The Linguistic Violence of Speaking ‘American’

As a teacher in a public school and a product of public schools myself, I am very familiar with the economic, psychological, and physical violence that can occur. However, one of the most insidious forms of violence (and seldom talked about) is the linguistic violence that is perpetuated, particularly upon students who speak languages other than English in the home. This linguistic violence that students encounter on an often-daily basis was made clearer earlier this week in a viral video of a New Jersey high school teacher scolding students for speaking Spanish amongst themselves during class, while the teacher yelling at them to speak “American.” Over 1,000 students at the school walked out in protest.

As a high school Spanish teacher, many of my students approach me, feeling bad about themselves for not being more fluent. “Spanish was my first language,” I’ve heard over the course of my teaching career. Parents will often fall into two camps—the children of immigrants who practically apologize to me during Back to School Night for not having been able to teach their children the language of their heritage, or the parents who are immigrants themselves and take offense to the fact that their children are not more fluent in their home language. In either case, students and parents internalize the blame. What I try to tell them is that they are competing against a system of linguistic violence that continues from K-12, that devalues and ultimately robs their children of their home language skills.

The linguistic violence that is inflicted upon non-English dominant students begins in kindergarten, where the language skills that students bring from home are deemed deficient. Whether more colloquial forms of English or languages other than English, these language skills are systematically stripped from them. The students will be pulled out of class and subjected to yearly tests that measure their proficiency in standard academic English and will determine their academic placement for the rest of their K-12 experience, while their home language skills atrophy.

Second-language instruction will not be introduced in a meaningful way until high school, where students will be given the option of two or languages from which to choose. If they are fortunate enough to live in a community with a large non-English speaking population, one of those language options might be their home language. But instead of a program of instruction that recognizes the language abilities they do possess and builds upon that, the language instruction will most likely be geared toward a one-size-fits-all approach with students progressing through the same material in a manner that neither engages nor meets linguistic needs of students who already speak another language.

Instead of teachers “undoing” the language mistakes learned at home or “sanitizing” the “contaminated” varieties of language that students bring to class, what is needed are language policies that are responsive to the identity and linguistic needs of all students and that draw from their lived experiences as a source of knowledge. This cannot be done as long as school systems continue to view students’ home language practices as “broken” and school the place where it can be “fixed” and it most certainly cannot be done as long as teachers yell at students to speak “American.”

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Rosemary Hendriks is a high school Spanish teacher in Southern California and a PhD student at Claremont Graduate University.

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