On Flores (2020) From academic language to language architecture: Challenging raciolinguistic ideologies in research and practice

Flores (2020) uses the term ‘academic language’ 35 times in the course of his article, and yet never manages to explain what it refers to. He claims that scholars (e.g. Cummins, 2000 and Schleppegrell, 2004) see academic language as “a list of empirical linguistic practices that are dichotomous with non-academic language”. Nowhere does Flores clearly state what an “empirical linguistic practice” refers to, and nowhere does he delineate a list of these putative practices. Meanwhile, Flores attributes “less precise” definitions to educators. For them, academic language “includes content-specific vocabulary and complex sentence structures”, while non-academic language is “less specialized and less complex”. Thus, Flores offers no definition of the way he himself is using the term ‘academic language’.

Seemingly unperturbed by this failure to define the key term in his paper, Flores sails on, using the clumsy rudder of “framing” to guide him. Flores asserts that scholars and educators use a “dichotomous framing” of academic and home languages, such that

academic language warrants a complete differentiation from the rest of language that is framed as non-academic.

Flores proceeds to claim that academic language is not, in fact, a list of empirical linguistic practices (as if anyone had ever succinctly argued that it was), but rather “a raciolinguistic ideology that frames the home language practices of racialized communities as inherently deficient” and “typically reifies deficit perspectives of racialized students”.

Academic Language versus Language Architecture

As an alternative to ‘academic language’, Flores outlines the perspective of “language architecture”, which

frames racialized students as already understanding the relationship between language choice and meaning through the knowledge that they have gained through socialization into the cultural and linguistic practices of their communities.

To illustrate this perspective in action, a lesson plan built around a “translingual mentor text” is offered, to serve “as an exemplar” for teachers. The text “incorporates Spanish into a text that is primarily written in English that students could use to construct their own stories”. The goal is for students “to make connections between the language architecture that they engage in on a daily basis and the translingual rhetorical strategies utilized in the book in order to construct their own texts (Newman, 2012)”.

Having described how a teacher implements part of the lesson plan (or “unit plan”, as he calls it), Flores comments

To be fair, proponents of the concept of academic language would likely support this unit plan.

But there’s a “key difference” – language architecture doesn’t try to build bridges; instead, it assumes that “the language architecture that Latinx children from bilingual communities engage in on a daily basis is legitimate on its own terms and is already aligned to the CCSS”.

Discussion

Flores’ 2020 article is based on a strawman version of Cummins’ term ‘academic language’ (see, for example Cummins & Yee-Fun, 2007) which Cummins uses to argue his case for additive bilingualism. As noted in my earlier post Multilingualism, Translanguaging and Baloney, Cummins denies García and Flores assertion that his construct of additive bilingualism necessarily entails distinct language systems. In his 2020 paper, Flores wrongly imputes to Cummins the “dichotomous distinction” between “academic language” and “home languages”, where academic language is defined as “a list of empirical linguistic practices that are dichotomous with non-academic language”. Note that Flores also suggests that Cummins’ work perpetuates white supremacy, and that, by extension, all those (scholars and teachers alike) who see additive approaches to bilingualism as legitimate ways of attacking problems encountered by bilingual students are guilty of perpetuating white supremacy. It often seems, particularly from the rantings of some of Flores’ supporters on Twitter, that only tirelessly vigilant promotion of translanguaging (whatever that might entail) is enough to exempt anyone “white” from the accusation of racism.

Throughout his work, Flores implies that practically all language teachers in English-speaking countries (and perhaps further afield) treat “the home language practices of racialized communities” as “inherently deficient”. They are thus complicit in perpetuating white supremacy. Cummins has repeatedly denied Flores’ accusations against him, and I dare say that teachers would similarly regard Flores’ accusations as wrong and unfair, if not offensive. Flores’ article raises the following questions:

