OlgaOlga Vásquez is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of California, San Diego. Her research examines the intersection of literacy, language, and culture in intercultural settings. As an ethnographer of education, her work covers bilingual education, culturally responsive curriculum, and access to educational resources by underrepresented groups. Over the last five years, she has been increasingly interested in the ways institutional linkages between the university and community facilitate the exchange of knowledge between two dissimilar cultural groups while focusing on how language and culture influence learning and development in after-school educational settings. Currently, she is involved in the study of sustainable innovative educational activities that provide a range of literacy activities through computer and telecommunication technology.

Every year, I teach a course called Bilingual Communication offered through the Department of Communication at the University of California, San Diego. Every year, language diversity in this class gets ever more pronounced and more interesting. Over the last ten years, I have noticed a very visible shift from a majority of Anglo and Latino students with a sprinkling of Asian students to a high percentage of Asian students with a sprinkling of Anglos and Latinos. Today, Asian students make up 48-52% of the student population at UCSD and a slightly higher percentage in this class. Forty of the 70 students enrolled in the course during the first quarter of 2010 represented a variety of Asian language groups with varying degrees of English fluency. In total, 18 languages were spoken fluently among class members. A total of 20 languages were used at home, and among class participants’ grandparents there were a total of 27 languages spoken. Only three students were monolingual English speakers. Spanish was the second most spoken language in the classroom following English. The visibility of Spanish was not because Latinos were highly represented but because Asian students and students of others ethnicities typically chose Spanish as their language of choice in high school.

Over the years, I have changed the course significantly since I inherited it from Luis Moll who designed it before I arrived at UCSD in 1989. The most salient of these changes was the re-structuring of the course from a focus on bilingualism in K-12 instruction and assessment to a broader focus on bilingualism in the individual and society. Three interrelated factors prompted this shift. First, I wanted the course to align more clearly with the broader societal perspective offered by the general curriculum of the department. Second, as a researcher who creates and studies optimal learning environments, I wanted to reflect this sensitivity in the growing diversity among the students. Third, some of the students had previously found my focus on Latino/as as unacceptable. As a Latina, I know all too well about the repercussions associated with a curriculum that overlooks the contributions one’s own group has made to American society. Given that I also consider Latinos my primary area of interest, I could not, in good conscience, ignore this concern, even though it may have been racially tinged. As Kendra Hamilton found out[1], students in colleges across the country are resistant to discussions of race and as well as to faculty of color, and UCSD is no different, as many colleagues of color will attest. Thus, I settled on re-framing bilingualism as the rule rather than the exception worldwide. Additionally, I decided to illuminate the social structures such as exclusionary legislation, the media’s endorsement of “Standard English”[2], and the policy of “English Only” in P-12 classrooms in California, Arizona, and Massachusetts that paint speakers of non-dominant languages as deficient, substandard, and undesirable as Ana Celia Zentella and John Baugh[3] make evident in their work.

Throughout the course, I try to point out the fallacy of language ideologies associated with English in American society: English is not better than any other language for intellectual work; all languages are up to the task. Giving up one’s language for English does not ensure upward mobility or better grades in school; it ensures monolingualism, a liability in today’s globalized world. For instance, engineers working on multinational projects like building dams in China or constructing super highways in South America need to be able to communicate with their colleagues and with local community members on the ground. In these and other business, social, and political contexts, being monolingual may exclude someone from a job. Speaking English does not make one a better American; the continental United States was multilingual long before the colonists set foot on the continent, making English today, one of the many languages that one can use to express loyalty to this land and this country. Of course, these well established facts are hard to accept for students who have grown up with the skewed and incomplete views of history that have been prevalent in mainstream US culture for many generations. It is this realization that helps me to deal with students who retort that it is I who has slanted views and who occasionally vocalized, “We are in America, we speak English here!” or “When you go to France or any other country, they expect you to learn their language.”

