By Julia Donnelly Spiegelman
It is a typical school day, and my middle school students are learning to express themselves in French. As they converse, I flit from table to table, listening and offering word suggestions, quiet corrections, and explanations. My aim is to be their guide and resource, affirming and challenging them — in contrast to my own experience learning French in school, where teachers had mainly ranged from ineffective to authoritarian.
Still, in quiet moments, I feel a nagging fear: “What am I actually teaching?”
My students would say “French.” As the only teacher in my discipline at a small private school near Boston, to them, I am French and French is me. Never mind that I am a white, Jewish New Englander who began learning the language in middle school. Of course, my real goals are more complex. At best, I hope to create opportunities for my students to discover themselves and others through authentic communication about the inherent similarities and differences of being human. Through the study of another language, I reason, comes cross-cultural understanding. Foreign language teachers often operate under the assumption that exposure to different ways of living, eating, celebrating, and communicating naturally leads to understanding different viewpoints. But I could not stop wondering: How much of my teaching is actually deepening a form of cultural superiority and elitism, justifying centuries of colonialism, and even reinforcing a doctrine of white supremacy?
About five years into my teaching career and halfway through a master’s program in French, my exposure to multicultural teaching principles, peers and perspectives from different Francophone backgrounds, and a good dose of post-colonial theory left me unsure of whether what I was doing was actually good for students. Yes, I had been hired to teach French, and they were definitely learning it, but my mind was buzzing with questions.
For one, which French? The study of linguistics teaches us countless words to describe varieties of language considered inferior by those in power. Definitely no “pidgins” or “creoles” or “dialects.” No Haitian, no Québécois, no Congolais. The French I teach is what might be called “French French” — the name of the language identical to that of the colonial power. No “accents” or “regionalisms,” either — no sign that you are “from” anywhere in particular. I knew, without being told, that I had been hired to teach “Parisian French.” But even this phrase is vague and troubling. Which Parisian? A teenager from Saint-Denis with Algerian-born parents, or my host mother from Neuilly who, in grooming me to speak “le bon français,” also warned me to hold onto my purse in neighborhoods full of “les Noirs et les Arabes”?
Perhaps the bigger question is why French? What are the realities throughout history that led to the spread and continued prestige of the “French” language as the supposed language of culture, class, and diplomacy? What of the French language being used as a weapon to systematically dominate and eliminate countless languages in North Africa, West Africa, and the Caribbean, erasing culture and identity to such an extent that, even decades after independence, the mastery of French is still required for economic opportunities?
The more I struggled with these questions, the more I felt stuck in my teaching. I realized that the reality of my own education and choices was that I could not proficiently teach any variety of French other than “standard,” despite having grown up just hours away from Quebec. All of my direct cultural experiences had been in and about France, and despite providing some opportunities for research-based culture projects, I didn’t trust myself to teach in depth about any other Francophone countries without risking the possibility of misrepresenting them or, worse, otherizing them. I also realized that the reality of my job as a private school teacher was to train my students to have access to further elite education and opportunities, and so I felt professionally obligated to teach them a form of French that would open these doors for them.
Yet it felt wrong to move onto the next chapter with my seventh-grade class without addressing questions of justice in what we were learning. I decided that if I couldn’t yet find a way to remove the underlying messages of cultural and white supremacy in my curriculum, I could make them explicit by talking about language and power with my students.
So I switched gears, put my curriculum aside, and started an honest conversation.
I started with “Speak White,” a poem by Michèle Lalonde (1968) recommended by a Québécoise friend. The phrase “speak white” is a racist insult used by English-speaking Canadians to shame French-speaking Canadians for using their language in public. In her poem, which she delivered powerfully at La Nuit de la Poésie in 1970 and which switches between French and English, Lalonde powerfully describes the construction of the English language as superior and the French language as inferior, as well as the social, political, and economic realities of each group in Canada at that time. She tells of the exploitation of the Francophone working class under a system that is supposed to be fair (“Tell us again about Freedom and Democracy!”) and uses her experience of oppression to denounce imperialism and colonialism worldwide. I challenged my students to dig into the descriptions of each language and people, and of their roles in society.
In class, we spent time discussing the link between language and power, and the students were eager to share their experiences, observations, and questions. What are the different factors that determine how you speak in different circumstances? Which kinds of speaking are perceived as “correct” or prestigious? Which are perceived as “incorrect” or lesser? Who decides this? How do different ways of communicating relate to aspects of identity such as race, class, and gender? Which ways of speaking are accorded more or less power, and how does that play out in terms of access and opportunity? Concepts that I didn’t learn about until college — such as linguistic registers, code-switching, sociolinguistic variation, assimilation, the perceived or constructed “legitimacy” or “illegitimacy” of different linguistic forms — were well within the reach of my middle schoolers.
In a class of eight students, I had a racially diverse group: two were black, one Latina, two white, and three identified as Asian or multiracial. While discussing these ideas in theoretical terms was interesting, I wanted to give students a chance to both express their own and hear each other’s varied personal experiences related to power, privilege, and language.
I asked my class: Have you ever been told to “speak white”? I asked them to think, write, and share about a time when they have been told to speak “properly” or “correctly.” What were the words or phrases involved? What were the reasons or feelings behind such corrections and how were they received? And finally, how do these different kinds of speaking play out in society, especially in terms of identity development and opportunity?
