Megan Figueroa: Hi, and welcome to the Vocal Fries podcast, a podcast about linguistic discrimination.
Carrie Gillon: I’m Carrie Gillon.
Megan Figueroa: I’m Megan Figueroa. How you doing there, Carrie?
Carrie Gillon: Better today. Yesterday was rough. I mean, I’m pretty convinced that I have COVID, even though I have not been tested because I’m not sick enough to get tested. I don’t wanna walk around and infect other people unless I absolutely have to go to the hospital.
Megan Figueroa: Right.
Carrie Gillon: It’s been pretty mild. Then, yesterday, you and I had this awesome conversation with two guests – it’s gonna be in six weeks, probably – and it was an amazing conversation. But then afterwards I had lunch and then I just crashed, and I got much sicker, and I’m like, “Ugh!”
Megan Figueroa: You exert yourself and then there you go and get it.
Carrie Gillon: And exerting myself was just conversation. It’s just – oh, man. It just depressed me.
Megan Figueroa: I know. I have heard that a lot of people, they describe not being able to do any sort of task because it’s just too much. I’m like, “Oof.” I mean, that kind of sounds like the flu but in the way that people are describing it, it sounds like nothing I’ve ever experienced.
Carrie Gillon: For me, whatever this is, it is not the flu because all it did at first was just attack my lungs. I felt like they were on fire. Then, it was just more tight and I had some fatigue but not like flu fatigue. It’s just – I dunno. It’s very different.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah.
Carrie Gillon: Anyway, in better news, we have an email from, let’s see, I think it’s /silʌm/. So, “Hi. Big fan of the podcast. I was actually planning to send a message just last week to ask if you had any plans to do an episode about names, so I was really excited when I saw the title of the newest episode.” By the way, we got this email a while ago, and I meant to read it on the last episode and just plum forgot. That’s why it’s a little bit delayed.
“They’re something I’ve always been interested in and I wanted to share some things about my name(s) in case you found it interesting. I’m Chinese Canadian, Cantonese and Hakka specifically, and like many others, I grew up with a ‘Western name’ that I used in everyday life and Chinese ones that I use with my family. My name is pronounced super differently in Mandarin, Cantonese, and Hakka.” I’m not even gonna try because it involves tones and I really suck at tones. Anyway, there’s three different pronunciations.
“I’d been thinking about ditching the Western name for a while, especially since coming out as agender, since it’s very gendered and my Chinese name is gender neutral. I was hesitant because I didn’t know which Chinese name to use and I wasn’t really used to hearing non-Chinese speakers pronounce any of them. It’s a bit silly but seeing Hasan Minhaj correct everyone’s pronunciation of his name and seeing people reacting” – I think – “positively to that gave me a confidence boost and I’ve been using my Cantonese name full time for most of the last year.
People have been pretty good about pronouncing it, although it took me a while to get used to hearing it without the tones.” Exactly! We’re not good at tones most of us who –
Megan Figueroa: Who didn’t grow up with it.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah, especially each tonal language is different too, right, so even if you speak a tonal language, you’re still gonna have to learn a whole new system. However, if you don’t grow up with it at all, it’s just really hard. “I went back and forth on the spelling between S-E-E and S-I for the first syllable and L-A-M and L-U-M for the second, but I think I’ve ultimately settled on S-I-L-U-M, although I’ve only been using this spelling for a couple months so I’ll let you know if I change it.” It’s fun. I love it.
Megan Figueroa: Oh, my gosh. I feel so happy that someone would share that with us. Thank you so much.
Carrie Gillon: There’s a lot more, but I think that’s the gist of it. That’s really great! We need to talk to people who are speakers of any of the Chinese languages. Silum mentions, for example, that people often haven’t heard of Hakka before, which is true. Most people haven’t. I only have because I’m a linguist.
Megan Figueroa: Right. And I haven’t at all and I’m a linguist.
Carrie Gillon: I’m also from an area with a lot more – I don’t know if this person is from Vancouver area, but there’s a lot of people from China in the Vancouver area. You do encounter more things. But they mention a language that I have never heard of before – Teochew? I’m not even sure how to pronounce it. There’s lot of Chinese languages and we’d love to talk with them.
Megan Figueroa: Yes. We wanna talk to everyone.
Carrie Gillon: There’s too many things.
Megan Figueroa: Consider this your invitation if people wanna reach out because there’re so many areas that we have not yet touched at all. Again, another reason why I feel so happy that they would share that with us because, yeah, learned a few things and then I get to hear something very personal about a listener. Awesome. That name episode was fun. It’s good to think back onto to it.
Carrie Gillon: Yes.
Megan Figueroa: Speaking of names –
Carrie Gillon: Ugh! Oh, god.
Megan Figueroa: I know. I mean, I hate to say it out loud to give it any sort of –
Carrie Gillon: I know, but you have to say it out loud to address it, sadly.
Megan Figueroa: So, “Chinese Virus” – [sighs] words matter.
Carrie Gillon: My favorite thing is that he’s like, “Well, we call it ‘Lyme Disease’” – how many people know that Lyme is a place?
Megan Figueroa: Yeah, I didn’t know that. Although, I knew “Lyme” wasn’t spelled like limes that you eat, but I’ve never really looked into why it’s L-Y-M-E.
