with our stratified society fueled a deficit attitude toward the language practice in question. Last but not least, from the perspective of language and space, Teresa McCarty presented a critical analysis of how the gap metaphor, as reified through the language gap studies, served to construct “a logic of individual dysfunction, limitation, and failure while masking the systemic power inequities through which the logic [was] normalized” (Avineri et al., 2015, p. 72). Drawing on the emergent call for culturally sustaining/revitalizing/ decolonizing pedagogies, the scholar put forth the potential to transform the gap metaphor into a “multipath bridge” (Avineri et al., 2015, p. 72) that treated hybridity and difference as the norm.

Newcomer Populations: The Social Construction of Becoming a Long-Term English Learner

The proliferation of the myth of the word gap, as framed by Hart and Risley (1995), is a powerful example of how conceptions of language tied to deficit notions of culture and cultural practices can quickly become commonplace in both public and educational discourse and subsequently get racialized. This issue is magnified when we think about the misclassification and miseducation of English learners. Let’s consider newcomer students classified as “long-term English learners” (LTEL), as an example. According to the U.S. Department of Education (2015), newcomer programs are educational interventions designed to meet the needs of newly arrived (im)migrant youth. Although (im)migrant youth come in with expansive tool kits in their home languages, they are arbitrary and idiosyncratically categorized based solely on their English language practices — practices that are supported by monolingual ideologies that contribute to the LTEL label (Valdes, 2005). LTEL refers to students who have spent seven or more years in U.S. schools yet remain classified as “learning English” (Menken & Kleyn, 2010). Maneka Brooks (2018) cautions us against academic and popular articles that encourage educators to be wary of LTEL’s language abilities outside of the classroom. The dichotomous framing of language into “academic” and “nonacademic” (Olsen, 2010) — and the perceived difference between basic intercommunicative skills versus comprehension — implies that newcomer students and thus LTELs may never be “proficient” (Menken & Kleyn, 2010). And, in fact, a recent publication from the National Education Association, Olsen (2014) describes LTELs language as “imprecise and inadequate for deeper expression and communication (p. 5)” in response to LTEL “distinct learning issues.” The LTEL label thus is similar to the word gap in that it also exemplifies how deficit notions about the language practices of nondominant communities become tied to deficit notions of cultural practices, and cultural communities subsequently becoming normative explanations for the practices and possibilities of these communities. Such framings are politically rooted and racialized, and not based on actual language practices, and note instead how the boundaries between the home and school sphere are actually porous in the sense that both the home and school languages constitute part and parcel of the students’ linguistic repertoire.

We return to the tri-fold framework to further illuminate how LTEL came to be. With these real-world practices in mind, things actually happening on the ground, we argue for the need to understand how some students came to be LTEL and situate our discussion in a more critical understanding of language. For example, scholars have called attention to the politics of language in educational contexts at a time where economic, political, educational, and theoretical shifts intersect with mass migratory flows. In their work, Valdes, Poza, and Brooks (2014) examine the social construction of language learners and in doing so demystify the language standards that label and classify students. Duranti and Goodwin (1992) argue that the construction of categories and labels like LTELs makes visible how coexisting discourses and language ideologies provide a set of cultural rules, conditions, practices, and power relations that lead to the uncritical acceptance and reification of those categories, as we see in public schools across the U.S. As Raymond McDermott (1993) explains, labels work “to keep people in their place and serve as display boards for all the contradictions of school systems and language teaching programs around the world” (p. 273). As Brooks’ (2018) work shows, these categories come to be impotent and ambiguous and harmful as neither youth nor their teachers fully understand these categories and their implications, much less how to address their schooling needs.

Such categorization as LTELs inevitably supports conceptions of these youth’s language practices as being without language — what Rosa (2016) calls the ideology of languagelessness in which racialized populations are positioned as incapable of communicating legitimately in any language. Rosa (2016) defines languagelessness as an ideology used to “position racialized students as inferior and in need of perpetual remediation” (p. 174). Of concern, such discourses are taken up and perpetuated by key educational groups, such as the National Education Association (Olsen, 2014), whose publication describes LTEL’s language as imprecise and inadequate. From this perspective, the consequences for the teaching and learning of LTELs are profound, as the racialization behind legitimate language practices frames bodies that speak non-standard language varieties as languageless, and thus in need of perpetual remediation.

