Inquiry goes out of school: a community walk

After children analyzed their personal and family language practices, they also learned about the language practices of the community. For this, Diane and Ashley planned a community walk in which students were to pay attention and ask about the language practices used in their community. First, they listed the shops that they wanted to visit. Some chose places that they had not visited before. As bilingual ethnographers, the children walked around a couple of blocks observing and taking notes. They could hear and see many different languages—there was Arabic being spoken by one of the food vendors, Mixteco conversations held at the fruit stand, Chinese written on one of the nearby restaurants, and when they arrived at a historic Jewish university near the school, one of the children could read some of the Hebrew that was written on the walls.

As students entered different businesses, they interviewed employees and asked questions such as: “Why does language matter to you? Why is it important for you to speak more than one language in this community?” The business owners gave them answers like, “Well, if I want to keep my clientele, I need to learn more languages.” Or, “If I want to learn about new things on the tech market, I have to speak more languages.” One of the things that they noticed was that in the healthcare facilities, there were more languages represented than in other places. As they tried to figure out why, one of the children said, “Well, everybody needs healthcare, so of course, it wouldn’t be fair if the healthcare only spoke one language.”

As they continued their walk, the children listened to people speaking in the street, took notes, and photographed signage in the street and on businesses. When they got back to the classroom, students shared their notes and observations about how language is used in their neighborhood. They went back to their essential question: Why does language matter? They began to make initial analyses based on what they had seen and heard. They looked at some of the pictures that they had taken and shared their inquiries and opinions. They also discussed the power hierarchies of languages present in the neighborhood.

Below Ashley discusses how her experience observing and working with one of the students during the community walk made her think about her own journey as an educator and the development of her pedagogical stance. Classroom inquiry, at its core, is an open-ended process in which teachers and students learn alongside each other.


Working with Ivan, a white Jewish student, alerted me to some realities of my own positionality and bias that I am still working to address in my own teaching. On our community walk we began by observing signs on the street. I asked Ivan what he noticed, and he pointed out that all the street signs were in English. When I asked him why he thought that might be, Ivan told me, "It's because we're in America and English is the official language here." My initial reaction was to over-correct and emphasize the fact that we do not live in an "English Only" country. I was frustrated by his limited understanding of the prevalence and importance of multilingualism in our community.

Ivan's understandings of the world are evolving. They are derived, in large part, from what he hears and experiences at home and in school. We are responsible for shaping his ideology. In the context of the current political climate in the United States, where the president is attempting to deport immigrants and devalue their worth and importance in our society, it is very likely that Ivan's ideas have been influenced by the "English Only" ideology that is prevalent today.

Carefully, I told Ivan: "Did you know that there are no official languages in the United States? Isn't that cool?" Two girls behind him (a new arrival and a first-generation immigrant) chimed in saying "Yeah! ¡Aca se puede hablar Io que quiera!" Ivan looked surprised that the girls were claiming that one could speak whatever in the U.S. My claim was more complex than this. Language officialization is about giving languages power, and in the context of the United States (and the world), English is not lacking in power. Yet, as Ivan observed, most of our street signs are still in English.

I paid close attention to Ivan's observations during the rest of our walk as we passed local businesses with signs in Spanish and Arabic and heard people speaking Chinese on the street. I'd like to say that I could almost see his worldview changing before my own eyes. Of course, language identity development and recognizing the relationship between language and power structures is a much longer process than a walk around the block. But I watched Ivan's curiosity about language grow. When we arrived at the nearby historically Jewish university, Ivan was elated to read aloud the Hebrew that is carved into the stone. Understanding that his community values the power and significance of other languages just as his peers' communities do was a major realization on this trip. Back at the school, we paused to read a construction sign posted by the school district out front. Ivan observed that it stated the information in nine different languages, and he looked proud to tell his peers: "That's because there's no official language in the United States."

Before I could begin discussing the power of translanguaging and addressing metalinguistic awareness with eight-year-old children, it was necessary for me to engage in a process of personal concientizacion (self-reflection and critical consciousness raising). As a white, US born, formally educated and English-speaking woman, I have been afforded the privilege of choosing to be multilingual. I could have chosen, as many of my peers and family members did, to live my life as a monolingual since my home language is also the language of power. Valdes and Figueroa (1994) outline the differences between elective and circumstantial bilinguals. While I am the former, my students are the latter. Most of my students' families speak Spanish or another language in their homes. They are learning English because it is important to their pursuit of economic and social success.

When I started my path toward becoming a teacher, I fell into the trap of an "English Only" ideology that was presented to me by my teacher education program. It held a dominant ideology and wielded English as a tool of "power" and "empowerment." This prevented me from seeing my students as dynamic linguistic beings, and it stifled the extent to which I truly knew them and their linguistic capabilities. I was fortunate to later be surrounded by pedagogues and thinkers who challenged this notion. During my time learning alongside Mapuche educators in Chile and later in a graduate Bilingual Education Program, I was pushed to recognize the harmful ideologies that my initial teacher education training upheld, and I was given the opportunity to enter a translanguaging space. I came to embrace translanguaging not only as a method but as a mindset.

The former, "English Only Educator" version of myself would have capitalized on my walk with Ivan as an opportunity to teach my students the importance of English. The "Translanguaging Educator" version of myself pushed Ivan to think about why English is so ubiquitous. What structures make it that way? Who benefits, and who is left out by this choice? I encouraged other students to point out their home languages and how they were used as we walked around their blocks. I asked them to listen in on Mixteco conversations at the fruit stands and decipher Hebrew passages written on the walls. The consciousness-building I've done has allowed me to recognize my own privilege as an English language speaker and to wield that for the good of our multilingual community, and ultimately to ask students like Ivan to do the same.

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