Carrie Gillon: I’m certain about a decade ago I found out that there was a town called “Lyme,” and then I promptly forgot because that’s how little that matters. “Ebola” also is named after a location. But, note, it’s not an entire country in either of these cases. It’s not “US Disease.” It’s not – I dunno which part of Africa; I don’t remember – “Sierra Leone Disease” or something. It’s not an entire country, it’s just one location, which is maybe still problematic. I don’t know. But we don’t have the same racial associations at least. So, no, Trump, you’re wrong.
Megan Figueroa: And any person that wasn’t just a raging racist would see what was happening. There are literal hate crimes – physical hate crimes, verbal – all of these hate crimes that are being committed against people that others perceive to be Chinese. I’m sure they’re not even very discriminatory on this at all.
Carrie Gillon: No. Basically any East Asian or someone of East Asian descent. That’s all. They don’t know what a Chinese person looks like versus a Japanese person versus Korean.
Megan Figueroa: Any person that actually cared would step it back, but we all know he doesn’t.
Carrie Gillon: He has stopped – shockingly, he did stop call –
Megan Figueroa: Did he?
Carrie Gillon: Yes. He has stopped calling it the “Chinese Virus.” I don’t know why. I think maybe – he said something like, “Oh, it’s not okay to hurt Asian people” or something like that. Ever since then, he hasn’t used it. I’m pretty sure – unless he’s reintroduced it. But he definitely stopped.
Megan Figueroa: Well, who knows why, but the damage has been done because all of his little minions – supporters – are calling it the “Chinese Virus.” That’s not okay. I don’t know why anyone would feel like that’s okay.
Carrie Gillon: Because they’re racist. I mean, it’s not even a question!
Megan Figueroa: I know.
Carrie Gillon: I mean, as bad as that is, there’s actually something that’s even worse, in my opinion. Some people are calling it the “Kung Flu.”
Megan Figueroa: Oh, god.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. It’s so gross, it makes my skin crawl.
Megan Figueroa: I haven’t heard that.
Carrie Gillon: Well, I haven’t actually heard it. I’ve only read it. But it’s definitely on Twitter, although less so recently. Around the time Trump was saying “Chinese Virus” all the time that was coming up a lot.
Megan Figueroa: Oh, my god.
Carrie Gillon: People are gross.
Megan Figueroa: People are gross. Words matter. That’s racist.
Carrie Gillon: We already have a name for it – COVID-19 or SARS-CoV-2, which is such a mouthful. “COVID” is better, in my opinion. Don’t, obviously – who among our listeners are gonna be calling it the “Chinese Virus”? Nobody. I don’t know what we’re –
Megan Figueroa: We’re just rage venting. Make sure to call people out if you do see it. It’s fucking racist. It’s gross. It implies that somehow some people are more susceptible or – there’s so many implications in calling it the “Chinese Virus” that are so –
Carrie Gillon: Blaming. It’s basically blaming all of Chinese people for a virus that comes from bats. Nobody got it on purpose. No one spread it on purpose. It’s just a thing that happens because we live in proximity to animals and sometimes animal viruses jump to humans. Sometimes, they mutate and then go human to human. It’s nobody’s fault.
Megan Figueroa: It’s definitely a blaming thing.
Carrie Gillon: Anyway, please – [Laughter]
Megan Figueroa: Let’s take a break from COVID-19 for a minute. Got a very special episode today. I talk with Drs. Jonathan Rosa and Nelson Flores. It was an amazing chat.
Carrie Gillon: It was pretty fun. And I wasn’t in this conversation because you guys were gonna talk about Latinx, and then you didn’t talk about it!
Megan Figueroa: I know.
Carrie Gillon: I could’ve been part of this conversation.
Megan Figueroa: I know. I’m so sorry! [Laughter] I thought we were gonna get – yeah. But, yes, you would’ve enjoyed being there, I’m sure. So, I’m sorry about that.
Carrie Gillon: It’s all right. It was very long, so I ended up cutting out a significant portion, which we are going to put in our bonus episode this month.
Megan Figueroa: Yes!
Carrie Gillon: If you wanna get access to that, and you don’t already have access, then you can join us at patreon.com/vocalfriespod at the $5.00 level.
Megan Figueroa: We forgot to say it at the end, so don’t be an asshole.
Carrie Gillon: Oh, yeah! That is true. Definitely. Definitely do not be an asshole.
Megan Figueroa: We have Dr. Nelson Flores, who is an associate professor of educational linguistics, and we got a title change over here. We have Dr. Jonathan Rosa, who is now an associate professor because you were an assistant last time we chatted. That’s exciting.
Jonathan Rosa: Yes. I was recently promoted. I mean, now, technically, as to whether the promotion takes place in a couple of months – you know but maybe by the time the episode airs. But, yeah, it’s more or less a for sure –
Megan Figueroa: Okay. Nelson’s at Penn and Jonathan is over at Stanford. But you’re on sabbatical in Chicago right now, right?
Jonathan Rosa: I was in Chicago. Now, I am traveling for conferences and other things, so I’m actually here in the multilingual bastion of Miami – the fraught, let’s say, multilingual space of Miami.
