Using the Mother Tongue as a Resource: Building On a Common Ground with "English Only" Ideologies


Andrea Parmegiani—Bronx Community College of The City University of New York, USA, and North-West University, Vanderbijlpark, South Africa


 Keywords: translanguaging; multilingual pedagogies; academic literacy; language ideology; writing programs; language and social justice 



This paper seeks to offer a constructive critique of the idea that in order to align US writing instruction with the learning needs of a globalized, linguistically diverse population, writing studies should challenge the notion that the English language needs to play a central role in college composition courses. I point out rhetorical and pedagogical fallacies in a language rights discourse that warns against “ceding rhetorical ground to monolingual ideologies” (Flowers 33) by affirming writing studies’ commitment to ensuring access to English while promoting linguistic diversity within writing instruction. I then discuss a translingual writing program I started at a Hispanic Serving Institution that links ESL and Spanish writing courses within a learning community. I discuss how the implementation of this program relied on finding a common ground with “English only” ideology and show how this program disrupted “unilateral monolingualism” (Horner and Trimbur 595), in spite of the fact that it foregrounded the need to facilitate English academic literacy acquisition.



 Linguistic Diversity and The Ideology of Normative Monolingualism In The Us

 Language Inequality and Social Justice

 Writing Studies and Linguistic Diversity

 Avoding Binaries in Language Rights Discourse

 Translanguaging And Binaries

 Reflecting On Language and Academic Achievement at Bronx Community College

 Bringing Spanish into A Writing Program Through A Learning Community

 Engaging Constructively with Mononolingual Orientations

 A Bilingual and Bidirectional Writing Program


 Works Cited

The choice of the language(s) of learning and teaching (LOLT) is of the utmost important for access to higher education and social justice in multilingual societies. Students who are proficient in the language used by instructors, in books, and for assessment are given the opportunity to earn degrees and enter the job market with skills that are likely to command higher salaries. Students who do not have this proficiency are excluded from this opportunity unless they manage to develop a sufficient level of command of the language in question. This is the case of many language minority students (LMS) in the United States, for whom the appropriation of English is a precondition for academic success and upward social mobility. 

        For decades, critical applied linguists have been alarmed by the dominance of English as a glocal language that spread through the rise of the British Empire and US economic, political, and cultural hegemony. Sharing Pierre Bourdieu’s premise that language attitudes, policies, and practices are never neutral, but always related to identity construction and socio-economic hierarchies, these critics have argued that the dominance of English is a form of imperialism that has outlived colonialism (Phillipson), an unseen gate-keeping mechanism that re(produces) socio-economic inequality (Pennycook), an assimilationist cultural force that promotes Western-centric values (Wa Thiong’o), and a linguistic poacher that exterminates endangered indigenous languages which is responsible for a form of cultural genocide (Skutnabb-Kangas). 

        Within writing studies, the need to question the assumptions about language that shape our teaching practices has been acknowledged since at least the mid-eighties with the CCCC seminal declaration of Students’ Right to Their Own Language. More recently, the idea that the dominance of English within writing instructions should be challenged has gained traction with more and more scholars sharing concerns about the way monolingual ideologies reproduce socio-economic inequality by excluding LMS from meaningful academic participation (Horner, Lu, Royster, and Trimbur; Canagarajah; Horner and Trimbur; Flowers). As a critical language and literacy scholar, college writing instructor, and former LMS, I share these concerns, and I am delighted to see more and more members of English departments in the United States questioning Anglocentric assumptions and experimenting with different forms of multilingual pedagogies. At the same time, however, I am also concerned with some of the radical positions that have been taken within the debate about the language question in composition. In particular, I am alarmed by the suggestions that the English language should not play a central role in US college writing courses (Horner and Trimbur) and that language rights activism should make no concessions in addressing monolingual ideologies (Flowers). 

        In this paper, I seek to offer a constructive critique of the idea that the language question is trapped in a zero-sum game, or that in order to make room for linguistic diversity within writing instruction, English needs to be sidelined. My critique is based on a theoretical analysis followed by a reflective component. I review seminal moments in the language debate within writing studies, and building on Susan Peck MacDonald’s work, I show that language rights rhetoric relies heavily on binaries that present first and second language development in terms that are mutually exclusive. Making a connection with the US bilingual education debate of the eighties, I challenge this logic with empirical evidence suggesting that first and second language and literacy development are complementary, rather than mutually exclusive. I also show that a binary logic that constructed minority languages as an impediment to English acquisition was the rhetorical pillar of an “English only” movement that succeed at banishing other languages of instruction in several states. I will argue that rather than fighting “English only” tendencies with an oppositional rhetoric that dismisses the importance of English, language rights activism should engage with monolingual orientations more constructively by emphasizing the complementarity of first and second language and literacy development: that is, the idea that welcoming other languages in the writing classroom can strengthen considerably LMS’s command of English for academic purposes.

