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.
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.