Megan Figueroa: The theme of this almost could be misconceptions because both ya’ll are talking, that means there’s two of you. I think a lot of people didn’t know there were two of you. I feel like a lot of people think that either you’re one person, which is what I’ve seen on the internet, confusing ya’ll. And you said “married” or also “related” you’ve gotten too?
Nelson Flores: Yeah. I don’t think people know what to make of us. I think part of it is that we both have flower last names, and so people get the “Flores” and the “Rosa” confused. I’ve gotten “Nelson Rosa.” I know that Jonathan has gotten “Jonathan Flores.” I don’t think people know what to make of us sometimes because, of course, we’ve very close. We clearly have a lot of love for each other. But we’re also queer, and so I think people are kind of like, “There must be some type of marriage or something.” Just to clarify, we’re not married.
Megan Figueroa: Could it just be a marriage of ideas and love?
Nelson Flores: I mean, we’re academically married, I suppose, but not married in the heteronormative ways that people oftentimes mean it.
Jonathan Rosa: Let me say one thing about Nelson’s and my presumed inter-changeability, or perhaps a couple of things about it. In one sense, I think this is a very common phenomenon that happens with marginalized populations where people who are marked in particular ways based on race, gender, and sexuality, especially, there’s this sense that you’re all the same and you all could be a spokesperson for whatever set of ideas.
I guess, if I’m being generous, then I would say, “Oh, well, maybe because there are so few of us or because we’ve been positioned as the spokespeople for particular kinds of stances or ideas that we get equated with one another.” My much less generous take on this is that it demonstrates the ways that we get recruited to enact or inhabit these tokenized positions where, essentially, the kinds of contributions that we could make are already predetermined and the question is which of us is needed to make that contribution on which day at which time – this sort of thing.
I think it’s a very troublesome situation. It happens with a whole range of colleagues where we get equated with one another and the sense is just that we could all be one another – any distinctive contributions we might make. That has concrete kinds of consequences in one’s professional life but also in terms of broader political struggles. Professionally, when so much of what we’re up to – or the assessment of what we’re up to – is based on whether you’ve made a unique contribution and you’re equated with someone else constantly, then that can be tricky.
But on a much – I don’t wanna frame academics as the most marginalized or something like that or I don’t wanna say that the goal, then, is to secure the individuality of our contributions. It’s more politically that I’m interested in the ways that our contributions to the world or the kinds of struggles in which we could engage are really narrowly defined and constrained and that this equation of us or interchangeability is a reflection of that.
Megan Figueroa: I’m not even in ya’ll’s field and – because I’ve kind of gotten a little bit of a platform now speaking about these things, but I’m speaking about them personally, so I don’t study it in the way that you do – that I’m often included now when people @ you on Twitter. They’ll put me now, too. I love to talk about these things when it’s right for it, and if I’m emotionally available for it, but I noticed that ya’ll might not always be emotionally available for that and you get dragged into it a lot – “dragged.” I say “dragged.” But a lot of times it might feel like that, right?
Nelson Flores: I mean, I think Twitter in particular is an interesting platform. I mean, clearly, I love Twitter. I mean, it’s connected me to people like you, Megan, who I didn’t know before I was on Twitter. It’s connected me to a lot of interesting people, and I’ve learned a lot off of Twitter. At the same time, I think sometimes people take Twitter way more serious than maybe it’s intended to be. There’s this – like, I just write a tweet that’s kind of like an off the cuff tweet, and then people are like, “Send me 10 references to what you just said so that I can read up on it.”
And it’s like, “Well, you know, I’m not in class right now. I’m just writing some tweets.” If you wanna learn more about it, you can certainly google and do some of that work for yourself, but I don’t know if – almost coming from a sense of entitlement in terms of like, “You need to teach me this because your tweet made me uncomfortable. So, you need to further clarify what you mean so that maybe I can feel a little less uncomfortable with what you just said.”
I don’t think that that’s always coming from a bad place. I think people sometimes feel uncomfortable and they wanna know more. I just don’t know if Twitter is actually the best venue for doing that. Maybe they need to do some of the work for themselves rather than expecting people on Twitter to do extra labor and getting them to really understand things that maybe they really need to do the work for on their own.
Megan Figueroa: How does that play out for you in your job as a professor or as an academic that travels to conferences? Are you asked to do a lot of that emotional labor for people when it comes to Latinx issues?
Jonathan Rosa: Well, it’s interesting. I mean, I think that it requires us to do a lot of careful, strategic engagement where you say – yeah, there are invitations that ask you to represent a certain perspective or recruit you to represent a certain perspective. There’re also efforts to invite you to participate in mentoring activities that are based on a presumed shared experience. There’re some of these efforts that feel really substantive and meaningful where you say, “Okay, wait. There’s something that I have to say here that I think contributes to this dialogue or contributes to this bigger project.”
There’re other moments when you say, “Oh, they just want someone else to read the script. They just need another person to read the same script. Am I just gonna be that person today?” I’ll never forget when one of my mentors, Melissa Harris-Perry, who used to have her show on MSNBC, when she was leaving MSNBC based on some fraught relationships there, I’ll never forget when she was very public about saying that she was not going to be anyone’s little brown bobblehead. She was not going to be this ornamental piece and really an object.
