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“Those who envision a future world speaking only one language, be it English, German, Russian or any other, have a mistaken ideal and would do the greatest harm to the evolution of the mind. human.” —Benjamin Lee Whorf
“There are inconvenient constraints to the use of a single language. I understand that we have to do that sometimes. It limits how and what I feel, and how I express myself. It’s like swimming with just your legs. I would prefer not to, but I can. —María Biaggi, UPR student
Spanish is by far the most common language in this hemisphere. The United States has more Spanish speakers than any country in the world except Mexico – more than Spain, Colombia, Venezuela and more “than in all of Central America (Guatemala, El El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama), plus Uruguay and Paraguay added for good measure. Nevertheless, almost all higher education institutions stick to English as the only language for the graduation, accreditation, teaching, grantmaking, admissions, scholarships, institutional communication, etc.
These policies steer literacy itself toward English and away from Spanish in ways that not only shape student learning and graduation rates, but also access to public services, democratic participation and the nature of citizenship.
Monolingualism as a “best practice” needs to be reconsidered. Rethinking the English-centric policies of American higher education could address both a cultural injustice and institutional enrollment challenges, as Latinx enrollment has exploded at all levels of American education and is expected to continue to rise.
Indeed, a shift to a multilingual model like the one in place where I teach at the University of Puerto Rico would almost certainly increase Latinx enrollment, retention, and graduation rates — and have significant benefits for monolingual students in all walks of life, as research has shown. that multilingualism has profound cognitive and social benefits.
While Spanish is the dominant language at the University of Puerto Rico, English has co-official status. Each language is used for specific purposes.
As Kevin Carroll, an English teacher at UPR’s Río Piedras campus, writes, “the majority of [Puerto Rican] institutions have de facto open language policies, which allow instructors to use textbooks widely published in English and present their courses and assessments in Spanish or a mixture of Spanish and English.
Outside the classroom, language mixing occurs in institutional communications, assessment and accreditation documents, faculty meetings and social gatherings, and in the media, including websites, emails, Zoom interactions, etc.
To point out the obvious, a decolonized society needs multilingual universities. “For our educational programs to move beyond colonialism,” note education specialists Lourdes Diaz Soto and Haroon Kharem, “our learners must be able to read the word and the world in a bilingual, bicultural, and multicultural way.”
English-only “best practices” in degree awarding, program design, cultural events, academic appointments, grantmaking, institutional-level communication, and the cascade of other academic activities have an important symbolic weight, especially in predominantly Spanish communities: they represent not only the power to define a linguistic and cultural reality, but also to have it accepted by others.
“So if you really want to hurt me, speak badly of my tongue. Ethnic identity is the double skin of linguistic identity — I am my language. Until I can be proud of my language, I cannot be proud of myself. Until I can accept as legitimate Chicano Texas Spanish, Tex Mex and all the other languages I speak, I cannot accept my legitimacy. Until I’m free to write bilingual and change code without always having to translate, when I still have to speak English or Spanish when I’d rather speak Spanglish, and until I have to accommodate English speakers rather than make me accommodate by them, my language will be illegitimate. —Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera
The language policies of most American universities ignore students’ linguistic repertoires and make it difficult to develop cross-linguing as a tool for knowledge culture. Multilingual institutions take hold of this intrinsic and common part of the human condition and engage it in cultivating and expanding the knowledge developed.
The linguistic relativity hypothesis holds that “the language we speak affects how we think about reality”.
Especially in literary and cultural studies, cross-linguistic conversation allows students to engage more directly with how narrative structure and word choice, expression of feeling and desire, and emotions arise in a language/ cultural tradition vis-à-vis another, and how changes between them add texture to both. When a learning environment draws on students’ linguistic repertoires in this way, it also engages people to recognize themselves and their communities in new ways, to create and co-construct culture and memory through a broader set of experiences.
How we communicate is not incidental to what we (can) know, but in monolingual utopias this fact is often misunderstood.
Furthermore, while higher education is essential to vocational education, vocational training and specialized experience, it is also essential to the culture of critical social responsibility. How people gain power and status, the languages they use (legally can), the nature of the relationships they develop, and the makeup of a community (who is a member, who is not, and why?) are closely linked to the mission of a university. Insofar as citizenship is a status, it is also a process, part of which is linguistic.
Here at UPR, it was my first time in an institutional setting where I could use my main languages – English and Spanish – interchangeably without feeling uncomfortable. (I haven’t experienced this in any continental American setting except in private.)
My connection to the language itself changed during those first days on the Mayagüez campus. Spanish and English, like a friend, could be missed, misunderstood, absent, intriguing or empty and could bring sadness or joy. Languages are also like cities: they have their own climates, stories, sense of humor and passion. There are times when one is more suited, more eloquent and expressive, than another. And on occasion, se necesitan varias—y los espacios entre ellas.
Many correctly perceive the presence of English in Puerto Rico as a colonial requirement, an external linguistic directive designed in a granite office building far from Puerto Rico, Washington more than a century ago, but still enforced. works today in places like Mayagüez and Vieques. But the colonial mission failed: English was appropriated in Puerto Rico into a linguistic ecosystem robust and expansive enough to rewrite its boundaries, localizing inglés depending on its usefulness in Aguadilla or San Germán, so as to play with external controls.
In our university, beyond an archaic colonial program, multilingualism allows the institutional dynamic to transcend a closed-in homogeneity and the hegemony subtly imposed by monolingual policies (whether English-only or Spanish-only).
Part of what makes the UPR remarkable is that the environment identifies the use of multiple languages not as inflammatory but ordinary. While the engagement, reflection, experience and performance of multiple languages and traditions every day allows for a broader set of scholarly contexts, their recognition as intellectual qualities or virtues cannot (or at least does not occur). not) in part due to the nature of the competitions that rank scholars: whether for admissions, funding, publications, grants, hiring, prizes, academic nominations, etc., the UPR students and faculty perform poorly in most metrics, largely due to the way the competitions subtly but specifically prohibit recognition of the Spanish and multi-language (and any communication other than English) as valid. In these competitions (and in the United States in general) multilingual agency is not a measure of excellence but an eccentricity.
The emphasis on English as the sole mediator of linguistic existence in American universities has serious effects on the study of Spanish and native languages, especially in the Southwestern United States. The Yaqui, Keresan, Taos, Tewa, Zuni and Hopi languages have unique and particular engagements with Spanish, but once American colonization and its linguistic plow arrived, these depths were largely absent from the linguistic histories developed in the colleges and universities serving these communities. While Puerto Rico’s decolonial engagement is primarily based on Spanish and English, its educational model could be applied to any language map that exists in each institution’s communities.
Among the many things I admire about Puerto Rico and its public institutions, one of the most important is the participatory culture made possible by language policies. If linguistic democratization were to occur in American universities, it would open up students to experiences, agencies, and intellectual advantages that are absent in the colonized university. Many areas of what institutions do – scholarship, teaching, service and the cultivation of citizenship – would have new frontiers.