The LTEL label places dual language learners in isolated, lower-level classrooms, and thus reinforces the perception of DLLs as limited in language, knowledge, skills, and cultural competency. Here, language and literacies act as proxies for race that serve as the means for institutionalizing curricular forms of segregation, marginalization, and Othering (Kubota & Lin, 2009). Rosa (2016) explains that ELLs in bilingual education programs are frequently isolated and seated in corners. Here, bilingualism is framed as a negative term indicating a lack of proficiency in English and bilingualism itself is only measured in English and thus only meant to strengthen one language. The insidious nature of the LTEL label gives rise to the pathologization of the students as inferior Others.

The newcomer example shows us how ideologies are imbued in the practice of classifying and thus segregating newcomer students in ways that do not account for their linguistic repertoires. The apparently neutral and commonsense descriptions of student language characters, continuously reified in teacher training manuals and other literature, impacts their access to opportunities and resources.


Knowledge and cultural ways of being taught in school serve to reproduce unequal social conditions (Apple, 1981; Giroux, 1984). One of the ways in which this reproduction happens is through the act of devaluing the cultural practices of historically marginalized groups through policies like the word gap and language classification. Gutiérrez and Rogoff (2003) explained how the tendency to focus on language, language use, and practice away from context led to the essentialization and dehistoricization of multilingual youths’ linguistic repertoires of practice. Here, by misrepresenting and undervaluing students’ linguistic toolkits, empirical work can serve to further exacerbate students’ marginalization (Alim, 2005). Educators, researchers, and policymakers should focus less on linguistic “deficiencies” and instead strive to learn more about students’ history of involvement with language and literacy practices (Gutiérrez, 2008). To do so, we need research that addresses the heterogeneity of multilingual learners so that we may meet the needs of these students rather than rely on homogenizing a diverse group of learners. We also need to make visible how issues of power, race, and space are implicated in teaching practices.

In view of these considerations, we call for attention to the pedagogical affordances of translanguaging (Canagarajah, 2011; Garcia & Li, 2014), which foregrounds the fluid and contingent nature of language practices among people from multilingual backgrounds. In particular, we argue that the affordances of translanguaging as a powerful pedagogy involve the following three entailments: a collaborative approach to creating alternative learning spaces, a reconsideration on the process of teaching-learning vis-à-vis the expert-novice paradigm, and a commitment to recognizing and legitimizing multilinguals’ funds of knowledge. In terms of the creation of alternative learning spaces, translanguaging is closely linked to the pedagogical values associated with the notion of Third Spaces (Gutiérrez, 2008; Gutiérrez et al., 1995, Gutiérrez et al., 1999), insofar as it contributes to providing multilinguals with access to meaningful educational experiences that transcend linguistic and cultural boundaries. With respect to the relationship among participants in the teachinglearning process, translanguaging echoes the framework of communities of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991) in which learning is perceived as a process of becoming a member of a sustained community of practice. By breaking down the expert—novice paradigm, it captures the nature of education as being socially mediated and culturally contingent. Finally, as for the value of multilinguals’ funds of knowledge, a translingual pedagogy takes a holistic approach to evaluating language competence, which is particularly constructive for individuals from linguistic and cultural minority backgrounds (Garcia & Kleifgen, 2010).

Language is a cultural practice, and considering the underlying deficit notions of culture, we need to employ a more dynamic and more instrumental notion of culture. Notions of language as a cultural practice ties into the dis-invention of language and the need to divest and reconstitute languages (Makoni & Pennycook, 2005) whereby language is not merely a linguistic system but rather a cultural practice. As part of this cultural practice, the raciolinguistic perspective (Rosa & Flores, 2017) urges us to refocus theories of social change away from the modification of the linguistic behaviors of racialized populations and instead toward dismantling white supremacy.

Discussion Questions

  • 1. What conceptions of language and literacy and urban youth undergird the development of “urban” pedagogies?
  • 2. How might the translanguaging practices of youth be leveraged and used as resources in classroom learning activity?
  • 3. How can power, race, and space become central to the analytical frames employed in scholarship and practice in urban education?

Authors’ Note

Correspondence concerning this chapter should be addressed to: Kris D. Gutiérrez, Carol Liu Professor, University of California Graduate School of Education, 2121 Berkeley Way, Office 4226, Berkeley, CA 94720— 1670. Email: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it


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