I think that that’s the part that’s deeply concerning in some situations where you become an object, and you don’t have anything to say. The on-demand part of it is also tricky because I think we want to make meaningful contributions and we want to engage with publics, but there’s an accessibility issue that could be complex to navigate as well where you’re on the clock or on call or you’re expected to be the go-to person on such and such issue.
I found that has happened to me in certain situations as well where the expectation is that anything related to any language and identity issue I should just speak to casually. I worry. In some situations, some of my ideas about these topics – and this is why I appreciate Nelson’s comments about Twitter. Sometimes, I just wanna be irreverent. Sometimes, I just wanna make a joke about language.
I mean, I said it after the Joe Biden landslide victory on Super Tuesday that one of the things that’s most interesting to me about his success there is it demonstrates how irrelevant language is in some situations because, from many people’s perspectives, he’s been more or less incoherent in a range of situations. Yet, his incoherence has not prevented his political ascendance.
In some cases, I just wanna be flippant about language. And other moments, I’ve done a tremendous amount of research, and I wanna be careful, and I wanna weigh in on a debate in a nuanced way. But I think that the on-call part of things invites people to offer their opinion constantly as though they had carefully developed a serious perspective. In many situations, people haven’t developed that kind of a careful perspective and yet are asked to be the expert on something.
Megan Figueroa: Do you feel like there’s different work going into it when you’re being flippant? Because I feel like, sometimes, I’ll say something on Twitter or even around colleagues and I feel like it takes less emotional toll on me than if I really wanted to get into something. That’s why I feel like I really appreciate Twitter because, when I put something out there, I feel like I’m not actually having to do as much emotional work. I feel like I can get something quick out of there and then maybe someone will learn something.
But it always becomes more emotional. I had a tweet the other day that said – so this gets into the idea of semilingualism, which I wanna talk to ya’ll about. I said that that’s not a thing. You can’t have kids that end up in school and have low skill in both languages. That’s the idea of semilingualism. I wanna get into it with you. And someone retweeted me and was like, “I’d like to know what my language acquisition colleagues think.” And I’m like, “I’m a fucking language acquisition expert.”
I really sometimes wonder, “Oh, are they seeing my last name and all of a sudden I’m not taken as seriously because I’m too emotional about this?” I really, honestly, feel that sometimes. Do you have that happen as well?
Nelson Flores: I have been accused of being a bully.
Megan Figueroa: Which is so funny to me. You’re so kind. But, yes. [Laughs]
Nelson Flores: I think a lot of that stems from precisely my resistance to feel like I need to do the emotional labor of making people feel comfortable about what I’m saying. In particular, as a Latino scholar doing work in bilingual education, I’m particularly resistant to the idea that I need to make white people feel comfortable doing work in bilingual education. I put my work out there. I let it speak for itself. I certainly have never targeted anyone individually and personally insulted them, which is what bullying actually is, right? “Bullying” actually has an actual meaning.
As a gay person, I’ve experienced it personally as a gay person. I know what bullying is and I know that what I’m doing, which is working to dismantle white supremacy in how we think about issues in bilingualism, is not bullying anybody. I do think that there are these strong emotional reactions that people have to my work in both ways. I’ve also had people tell me that it’s given them a vocabulary for making sense of things that they kind of always knew didn’t make any sense and had visceral reactions against but really didn’t have a vocabulary for thinking about.
I mean, in the end, I think what it boils down to is that all researchers have emotional investment in the work that we do. It’s that people who are coming from marginalized positions, oftentimes, that emotional investment is marked in ways that it’s not marked for white researchers, but they also have an emotional investment, oftentimes, in whiteness and the objectivity that oftentimes ascribed to whiteness.
When that’s called into question, and the ways that Jonathan and I have called into question in our work, that oftentimes leads to strong visceral reactions. Oftentimes, people feel personally attacked when it’s really not a personal attack at all.
Megan Figueroa: Let’s ignore my sloppy definition. Will you tell me, Nelson, what semilingualism is?
Nelson Flores: Well, we can trace the discourses of semilingualism back to the origins of European colonialism. That’s something that Jonathan and I wrote about in our 2017 piece, which is essentially one of the primary mechanisms for dehumanizing indigenous populations, African populations, by calling into question their language practices and suggesting that their language practices were somehow illegitimate or subhuman.
Now, the concept of semilingualism itself emerges within the context of the Bilingual Education Act in the United States. It actually emerged originally in Scandinavia, but I’ll focus on the work in the United States. The term itself emerges in Scandinavia. Within the context of the Bilingual Education Act, which was passed in 1968, they were accountability metrics that had to be used to show that these programs were being successful. One of the things that they had to do was assess students to see if they were Spanish dominant or not because if they were not Spanish dominant, then they wouldn’t be eligible for most of these programs.
Some of these students were assessed and their assessment suggested that they were not proficient in either English or Spanish. The discourse that was developed by scholars at the time to make sense of that was to say that they were semilingual, that they didn’t have full competency in any language. That was quickly critiqued by other scholars who said you really can’t describe people that way. That’s not really a thing.
