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Advocating for Students in a Colonial Language Learning Classroom

Updated: Apr 11, 2023

This week we are very excited to be sharing the first in a series of posts about a cultural element that we have not yet focused on through this blog: language. Our guest writer is Dylan Ashton, a Fulbright Scholar who reached out to volunteer with us while he was in Paris, teaching English. Unfortunately the pandemic, and subsequent months of confinement, prevented us from collaborating together in person, but luckily, adapting to more online work has created other unique opportunities. Through our exchanges with Dylan, we've understood that there is much more than just grammar and correct conjugation to be considered when teaching and speaking a colonial language. We feel that this knowledge is important to share, as only through sharing and promoting cultural understanding will we achieve a greater sense of collective equity and sustainable progress.

Teaching using pro-Black pedagogy in colonial language classrooms feels like and is, to a certain extent, paradoxical. Teaching of colonial language is inherently upholding a colonial system that has led to the erasure of culture, genocide, and continued racial & economic injustice. Dr. Jonathan Rosa postulates that, “If racism is defined as a justification for colonialism, then anti-racism comprises decolonization and abolition”. As a teacher of not one, but two colonial languages (English & French), I believe that it is my responsibility to create a classroom and curriculum that is decolonial and supports abolition as a means to combat racial and economic injustice. Now more than ever it is important to recognize how systemic injustices continue to negatively impact Black and brown people in all aspects of society including language learning classrooms.

So how do colonial languages continue to colonize?

I guess a good way to start this conversation is to interrogate how teaching colonial language upholds colonial power and perpetuates intergenerational economic and racial injustice. I grew up in Pennsylvania in the United States, where I eventually pursued a degree in French & Francophone studies while getting my state certification in order to teach French in American public schools. After spending some time in the American public education system, I decided to apply for a grant that would let me spend a year teaching and researching in the French “éducation Nationale,” which I completed in the spring of 2020.

Getting my certification to teach French in the United States and then deciding to spend some time teaching English in France have both been two experiences riddled in stress, self-doubt, and heavy self-critique. Most of these feelings stemmed from the fact that I was teaching, in both of these contexts, a colonial language. The historical contexts of both French and English are that of colonization. In many of these contexts, indigenous languages were either severely weakened economically or erased entirely. We can see such erasure in the indigenous languages of the what is now North America, including the United States, and what is now the colonized (or “decolonized”) countries of Africa, such as Senegal and the Ivory Coast, to name a few.

The process of language erasure can be both externally violent and terrifyingly insidious. A lot of language erasure, however, stems from a system that I hold near and dear to my heart: public education. Now, I will be the first to admit that there are many issues with the way in which public education exists in both the context of France and the United States. There is corruption, institutionalized racism, classism, violence, and the list goes on. All of that being said, I still believe that public education can be a great resource for all members of society if the right structures are put in place, but that is another blog post series entirely! What I’m more interested in here is how through the public education system, non-colonial languages were taken away from students through violent corrective measurements. This could be physical abuse when speaking languages in the classroom that weren’t English (i.e. assimilation schools in the US attempting to “kill the Indian”), or more insidiously, this could also mean teaching kids that the colonial language that is spoken in school is inherently more “correct” or connotes a higher level of “intelligence”. The promotion of colonial languages often went, and goes, hand in hand with the demonetization and infantilization of indigenous[*] languages.

The truth is, languages do not equate to intelligence, nor do they have inherent value. The value is created when governments and communities demand that their language be the only language used and the only language that can have access to economic success. Colonial languages are good at this type of erasure because these communities already have the economic means to standardize their languages through texts, organizations, schools, and entire communities that operate monolingually. A colonial language is that of power and oppression which cannot be viewed separately from its history, and one in which we must continue to observe and understand the lasting effects on the colonized, regardless of geography.

The thing is, I only know these two languages and these languages are going to continue to exist, whether I teach them or not. Every day when I look out into my classroom, I make a promise to my students and the ancestors of my students that I will do my best to dismantle the system that led and leads to the erasure of “less powerful” languages. I make a promise to advocate for my students and their families in order to model language learning behavior that values all forms of communication and does not equate “correctness” to “value” or “morality”.

In this series I hope to delve a little bit deeper into what it means to teach colonial language and to interrogate how these classes can move forward ethically, and in support of marginalized communities. I will attempt to draw from my experiences teaching in both the United States and in France and to explain how, in my experience, cultural conceptualizations of race and identity affect the structure and outcomes of a language learning class.

Photo © Soul Food / English Club

[*]I’m using the term “indigenous” here to represent languages that are not of the

colonizer, while recognizing that this may include languages that are not necessarily

indigenous to the geographical space that the promotion is taking place. In the midst of a

long and complex history of immigration and general movement of peoples indigenous

and non-colonial languages can sometimes exist in a space of displacement, but that does

not equate to the language colonizing that space.

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