        In the second part of my article, I further illustrate this argument by reflecting on a bilingual writing program I started at Bronx Community College (CUNY) that links Spanish and English college writing courses for ESL students within a learning community program. The positive impact this writing program has had on English acquisition and retention has been documented by a longitudinal study which has been fully discussed in the book Using ESL Students’ First Language to Promote College Success (Parmegiani). In this reflection, I discuss how the more conciliatory stance I am recommending for engaging with English monolingual orientations allowed me build consensus to run a program that placed Spanish—alongside with English—at the center of writing instruction within a course cluster offered by a community college where English is the sole medium of instruction. 




        The US is often thought of as a giant Anglophone monolith, but in reality, linguistic diversity has always had a strong presence on the land (Macías 16; Rumbaut and Massey 1). Today, approximately 20% of the US population speaks a language other than English at home (LOTE), and in most cases, this language is Spanish (Ryan). 

        The impact “of globalization on higher education has been immense” (Lau and Lin 16), giving rise to a situation throughout the world where “linguaculturally heterogenous groups of learners are no longer rare” (Smit 10). While the US and Anglophone countries enjoy the lion’s share of the lucrative international higher education market driven by elite students who cross borders to enhance their resume with degrees from prestigious universities, many of the linguaculturally heterogenous groups attending institutions of higher learning in the US are language minority residents whose socio-economic circumstances and levels of academic preparedness are very different from those of the international students who are in the US because their parents can afford to pay astronomical fees. The presence of such high numbers of less privileged LMS in American universities is in part due to a surge of migration from developing countries (Rumbaut and Massey 1), which brought about an explosion of linguistic diversity, with a 148% increase in US residents speaking a language other than English (LOTE) from 1980 to 2010 (Ryan 5). While a few of the students who came to the US as part of these immigration flows might end up attending prestigious universities alongside privileged international students, many more enroll in community colleges where fees are more affordable and admissions criteria more inclusive. It is important to notice that while they are international, in the sense that they come from all over the world, language minority students who attend community colleges in the US are likely to be “non-traditional.” They tend to be “adults, parents, people with full time jobs, people returning to school after years away” (Carey); hence, the difficulties they face with English monolingual academic writing are often compounded by a host of socio-economic challenges that elite international students are not as likely to face. 

        Within this context, it is important for college writing scholars and educators to challenge the “ideology of normative monolingualism,” or the idea that US citizens should speak only one language, and that English should be that language. This ideology, which constructs “linguistic diversity as an impediment to unity” and “relies on the erasure of the fact of multilingualism in the US” (Fuller 10) is pervasive, in spite of the picture painted by language demographics and the fact that English does not have official status in the US. Given the way language shapes power relations (Bourdieu; Pennycook; Phillipson; Parmegiani, “Inviting”), interrogating pervasive ideologies around the medium of instruction in the writing classroom is a social justice concern. 



        Bourdieu’s theory of language and symbolic capital is useful for understanding that choices around language are not politically neutral but have profound implications for access to socio-economic goods. He points out that “there is no such thing as linguistic communism” (3), meaning that while all languages might be considered equal in terms of their ability to make meaning, some languages dominate over others in terms of granting access to social identities and forms of knowledge whose ownership is vital for upward socio-economic mobility. While it can be proven that any language or dialect is systemic and has the ability to meet the communicative needs of the community that speaks it, only the language of the elite is considered a “legitimate” communication tool for the production and circulation of knowledge in sociolinguistic domains where wealth and status are allocated. In these prestigious domains, the mastery of the dominant language is a precondition for exercising the “right to speech” (648), or the ability to say anything that will be considered a legitimate speech act worthy of attention. 