Then, the discourse shifted to the discussion of basic interpersonal communication skills, or social language, and cognitive academic language proficiency, or academic language. The discourse shifted towards they have BICS, or social language, but they don’t have CALP, or academic language. You can trace directly that discourse. I’m not making a leap there. Scholars who originally used the term “semilingualism” shifted towards a discussion of social and academic language.
Whenever we talk about social and academic language today, that’s really the legacy that we’ve inherited – a legacy of semilingualism, of suggesting that there’s something illegitimate about the language practices of racialized bilingual students.
Megan Figueroa: I just had a friend tell me that the latest TESOL conference, a major theme was semilingualism.
Nelson Flores: As a good thing or as a bad thing?
Megan Figueroa: I asked him. I said, “Were they debunking it?” although – even though we still have to debunk it in 2020. But he said, “No. I don’t think so.” He said that his friend was not happy.
Jonathan Rosa: Semilingualism. I think actually my experience with this conversation ties together the previous dialogue that we were just having about the ways that we’re positioned as ideological or overly emotionally invested in certain topics which then is presumed to distort our opinions on these topics. I was writing an article a few years ago that Nelson and I have been in conversation with about ideas related to semilingualism. I was writing about what I called, “ideologies of languagelessness,” that just framed certain populations as deficient in any language that they use. It’s not just certain populations. It’s racialized populations.
I think, for example, Nelson invoked the ways that the discourse of semilingualism emerged in Scandinavia. Part of what’s distinctive about how it gets enacted in the European context versus in the Americas and elsewhere is that it’s framed in the Americas as a highly racialized concept that maps onto a population across generations and is presumed to be somehow inherent to particular populations in ways that really articulate alongside race or in concert in with race.
This notion, for me, of an ideology of languagelessness is reflected in the ways that semilingualism is taken up in the United States, reflected in the ways that particular populations are framed as “non-nons” in the United States, or non-verbal in English and their so-called native language. “Linguistic isolation” is a category that was used by the census for about 30 years to designate certain households as lacking language altogether.
Megan Figueroa: That happens to real populations, too. That’s really offense. There’re deaf children that are actually experiencing language isolation, and yet this is where they’re using that.
Jonathan Rosa: It’s problematic in every direction. There’re people who are really being denied access to language learning and meaningful cultural opportunities that are mislabeled because of these sorts of stereotypes about isolation but also isolation in terms of the ways that it articulates in relation to policy. It’s messed up because it’s intended to serve as a tool for ensuring compliance with the voting rights act – to make sure that you have resources in languages other than English. You need to designate the number of households within a community that require those resources.
In order to access those resources in languages other than English, you have to be designated as “isolated” rather than designated as “using languages in addition to English.” I’ve found that these sorts of stereotypes map across a whole range of institutional contexts. In everyday discourse you hear people say, “So-and-So doesn’t speak English well. They don’t speak Spanish well.” In a school where I was working, the principal, who had a doctorate in education and was a Puerto Rican woman, one teacher said, “She speaks English like one of our ninth graders. From what I understand, her Spanish isn’t that good either.”
When I was writing about this, I said, “These are these ideologies of languagelessness that map onto people regardless of their credentials, regardless of what might seem to be their empirical linguistic practices.” The initial response to that article, when I tried to publish it, from reviewers was that I was ideological, that I was imposing an analysis onto these situations and imposing this idea, this attribution of deficiency that wasn’t really there. But for me, I was observing connections across all of these spaces.
I think that for scholars who are attentive to particular patterns of marginalization – that we’re drawing connections that aren’t observable from other perspectives and so we look like conspiracy theorists, or we look as though we’re over-generalizing, or over-applying, or over-reaching in our analyses when, in fact, I think part of what is so troublesome about normative social-scientific and scientific research more generally is that the kind of empiricism that it embraces recruits you to accept the world as it is and to naturalize that world and then to observe things in such a way that allows us to reproduce that world at the same time that we proport to just be noticing things that are happening within it.
For me, drawing connections across these patterns is essential to my critique of the way that this world has come to be structured. I’ve found that a lot of reviewers are unwilling or not inclined to engage in that kind of a critique.
Megan Figueroa: I had a moment of realization here too that that’s happening to me because I spent a lot of time in psychology because I did study psycholinguistics and do language development. It is fraught with really disgusting views of communities that they’ve marginalized. These are marginalized speakers and they’re always looking for disorder in some way.
I have a background, too, in speech and hearing so there are legitimate concerns to be had about children that do have language disorders, right, but that’s not what’s happening here. These are neurotypical hearing children that people are looking for a disorder at every turn and they’re finding it because it’s easy to find it when you’re looking – you’ll find evidence for anything that you’re looking for.
Every time I say something about this, I do feel like some people think I’m a conspiracy theorist and they’re saying – like, when I say, “Talk to your children however you want and however you feel comfortable with,” people think that that’s – they’re like, “We have all this evidence that suggest that some input is just not as good.” They really want that to live on.
Nelson Flores: Well, I think that connects back to the emotional investment in whiteness’s objectivity. I think that that really throws people off when we refuse to allow whiteness to be framed as objective. If your position is that these ways are better input because they’re more normative and they’re more aligned with whiteness, then say that. I would be okay with you. We would disagree, but at least you’re being honest with what your perspective is, what your ideological position is.