Every student had an answer. One, who had learned English in kindergarten, described her embarrassment when her peers made fun of her for mispronouncing words. She wrote: “I was lucky that I started to learn English early, but my mom, who started speaking English when she was 24, still has a heavy accent and has trouble with grammar. These kinds of things affect opportunities like job offers and other things like that.”
One student whose family is from Haiti wrote about having to learn to “speak white” in private school interviews: “I have been told to speak properly by my mother, my aunt, and my older cousin. It was a long time during my life when I was practicing interviewing for private schools. My mother would always tell me, that since you’re not white, you have to try harder then ever before, starting with your language and/or vocabulary. I didn’t really feel anything by it, I was just annoyed I have to go through the interview process. We all have different sides to us and so the language you use with your friends is different than the language you use with family members. And speaking creates a lot of opportunities for people, and so the way you talk is important.”
One white student, who had experiences of being teased for her pronunciation, concluded that although it happens, it’s unfair for people to be judged by how they speak: “I think that how you speak, and where that language/variation of that language came from determines which is inferior, and superior. I believe that people make too many assumptions about someone’s identity when hearing them talk. I have been told that I must have grown up in Europe, Australia, or New York, and as funny as that sounds, all of those assumptions are completely incorrect. Sometimes you can piece together small parts of people’s identity but you shouldn’t rely on it because, like me and lots of other people, it isn’t true.”
I wanted to prioritize student voice and choice as much as possible in the final project of this two-week unit. Several students chose to make visual art, incorporating text and images from Lalonde’s poem in some moving multimedia work. One wrote a series of haikus in French and English called “Speak Black,” addressing the bias against black communities and urging his fellow black students to “Speak Black, go to school / Be proud because of your voice / Meet friends and be you.” Another student drew a cartoon that showed a child being continuously corrected on his Québécois French until he assimilated to “standard” forms of speaking. A number of students did research and presented in French on different topics related to language-based power and oppression, including minority languages in France and how the French government systematically worked to forbid and shame regional languages like Alsacien, Breton, and Provençal into near extinction. One student chose to learn about African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and presented about the linguistic construction, stigma, and policies related to AAVE. I remember her lighting up while reading about vocabulary specific to black communities and saying, “No wonder nobody at this school understands when I say ashy!” She paused. “How do you say that in French, anyway?” We looked it up together.
Whiteness was the invisible force in my classroom that shaped our norms of communication and learning. As a white teacher of a discipline that has been rendered powerful through white supremacy, I was inadvertently reinforcing white, colonialist linguistic norms at the expense of other ways of speaking. I was not neutral; I was complicit. That I have only just become aware of it does not prevent my students from being harmed by, or harming others with, the racism and classism that underlie our latent beliefs in linguistic superiority.
But here’s the problem: these prejudices don’t just live in my French classroom. They are embedded in the foundations upon which our education system is built, and they bleed through constantly in the ways in which language is modeled, evaluated, praised, and policed in our schools. Most important, they impact the access students have to opportunity. From self-identified “Grammar Nazis” to public speaking classes to refining the essay, students are constantly being told to “speak white” in order to be respected as competent, intelligent, and (the perpetually racist supposed-compliment) “articulate.” The identity development and achievement of all students, and particularly students of color, is at stake when we let systems of linguistic supremacy remain unchallenged in our schools.
What if our classrooms and schools affirmed the validity and beauty of different language practices instead of enforcing a single norm?
As teachers, and especially white teachers, we need to be self-aware, critical, humble, open to new perspectives, and ready to evolve our craft in a way that affirms the diverse linguistic practices of all of our students. Jamila Lyiscott, in her article “Your Pedagogy Might Be More Aligned with Colonialism Than You Realize,” offers three ways to develop “linguistic pluralism” and turn your classroom into a “linguistic celebration”:
1) check your attitude about the multiple language practices of your students,
2) check your students’ attitudes about their multiple language practices, and
3) put voice before form.
By working to truly know our students and widening our definitions of correctness and legitimacy, we can work to be part of a cultural shift that embraces and empowers diverse voices rather than seeking to assimilate them.
I am far from finding the answers in my own practice, but I am committed to educating myself and working to make both my classroom and my school more equitable. Most of all, I am constantly heartened, challenged, and inspired by my students. The fact that we can work together to see linguistic bias, name it, and have honest conversations about it gives me some hope that they will be able to challenge the messages that they receive and use their voices for greater awareness and justice.
I hope they will speak up loud.
Julia Donnelly Spiegelman teaches French, Spanish, and Social Justice at the Meadowbrook School of Weston (Massachusetts). An alumna of Bryn Mawr College, she is currently a graduate student at Middlebury College. She is a faculty member of the Multicultural Teaching Institute (MTI).
Calvet, Louis-Jean. Linguistique et colonialisme : Petit traité de glottophagie. Éditions Payot: 1974.
Delpit, Lisa. The Skin That We Speak: Thoughts on Language and Culture in the Classroom. The New Press, New York: 2008.
Lyiscott, Jamila. “Liberation Literacies: Teaching for Social Justice.” 10/26/16
Train, Robert W. “Language Ideology and Foreign Language Pedagogy.” French Applied Linguistics, Ed. Dahlia Ayoun, 2007, pp. 238-269.