Is there such a thing as postmodern bilingual education?



I’m not a big fan of what I call “breathless academic postmodernism,” or what I view as the often naïve valorization of, among other things, hybridization, creolization, liminality, polysemy, multiplicity, plurality, discontinuities, third spaces – the list goes on.

I’m not against hybridization, polysemy, etc. To be so would be ridiculous. It’s clear hybridity, polysemy, etc. exist – though I will always insist such terms, dare I say 😉 it,  be thoroughly “situated” against larger societal power relations, which frequently they are not.

Politically, I am very sympathetic to many of the goals of the breathless postmodernists, in particular, the deconstruction of social inequalities and the reconstitution of the social world into a more egalitarian “third space” where difference doesn’t necessarily spell hierarchy.

Difference without hierarchy?
To be truthful, I’m not so sure, when it comes to human beings, there is such a thing as difference without hierarchy, though I’d certainly like to believe there might be. Of course, wishful thinking doesn’t change the world. Indeed, I believe it can be profoundly counter-productive with respect to precisely many of the very same aims activist postmodernists seek to promote.

Let me give you an example – the one that inspired me to write this entry: Some of the claims/goals put forward by Samina Hadi-Tabassum in her book Language, Space and Power: A Critical Look at Bilingual Education. I’m re-reading parts of Tabassum’s book along with students in a graduate course I’m teaching at the University of Denver, “Language, Power & Globalization.” Hers is part of a set of readings I assign focused on language immersion programs in the United States.

I’m a big fan of language immersion as an approach to teaching multiple languages and, in particular, of two-way language immersion. Two-way immersion brings students from minority language communities together with students from majority language groups and, ideally, ensures deep, multi-contextual multilingualism for all of them.

Spanish-English dual immersion
Hadi-Tabassum — who conducts a “critical ethnography” of an English-Spanish dual language immersion school in the U.S. —  clearly supports the ideal of multilingualism. But she has a problem with traditional two-way immersion programs: They create and enforce an artificial binary between languages such as Spanish and English. She pushes for recognition of the fluid, hybrid, plural, liminal – pick your postmodernist term of choice here – nature of the relationship between languages.

She’s right.

Trouble is, she doesn’t sufficiently situate her call to celebrate fluidity, hybridity, liminality, and resistance among students against “artificial” boundaries between Spanish and English etc. vis-à-vis the larger social forces in play beyond school boundaries.

I agree with Hadi-Tabassum’s call for greater reflexivity on the part of school administrators and educators. I agree as well that creating a liminal “third space” where students and others might talk about some of the issues that swirl around the artificial boundaries created between English and Spanish in dual immersion programs as well as where they might actively “play” with the languages would be fruitful.

Taking the liminal too far?
However, given the reality of the imposition of “artificial” boundaries among languages in power domains in the U.S. where English monolingualism rules, and given a near total lack of a societal code-switching multilingualism among the dominant fundamental language identity in the U.S. – the (monolingual) English speaker – I believe we do two-way immersion students a profound disservice if the “liminality” advocated by Hadi-Tabussum gets taken too far, for instance, to the point where the minority language, Spanish, comes to be largely subsumed by the dominant language, English. In the U.S., the more English that finds its way into the (two-way) language immersion classroom the more the social hegemony of English as a whole gets reinforced.

Yes, there is irony in the fact that language immersion programs, including the German immersion program in which my two daughters, 7, and 5, are enrolled, seek to combat the structured, rigid English monolingualism that prevails outside their walls with rigid German, Spanish, Mandarin, etc. monolingualism within those walls.

However, without what one of my graduate students calls “counter-monolingual-immersion” the chances that children – especially those who come from households in which English is the only language used — will acquire deep, meaningful and lasting multilingualism are low.

In short, in the current U.S. social environment, playing up the endless “play” of languages and insisting hybridization and free-form multilingual code switching is the way to go in terms of language immersion programs will accomplish little other than to further strengthen the hierarchical, exclusive, “artificial” English monolingual society many postmodernists, Hadi-Tabassum among them, seek to dismantle.