I always say – I own my ideological position. I own where I’m coming from, and I own my locus of annunciation. I just push other scholars to do the same thing. If you’re using discourses that come from the specter of semilingualism, then just own that ideological position and say what you’re essentially saying is that everyone should speak like a normative white person. That’s not progressive and that’s not liberal, so don’t pretend that you’re progressive or liberal if you’re actually promoting an agenda that supports white supremacy. At least don’t be disingenuous and try to proport that what you’re saying is some type of objective representation rather than an ideological one.
Megan Figueroa: Right. Exactly what they’re saying when they say, “No, there is a right way to speak to children,” is there is a white way to speak to children because that’s what we know of all of these studies on language development. I mean, I don’t know the exact number, but it’s in the 90% of – it’s been done on white, middle-class, suburban babies. Yeah. That’s one way of talking to children, but it’s not the only way. We are continually investing in speaking like white, middle-class parents when we say that these studies are basically how it should be for everyone. People don’t really like to hear that. You’re right. I’m realizing this now.
Sometimes, I still feel very naïve because I’m like, “Oh, well, they’ll just hear it once and then that’ll be enough,” like people will stop and reflect. That’s not what’s happening. I’m always a little bit surprised because I’m hoping that it just takes one moment of reflection and then you can start dismantling. We’re really invested in these things, in these ideas.
Nelson Flores: The challenge is that we continue to frame things as empirical questions that are really ideological questions. You can keep trying to disprove an ideology, but if it’s an ideology, it’s kind of, by definition, something that you can’t really disprove because people have really deeply ingrained investment in those beliefs. At this point, we’re not really having an empirical question.
I think, empirically, we have the data that shows that all communities have complex, rich language practices that they engage in, but people don’t believe it because they don’t wanna believe it because they have deep investment in these ideas that certain communities have more rich language practices than other communities. At that point, you can’t disprove white supremacy. If people are invested in white supremacy, then they’re gonna be invested in white supremacy. That’s the challenge that I think we’re trying to highlight in our work is what do we do in that context. How do we intervene in that context?
Jonathan Rosa: Part of, I think, what’s particularly challenging about this ideology is the way that it is associated with a liberal benevolence where the people who are perpetuating it are deeply invested in staking a claim to helping. They see themselves as really participating in projects that are progressive or even projects that are aimed toward social justice, this kind of thing. They really want to understand themselves as addressing the marginalized.
I think when Nelson was talking about having been called a bully in the past or this kind of thing, I think part of why some people are so off put is that even the remote suggestion that linguists – sociolinguists, linguistic anthropologists, applied linguists, psycholinguists – that we have, in fact, contributed to the problem. Many scholars want to understand themselves as the people who are solving problems, but I think one of the things Nelson and I – that brings us together in our work is our deep suspicion that many of the scholarly labels and categories and approaches have in fact emerged from the very systems of power that we’re trying to critique here.
I think we have a long way to go in terms of trying to unsettle some of these assumptions. I encounter this constantly, the sense – Ana Celia Zentella always says – a mentor of mine – always says, “The helping hand strikes again.” In so many of these situations, when we’re talking about bilingualism and multilingualism and standard language and academic language, just educational language learning, it’s the helping hand strikes again. It’s we wanna help the kids. We wanna help their families use more quality language with them. We wanna help them to become proficient users of such and such language.
I think when we keep pushing – and we always push – “What’s your theory of change? What is it that changes?” These families use language in this way, so this school institutionalizes language in this way to change these behaviors. Then, what happens? Then, people have access to a different world? Then, the structure of the economy transforms? Then, stable housing and living wages and political representation – then that emerges from language use? Or are we facing a fundamentally different kind of challenge? Should our critique, should our efforts towards promoting language learning and our engagement with language, be oriented towards those bigger challenges? Or should they be narrowly focused on changing people’s language practices in their homes, in classrooms – really changing the behaviors of the marginalized?
I think this so much of what Nelson and I have been trying to call into question – just fundamentally rethinking the project of educational language learning.
Megan Figueroa: We’re in the epicenter of funding for things like Closing the Word Gap. I’m like, if we spent that money towards universal housing or some sort of universal basic income, it would go way further than spending money on fucking trying to close the so-called word gap. But that’s where people wanna spend the money. That’s where funding agencies are funneling the money because, you’re right, they feel like they’re the helping hand that’s gonna fix the marginalized.
Another buzzword term that I wanted to bring up – “bilingual brain.” Jonathan, what is a bilingual brain?
Jonathan Rosa: It’s interesting. I was mentioning to both of you that I sometimes make flippant comments about these sorts of catchphrases. This notion of the bilingual brain, like the language gap or word gap, I’ve often had a knee-jerk reaction to it where I felt as though it were locating language within a cognitive system rather than within a historical and cultural system. To be clear, I’m really interested in the cognitive dimensions of language, but that’s not the primary focus of my research. It’s something that I’ve certainly studied and something that I respect research in this area.
However, sometimes, when I talk about it, I’m more concerned with the slogans, with the ways that it’s turned into this commodified project. As soon as it becomes a slogan, then very quickly we see which populations will benefit from that kind of a project of turning something into a commodity that you could achieve somehow. If this is a justice project, if part of what we’re up to is trying to address marginalization, then these notions of a bilingual brain, I don’t know how far that will get us.