        Given the growth of linguistic diversity in higher education and its correlations with racial diversity and socio-economic inequality (García and Kleifgen 18; Parmegiani, “Inviting” 13–17), it is increasingly important to examine the way our assumptions about language legitimacy and writing give or take away the right to speech within academic discourse. The idea that dominant languages and dialects create additional difficulties for students who do not inherit them from birth is fairly intuitive: academic knowledge is created and transmitted mainly through language; hence, it is impossible to participate in epistemic production without at least some level of proficiency in the language being used as the medium of communication. It is also intuitive that developing proficiency in the medium is easier for students who are exposed to it from early childhood in their homes and primary communities. Nevertheless, it would be unproductive to theorize about linguistic inequality and access to academic discourse from the premise that dominant languages cannot be fully appropriated by non-native speakers. Restricting the ownership of a dominant language to birthright reifies the power of this language to exclude (Parmegiani, “Dis(ownership),” “Reconceptualizing”). Making its ownership inclusive can turn it into an instrument of democratic transformation by giving more people the opportunity to harness its power.

        The need to appropriate English for socio-economic mobility, which is a paramount concern for LMS, is a factor that needs to be taken seriously when pushing for a greater use of marginalized languages in education. The reality is that the mastery of the dominant code is a necessary, albeit not always sufficient, condition for escaping from socio-economic disadvantage. While battles can be fought and won to push for greater linguistic equality, it is hard to envision how a situation of linguistic communism could possibly be achieved in our lifetime: there will always be some codes that dominate and people for whom the appropriation of those codes will be more difficult than for others. Finding pedagogical and programmatic solutions to make dominant codes more accessible is therefore paramount for using language as an instrument of social justice. Students need to be heard and taken seriously when they try to earn college degrees, send resumes, and go for job interviews, and this cannot happen without a sufficient level of command of the language of power. In a world where the way a person speaks this language affects their “chances of getting a place to live, a job, a degree, a promotion, a teaching credential and health care” (Zentella 621), every student must be put in a position where they can claim the power that comes with the appropriation of this language (Delpit; Nieto; Parmegiani, “Inviting”).



        One should be wary of making sweeping generalizations about the stance writing studies has taken vis-à-vis linguistic diversity and inequality over the decades, but it would probably not be unfair to say that normative English monolingual tendencies have been present since the inception of formal US college writing instruction, given that the pedagogical rationale behind the creation of the first composition courses was to “remediate” students’ alleged weaknesses in written English (Connors). While the students in question were much more likely to speak English as a home language than many of the students enrolled in US colleges today, the impetus behind the birth of college writing instruction was nevertheless assimilationist in that it sought to move students towards dialectal and discursive conformity, rather than to embrace linguistic diversity.

        Bruce Horner and John Trimbur have also argued that the birth of college composition entrenched monolingual ideologies in higher education by expunging the Latin- and Greek-based classical curriculum, which found expression through an academic discourse that “was predominantly oral” and based “on performative pedagogy” (599) and replaced it with “now standard literate practices as lectures (delivered from written texts) and student production of written texts (e.g., daily themes, note taking in lectures, written examinations, lab reports, abstracts, research papers)” (599). As a result, “English was separated altogether from Greek and Latin as the vehicle of writing instruction,” and concomitantly “the modern languages settled into their respective departments as national literatures” (599), giving “the status of a living language to English only, making it alone the primary vehicle of instruction in writing and speaking” (603).

        On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that writing studies does have “a long history of countering this [monolingual] orientation” (Flowers 34). A milestone in this history was the 1974 CCCC Students’ Right to Their Own Language (SRTOL) policy statement, which was built on the premise that no language variety is intrinsically superior and that banishing non-standard English from academic discourse is discriminatory (Smitherman; Kinloch; Sledd). Since the 1974 statement, the language rights discourse within writing studies has become more and more concerned with Languages Other Than English (LOTE), questioning the idea that only English should enjoy “the status of a living language” (Horner and Trimbur 603) within US college writing instruction. The “monolingual orientation” (Canagarajah 1) of the field has been the object of intense scrutiny (Horner, Lu, Royster, and Trimbur; Cushman). Some critics have even argued that the 1998 CCCC National Language Policy, which called for the need to embrace linguistic diversity, unintentionally reified this monolingual orientation by failing to challenge the idea that English should play a central role within writing instruction. 

        Horner and Trimbur question “a tacit language policy of unidirectional English monolingualism” (594) that reigns in English departments and warn against giving “primacy of place to English in the modern curriculum” (607). In their view, this “primacy of place” provides a series of concessions to monolingual ideologies that reify the notion that the US is a giant Anglophone monolith where linguistic diversity has no place, if not at the margins of society. They point out Anglo-centric rhetorical continuities between “English Only” discourses propagated by conservative forces that have sought to curb the use of languages other than English in the United States and critiques of the “English Only” movement put forth by progressive writing scholars seeking to protect linguistic diversity. 