In spite of these few, the majority of students enrolled in the course appreciate the opportunity to examine, often for the very first time, their language loss and their subsequent disconnect with their language community as a result of being educated in this country. During office hours many a student has painfully shared the high cost of this privilege on their native language fluency and social identity. Along the way, they decide that it is much easier to give up their language and change their names to Susie or Dennis so they can fit in. In Lost in Translation, Eva Hoffman relates the impact that the slight change of name by her teacher from Ewa to Eva, a seemingly insignificant change was actually “a small seismic mental shift. The twist in our names takes them a tiny distance from us—but it’s a gap into which the infinite hobgoblin of abstraction enters.”

The case of Karen (pseudonym), a graduating senior, recounts the great awakening to the loss that some students experience when they take time to examine the relationship of language to culture, identity and mainstream ideologies. In the middle of the quarter, Karen experienced a ‘eureka’ moment about why she had never dated Koreans; she had internalized the negative views of Koreans that was common throughout the all-white schools she had attended as a child. The ideas of the course cracked opened the possibility for her to examine the genesis of her choices and explore an option that reigning ideologies had obstructed. The following summer she took a trip to Korea to continue her exploration of her origins. Countless others have shared their “emotions of minority status” as Norma Gonzalez calls the feeling of being different across the Southwest or as Joe [pseudonym], a monolingual, mainstream young man confided regarding the tremendous complexity of the “language issue” and the lives of language minority populations.

As I close off the 2009-2010 school year, a new language reality appears in the horizon, one that shifts the discussion of “the language issue” to Asian populations. The label, “language barrier” is no longer the sole property of Spanish language speakers, nor of lower class immigrants. This oxymoron speaks to a new type of English learner, the Asian student, at least here at UCSD. Cloaked in the illusion of a model minority[4], this view of the English learner is both a curse and a blessing for these students and other English learners. First, it perpetuates the myth that all Asian students are brilliant, hard working, assimilated and able to get by without any help, a falsehood that deprives less privileged recent immigrants of the resources, attention and opportunities they require to attain the quality education they paid dearly for. They are invisible in their visibility, as one colleague’s unanswered pleas for a discussion on this language issue make clear. Much like the thousands of Spanish speakers that came before them, they are the ones that are asked to make the appropriate accommodation while the university stands idly by, content with its apparent diversity. It is a rare individual who does not give up his or her birth name, language and identity to make it easier for professors, employers and their friends. The thin silver lining in all of this loss, however, is that Asian students are more readily accepted, at least on the surface, than the hundreds of Latino youth who continue to suffer outright exclusion and hostility across the country, particularly in Arizona. I suspect that the kind of education that the Karens of this world need in order to maintain their native language and cultural identity and still be considered a bona fide American is probably decades away. It may be too late, however, as national citizenship may be jettisoned by advances in information and communication technologies that facilitate the development of new transnational identities and allegiances which Sunaina Maira discovers among South Asian high school students. Nevertheless, it is abundantly clear, that monolingualism is a thing of the past, or more accurately, a mark of insulated communities that resist progress and the social realities of an intensely interconnected world. Proficiency in more than one language facilitates ‘‘interpersonal, academic and social communication, expands intellectual horizons, and encourages appreciation and tolerance for different cultures’’ in an age of globalization and internationalization ( Burbules and Torres, (cited in Biseth, 2009)

The 27 states in the union that have passed English Only laws and that do not recognized the value of the 18 languages spoken in my classroom or in any classroom as ‘national resources,’ as Kenji Hakuta calls languages other than English in the United States, are regressionist and out of step with the social and communication realities of the 21st century. Multilingualism is the rule worldwide and is increasingly recognized as a requirement in fields such as engineering and the sciences, fields that in the past seemed impervious to social issues. The dictum that an individual who speaks two languages is worth two people it is not only more true today, it is one of the key characteristics of a global citizen, one who is prepared to navigate both physical and virtual realities to engage, understand, and act on behalf of his or her fellow earthly compatriot.

[1] Hamilton, K. (2002)).  Race in the college classroom.  Black Issues in Higher Education, 19 (2), 32-36.