Now, I was saying to you all that a colleague recently was pushing me on this to say, look, there’re different ways that that kind of notion has been developed within, say, psycholinguistics or within psychology of language versus, say, within neurolinguistics – neurolinguists who understand themselves to be more attuned to some of these cultural and historical issues and are not trying to promote the narrow view of what bilingualism is.
I will say I continue to be concerned, regardless of the meaningful work that people might be doing in these areas. I continue to be concerned abut the ways that “bilingualism” is defined and the ways that languages are separated from one another in order to reproduce this notion of bilingualism. I wonder what languages even count as legitimate in this research. When you’re staking claims to a bilingual brain, which languages are involved? Are they languages like Chatino that my close colleague Emiliana Cruz studies in Oaxaca in Guatemala? Which languages are we staking these claims to cognitive advancement based on?
That’s one piece of – yeah, just this notion of who is a legitimate bilingual such that we could study their brain. It frankly reminds me in my most – perhaps not my most critical take on it – but it reminds me of some of these genetic ancestry tests which proport to find race in your genes but, in fact, have to presume that race already lives in your genes in order to then find it there. If you understand race to be something historically constructed, then it doesn’t live in your genes.
Similarly, you have to presume that bilingualism lives primarily in the brain in order to then measure it – measure what it’s doing there. I think bilingualism lives between people not within people. My neurolinguistics colleagues were saying – the colleague who was pushing me on this – was sort of saying, “No, I understand brains to be across people not just within an individual” and that from the perspective of psychology, often, it’s on that individual basis. So, I think that there are interesting debates to have. I continue to be concerned about the slogan though.
Nelson Flores: Of course, I agree with everything Jonathan is saying. This whole idea of a bilingual brain is still, from my opinion, coming from a monolingual perspective in the sense that most of the world is bi- or multilingual. Why are we exceptionalizing the, quote, “bilingual” brain instead of the quote, “monolingual” brain to begin with? Why aren’t we saying, “What are the unique cognitive traits of monolingual people who are the minority of the population?”
Maybe a bilingual brain is just a brain and it’s the monolingual brain that’s actually this weird thing that we need to study. Of course, I don’t actually believe that, but I feel like some of the discourse exceptionalizing bilingualism, when we reverse it and really think about, well, if we describe monolingualism in that way, that would be really strange. Yet, “bilingual” describes more of the world’s population than “monolingual.” What exactly are we doing there?
Of course, connecting to something Jonathan was saying before, the bilingual brain discourse, I would trace its origins to the classic Peal & Lambert study that found cognitive advantages to bilingualism. In that study, they threw out more than half of the sample because they weren’t appropriately monolingual or bilingual. From there on, we already inherited this idea of bilingualism that’s coming from a very normative idea of what bilingualism even is to begin with.
Then, I would add to that whenever we ask the question about whether bilingualism has cognitive advantages, it always opens up the question of whether there are disadvantages. It’s a slippery slope. If we’re willing to ask the question if there are advantages, then it opens up the question of whether there are disadvantages. I think that we shouldn’t do that. We should just say, “bilingualism is,” it just is. Most of the world is bilingual, multilingual, it’s just what human societies are. There are no advantages or disadvantages. It just is.
We start from that perspective, and I think that would allow us to ask different questions about cognitive processes of language learning and whatnot.
Megan Figueroa: This is where we got ourselves into trouble because all of a sudden Pete, in all of these polls, people are saying that they think he’s the smartest and I really believe it’s tied to his so-called multilingualism. Then, you’re right that it’s so ideological because Spanish in Pete’s brain is beautiful and amazing, but in my father is somehow a deficit and they beat it out of him when he started school.
It was really frustrating to see that play out on the national stage. I’m like, “That’s what we’re doing” – a lot of academics are doing. We’re perpetuating this by asking these bilingual brain questions or what are the cognitive advantages. It always just seems to steer toward, okay, there’re cognitive advantages for people like Pete but, all of a sudden, it’s a disorder or deficit when it’s someone like my dad.
Nelson Flores: This is why, whenever people ask me to speak on my analysis of multilingualism and politicians, the first question that they wanna ask me is how good their Spanish is. I always say, “That’s actually not the question I’m interested in” because how good someone’s Spanish is is connected to the social status of that person. Whenever we begin to sort people into good Spanish speakers versus bad Spanish speakers, it’s always the most marginalized that are going to be most victimized and receive remediation for it.
I actually never – even though people insist that I do this all the time – I 1.) never evaluate the Spanish of white politicians and 2.) never say that they should never speak Spanish because 1.) I don’t have the power to tell them that they can’t. They can do whatever they want. They’re white. That’s kind of the definition of whiteness in the US. But I don’t think that that type of language policing is productive anyway. I’m more interested in how bilingualism is talked about differently depending on the race and social status position of people. That’s my primary focus in analyzing these things.
Yeah, Mayor Pete, people are like, “Wow! He speaks like a gazillion languages. Isn’t he so smart?” And I’m like, “Well, actually, you could go to many places in the world where people speak those gazillion languages, right, and they’re not positioned as smart in the same way.”