  1. Is it fair for Flores to accuse “white” teachers of perpetuating white supremacy by behaving as “white listening/reading subjects” who “frame racialized speakers as deficient”? Is that really what they do?
  2.  Are teachers’ extremely varied, nuanced and ongoing efforts to use rather than proscribe their students’ L1s through code-switching, translation and other means best seen as perpetuating white supremacy?
  3. Do teachers’ attempts to “modify” the “language practices” of their students provide convincing evidence of their complicity in prepetuating white supremacy?
  4. What exactly are the differences in terms of pedagogical practice between Flores’ example of a teacher using a predominantly English text containing Spanish words and the suggestions made by Cummins (2017)?
  5. What exactly is the “new listening/reading subject position” that Flores wants teachers to adopt? How does it become “central” to their work?
  6. What changes should they ask their bosses to make in the syllabuses, materials and assessment procedures they work with?
  7. And what are the implications for the rest of us, the majority, who work in countries where English is not the L1? Does Flores even recognise that we are in a context where many of his assumptions don’t apply?
Choir-master leading a rural congregation singing hymns. Hand-colored woodcut of a 19th-century illustration

Preaching to the choir

The fact that Flores gives even a rough sketch of translangaging in action in his 2020 article is in itself worthy of note – anyone who has trudged through the jargon-clogged, obscurantist texts that translanguaging scholars grind out will know that such practical examples are hard to come by. It prompts the question “Who do Flores, and other leading protagonists such as García, Rosa, Li Wei, and Valdés, think they’re talking to?”. My suggestion is that they’re “preaching to the choir” – talking, that is, to a relatively small number of people who share their relativist epistemology, their socio-cultural sociolinguistic stance, and their same muddled, poorly-articulated political views. Just BTW, I have yet to see a good outline of the political views of translanguaging scholars by ANY of them. The case of Li Wei is particularly stark. How does the author of Translanguaging as a Practical Theory of Language reconcile the views supported in that article (e.g., “there’s no such thing as Language”) with his job as the dean and director of a famous institute of education with a reputable applied linguistics department which sells all sorts of courses where languages are studied as if they actually existed? The answer, I suppose, is that few of those who might take offence at Li Wei’s opinions have even the foggiest idea of what he’s talking about.

Conclusion

I think it’s fair to say that translanguaging is, and will remain, irrelevant to all but the most academically inclined among the millions of teachers involved in ELT, because its protagonists, pace the titles of some of their papers, show little interest in practical matters. None of the important things that teachers concern themselves with – the syllabuses, materials, testing and pedagogic procedures of ELT – is addressed in a way that most of them would understand or find useful.

Phllip Kerr, in his recent post Multilingualism, linguanomics and lingualism uses Deborah Cameron’s (2013) description of discourses of ‘verbal hygiene’ to describe the work of the translanguaging protagonists. Cameron says that these ‘verbal hygiene’ texts are    

linked to other preoccupations which are not primarily linguistic, but rather social, political and moral. The logic behind verbal hygiene depends on a tacit, common-sense analogy between the order of language and the larger social order; the rules or norms of language stand in for the rules governing social or moral conduct, and putting language to rights becomes a symbolic way of putting the world to rights (Cameron, 2013: 61).

He adds:

Their professional worlds of the ‘multilingual turn’ in bilingual and immersion education in mostly English-speaking countries hardly intersect at all with my own professional world of EFL teaching in central Europe, where rejection of lingualism is not really an option.

If teachers are to be persuaded to reject lingualism, they’ll need better, clearer arguments than those offered by Flores and the gang.

References

Cummins, J. (2017). Teaching Minoritized Students: Are Additive Approaches Legitimate? Harvard Educational Review, 87, 3, 404-425.

Cummins J., Yee-Fun E.M. (2007) Academic Language. In: Cummins J., Davison C. (eds) International Handbook of English Language Teaching. Springer International Handbooks of Education, vol 15. Springer, Boston, MA.

Flores, N. (2020) From academic language to language architecture: Challenging raciolinguistic ideologies in research and practice, Theory Into Practice, 59:1, 22-31,

Flores, N., & Rosa, J. (2015). Undoing Appropriateness: Raciolinguistic Ideologies and Language Diversity in Education. Harvard Educational Review, 85, 2, 149–171.

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

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