[2] Phillipson, R. & Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (1999). Englishization: one dimension of globalization. In D. Graddoll & U. H. Meinhof (Eds.) English in a Changing World(pp. 19-36).

[3] Baugh, J. (2004).  Standard English and academic English (dialect) learners in the African diaspora.  Journal of English Linguistics, 32 (3), 197-209.

[4] Lew, J. (2006).  Asian Americans in class:  Charting the achievement gap among Korean American youth. New York:  Teachers College Press.

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5 Responses to “The twist in language and linguistic realities of our day by Olga A. Vásquez”

  1. Claudia DaMetz on 6/19/10 1:28 AM US/Eastern

    Congratulations for this great Blog.

  2. Mary Spence on 6/19/10 8:38 AM US/Eastern

    I appreciated Dr. Vasquez’s comments here very much. As a K-12 educator in a district whose families speak almost 100 different languages, the 21st century issues surrounding ELL students are alive and well in Ann Arbor. As a school psychologist, I grapple with parents, children and educators about how to best serve these students in the context of our current ELL policies while protecting their cultural identity, diversity and allowing them access to achieve. We recently began a World Languages program to teach Spanish in our schools, but many of our practices remain, in practice, English Only. With non-native speakers overrepresented in our Special Education statistics, I also worry that people will assume a child’s difficulty with achievement are “all ELL-related” and those children do not get the additional help they need to succeed in school. Of course, it’s entirely possible that our English only policies are more fundamental to their difficulties than a disability per se. The politics and ensuing policies within ELL seem so pressing to me and yet so fraught with fragmentation and uncoordinated policies and practice to really address the needs of the multi-cultural families of today.

    Readers may be interested in Mary Pipher’s book on ELL issues, along with Paul Ramsey’s recent publication. Link to Mary’s book below and citation for Paul (Joe)’s book, which I can’t find yet listed on amazon. If you’re interested, contact him directly at: pramsey1@emich.edu
    He is a faculty member of the Social Foundations in Education Department at Eastern Michigan University.

    Keep the faith! Mary


    Joe Ramsey’s book is now available: Bilingual Public
    Schooling in the United States: A History of America’s
    “Polyglot Boardinghouse” (New York: Palgrave Macmillan,

  3. Veronica Camargo Haynes on 6/21/10 9:34 AM US/Eastern

    I would like to comment on the term “language barrier” found in the sixth paragraph. I have never liked nor have I used this term. The barrier exists between both individuals who do not know each others’ language. However, it is more often referred to the non-English speaking person. It is implied that it is THEIR barrier – not the English speaking person. While, in fact, the English speaking person also has a barrier because he/she cannot speak the other language.
    I prefer to use the term “language difference”. The difference exists between both parties and does not imply that the non-English person is the one with a deficit.
    I thoroughly enjoyed this article. Gives much food for thought that I can use with my students at the University that I teach at.
    Thank you!

  4. Deborah Downing Wilson on 6/21/10 1:10 PM US/Eastern

    I had the privilege of working as a graduate teaching assistant with Olga in her class last year and would like to note that for many of her students this class marked a turning point in their educations. During the quarter Olga’s students demonstrated not only a new awareness and understanding of the many ways culture and language color our daily existence, but they became deeply invested in their own educations and committed to making changes in their own lives and in the world. Lucky, lucky students!

  5. Mary Sue Hamilton on 6/21/10 4:03 PM US/Eastern

    I truly appreciate the breath of the blog. It brings to light some significant issues in how language in education is viewed and the implications that it has with shaping identities. My concern is that I felt that several issues where not addresses, particularly surrounding Asian Americans. The reference to the “model minority” is a narrow view of the stereotyping of Asian American and it excludes the other position of the “perpetual foreigner” and the implications associated with always being on the outside. When an Asian American student is asked “where are you from?” generally Orange County is not a sufficient answer, even if the individual and their parents and grandparents were all born in the US.
    So I wonder more about that perspective when considering linguistic realities and identity.

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