Jonathan Rosa: Part of what’s so striking to me about some of these popular discussions of language – whether we’re talking about Mayor Pete or if you’re talking about Donald Trump – if you’re talking about someone whose speech is seen as more sophisticated or more cognitively advanced and multilingual or you’re talking about someone whose language use from a liberal perspective is often derided as somehow non-grammatical or unintelligent, this kind of thing, that in each of those cases it seems to me again, as Nelson was saying – the discussions of language seem to miss the point in many situations. It’s less about language and more about a whole range of other issues that we’re not paying attention to.
These discussions about a particular politician – non-Latinx politician’s – use of Spanish in the United States often have nothing to do with what they’re actually saying in Spanish or communicating in Spanish. It’s more about the idea of Spanish that positions them somehow as a particular kind of person. As Nelson was saying, we get roped into playing the game when we start assessing how good their Spanish is and suggesting that, no, they should improve their Spanish. That’s not the point. The point is to ask why it is that, based on their position, this ends up being advantageous for them or seems to become framed as a benefit.
Similarly, with Donald Trump, I think a lot of the discussions about his language use miss the point fundamentally when people are saying, “Ugh! We need a more respectable, intelligent person in office.” Well, you’re totally missing the point. Donald Trump is a television show host and a celebrity and he’s very effective at those roles. His performance of being a buffoon in some situations or being a clown in some situations is very politically strategic just like George W. Bush was very politically strategic in his dissimulation in certain ways. He comes from –
Megan Figueroa: In his folksiness, right?
Jonathan Rosa: In his folksiness. He comes from an incredibly wealthy family with access to a range of educational opportunities and then plays off of this persona – an imagined folksy persona. I think we miss the point sometimes when we critique or celebrate language use. We’re not paying attention to the performance that’s happening. We should be thinking about what makes those performances possible, what makes them valuable, and what makes them strategically useful. Perhaps, we should be attacking that system rather than just focusing narrowly on language use.
Nelson Flores: I think that’s something that you were talking about. The idea of Spanish in liberal politicians is an interesting one because, oftentimes, I think Pete did this, and Joe Kennedy and Tim Kaine, where they use Spanish to directly speak to Dreamers, which is interesting because of course the whole narrative around Dreamers is that they grew up in this country and so their English is just fine. Of course, not all dreamers are Latinx and wouldn’t be expected to be Spanish-speaking anyway.
They’re not actually directly addressing Dreamers there. They’re directly addressing white liberals who feel good about themselves because a politician is bilingual. It’s not actually serving what would seem to be the explicit – what they’re saying explicitly is not actually what they’re communicating because they actually don’t need to communicate in Spanish with Dreamers. It actually doesn’t make sense because a lot of Dreamers wouldn’t understand what they were saying anyway. It’s just to show – look at me! I speak Spanish.
That’s where I say, “Well, you don’t get a cookie.” People took my “You don’t get a cookie” as to be like “White people shouldn’t speak Spanish.” It’s like, well, no. If they’re speaking to the Spanish language media and are trying to actually engage a Spanish-speaking audience, that’s great! But to randomly do it in a speech of people who are not Spanish-speaking, to an audience that you’re imaging is an audience of Spanish speakers who most of them probably – or many of them – are probably not Spanish speakers, then that’s disingenuous. That’s more you want the props for being bilingual rather than you’re using your bilingualism to actually communicate with a marginalized community who may actually benefit from knowing more about your policy positions.
Megan Figueroa: Well, I really appreciate both of you being here. I mean, I know it’s hard for you to see each other, I’m sure. I heard that you’ve never skyped together.
Nelson Flores: Yeah! We never skyped together. We text a lot, and I said – on occasion, we’ll talk on the phone if we set it up in advance. We put it on our calendars. But we do audio. I said we’re old millennials. We don’t do the FaceTime stuff. Oh, last thing. Something else that people confuse us. People think I’m an anthropologist because Jonathan is an anthropologist. Just to clear the record, I am not an anthropologist and I don’t really have any particular investment in contributing to the field of anthropology, though I find some of the frameworks helpful.
Megan Figueroa: Okay. Yes. [Laughter]
Nelson Flores: I mean, I get interpolated as an anthropologist a lot now. That’s only because of the collaboration with Jonathan.
Megan Figueroa: Or the fact that they just think you are Jonathan.
Nelson Flores: Right. I think that that’s – I mean, I’m not hating on anthropology. It’s just not my training, it’s not my discipline, and I don’t have any particular vested interest in that disciplinary perspective and its contributions.
Jonathan Rosa: We see you, Nelson. Welcome. [Laughter]
Nelson Flores: I haven’t gone to the dark side of linguistic anthropology.
Jonathan Rosa: We see you Nelson!
Megan Figueroa: Next time we chat in a year from now, you’re gonna be like –
Nelson Flores: I’m gonna be like Boas. Yes, Boas is my godfather.
Megan Figueroa: [Laughter] Well, thank you, again.
Carrie Gillon: The Vocal Fries podcast is produced by me, Carrie Gillon, for Halftone Audio, theme music by Nick Granum. You can find us on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @vocalfriespod. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and our website is vocalfriespod.com.