Author Christof Demont-Heinrich

A lifelong interest in language and writing motivated in large part by a desire to learn my father's mother tongue, German, has played a large role in my professional and educational trajectory. I spent my junior year of college studying in Freiburg, Germany. After graduating from Allegheny College with a B.A. in German, I worked as a print journalist for eight years in the Boston area. I moved to Colorado in August of 1996 so that I could attend Colorado State University where I earned an M.A. in English (1998). After a couple years of working as an adjunct faculty member at CSU and the University of Northern Colorado, I began a Ph.D. program at the University of Colorado, Boulder School of Journalism and Mass Communication in the fall of 2000. I completed my dissertation in December of 2005. I started a tenure-track position at the University of Denver in the fall of 2005 where I am now an Associate Professor in the Department of Media, Film & Journalism Studies. My general research interests are in linguistic and cultural dimensions of globalization, transnational and national identity, and the relation between media discourse and hegemony.

More posts by Christof Demont-Heinrich
  • Khan

    Dear Christof
    Thanks for your post which triggered thinking and which made me look at the wonderful work by Samina Hadi-Tabassum: Language space and Power. I would like to say something about liminal ‘third space’ which I see as the natural outcome of the super rapid language contacts of the present time. While the third space is a linguistic reality and can be taken as evidence of transformation of the linguistic boundaries, this might not be taken as evidence of dissolution of historically evolved language ideologies, norms, cultures, I suppose. What I am trying to say that we cannot claim based on mobility that nation-state has stopped or collapsed or thing of the past. I think it is very much there in its new forms. Similarly the English-Only ideology has its orientations in the history and cannot claim to have withered with the advent of two-way bilingual education programmes.
    I would certainly second your observation that difference without hierarchy is a wishful thinking. In Pakistan like elsewhere people are hugely multilingual and have different linguistic repertoires with more or less assigned domains for each language. You would note that for all powerful domains such as courts, tertiary education, and the language seem appropriate/ legitimate is English. Not only linguistic hierarchy but social and political hierarchy.
    Very enlightening post. Thanks

  • Khan,
    Thank you for your very thoughtful reply. As a critical scholar, I’m trying to think of ways to successfully challenge the bounded monolingual hierarchization of modern society. I think highlighting the reality of multiplicity, liminal spaces, etc. is important, and Hadi-Tabassum does this. Figuring out effective ways to make inroads with respect to bounded monolingualism in power domains is something that has increasingly come to consume my thoughts. I think with respect to the dual immersion schools that Hadi-Tabassum writes about perhaps the best way to acknowledge the reality of linguistic overlap, leakages, hybridity and the “ir-reality” of neat, bounded language use, in everyday life outside of power domains, would be to create a class devoted specifically to this topic. This class(room) would serve as a space where students could “play” with multiple language combinations, etc., discuss the problems of neat, bounded, language rules and use, and, ideally, at least at the high school level, critically engage the ideology monolingualism in power domains/contexts in the U.S., etc.

    However, I still support linguistic boundedness vis-a-vis the minority language(s) in other classes/classrooms in the dual immersion school, as the reality is that, in large part due to often extreme English monolingualism in U.S. power domains, students, especially from the dominant language group, are going to have trouble mastering the minority language otherwise.

  • khan

    Thanks for your reply. I agree with you that illustrating linguistic overlaps, hybridization is one level of viewing two-way enrichment model and coming up with alternate models or prgrammes or as you said making inroads with respect to bounded monolingualism is another level. I personally think we (academics) do not have many solutions to offer when we are asked solutions by people. I agree with Hornberger (1991) extended definition of Enrichment model of Bilingual education in which she says something like that the primary characteristic of enrichment model is that the program structure incorporates a recognition that the minority language is not only a right of its speakers but a potential resource for majority language speakers. I think we will have to shun confrontational approach such as the discourse of linguistic rights and adopt a discourse that convince the majority of the benefits to learning different languages.
    The idea of sparing a class on raising such issues in classroom is fantastic. Do you think it comes close to Critical language Awareness programme or is it different?
    On a very personal level, I see a lot of substance and meaning in contributing to the ongoing debates. I think one great service to our cause could be to keep thinking and writing what we consider the best for humanity. I know I may sound very simplistic here but this is what all prophets have done, brining books with them and changing the course of life- for good or for bad is a highly controversial.

  • Hanna Torsh

    Hi Christof and Khan

    As I read the blog I couldn’t help thinking of my early education as a feminist, some of which took place in the Women’s room at my university. Although I am of the opinion that men can, and indeed must, be part of any struggle for women’s rights, the fact that there existed a “safe space” to explore my growing awareness of gender issues played a major part in my intellectual and political development. Is it too long a bow to draw to say that when minority languages have such a space, in which other language can not enter, it gives language users some breathing space to explore, play and develop? And that they can then take their language practices and beliefs out into the world enriched by their experience in that space?

    Best wishes,
    Hanna Torsh