        Horner and Trimbur are particularly concerned with the idea that “learning, maintaining, or increasing knowledge of a second language is often encouraged primarily as a means of improving one’s knowledge of English” (615), as implied by the National Council of Teachers of English Resolution on Developing and Maintaining Fluency in More Than One Language. This resolution cites Jim Cummins’ seminal research showing that mother tongue and second language and literacy development are complementary, and that consequently, LOTE are not a threat to English acquisition. This, in Horner and Trimbur’s view, delegitimizes the status of other languages in education by relegating them to an ancillary role and mirrors the rhetoric of English exceptionalism that lies at the root of “English Only” sentiments (615). Similarly, they critique the 1988 CCCC resolution on a National Language Policy for stating that “English, the global lingua franca and the language of wider communication in this country, is not threatened” given that “most immigrants learned English within a generation without any law compelling them” (CCCC National Language Policy Statement). In their view, this statement is problematic because it fails to “question whether such an ideal should remain uncritiqued or form the guidelines of writing instruction” (616), the ideal being the allegedly inexorable anglicization process of native speakers of other languages.

        In a more recent article, Katherine Flowers echoes Horner and Trimbur’s sentiments and is even more explicit in her call for the need to decenter English from writing instruction in US colleges. Focusing on CCCC’s 1988 National Language Policy, Flowers argues that this document, which was intended to be a critique of “English Only” and a defense of linguistic diversity, is problematic because it sets “English above and apart from other ways of communicating [. . . .] ceding rhetorical grounds to monolingual ideologies” (32–33). What Flowers finds most alarming is the fact that “the executive director of the most prominent English only organization in the country, US English, actually went so far as to praise CCCC for prioritizing English” (33). The rhetorical concessions in question, which earned the executive director’s praise, include statements such as “English has become the language of wider communication” and the policy’s commitment to “ensuring respect for both English, the common language, and for the many other languages that contribute to our rich cultural and linguistic heritage” (CCCC National Language Policy).

        Flowers is dismissive of the construction of English as a language of wider communication: “for some people, classrooms, workplaces, communities, and activities, whether in the United States or not, this statement does not hold true” (36). Similarly to Horner and Trimbur (614), she draws on translanguaging theory to argue that “the monolingual orientation is not just politically harmful but untenable, since there is no way to draw clear-cut boundaries around different language varieties” (35). Finally, she questions the need for the policy’s commitment to respect English in conjunction with other languages: “this commitment to respecting English is striking, given that English has been a global language of commerce and culture for several centuries, and it does not require any organization to ‘ensur[e] continued respect’” (36). She recommends avoiding rhetorical concessions when negotiating language policies with opponents: “rather than try to find common ground with English-only policies, what writing studies needs now are policies that directly counter the monolingual orientation” (50).

        In this article, I would like to offer a radically different position. I support wholeheartedly Horner and Trimbur’s call “for an internationalist perspective” on “written English in relation to other languages” and Flower’s advocacy for more emphasis on “language rights” and a “translingual practice.” I also argue, however, that it is misguided to fight for linguistic diversity in writing instruction with a rhetoric that refuses to “try to find common grounds with English only” sentiments (Flowers 36). Seeking to counter the monolingual orientation with provocative statements such as CCCC does when asserting, “policy writers can abandon the notion that English is a necessary component of composition” (Flowers 51) in the US will reinforce this orientation. These kinds of statements feed into the irrational fears that lie underneath monolingual ideology and provide opponents with rhetorical points that are very easy to attack. First, I problematize these points by showing how they rely excessively on binaries that constrain conversations about language in higher education, misconstrue the nature of second language acquisition, and alienate potential allies. 

       Then, I discuss a mother tongue-based writing program I implemented at Bronx Community College to improve success rates among Spanish-speaking students. I reflect on my deliberate decision to center English while pushing for this program in order to circumvent English monolingual orientations and build consensus for this initiative. Admittedly, this program sneaked the mother tongue through the backdoor (Parmegiani, Using), but at the same time, it succeeded at carving out a space for a language other than English within writing instruction at a US college. I argue that this space, which did facilitate English acquisition, did more to promote linguistic diversity within writing instruction than did an antagonizing rhetoric that is dismissive of the need to provide access to English to native speakers of other languages in the United States.



        Acknowledging that promoting English acquisition is a fundamental part of our job description as English professors and writing scholars does not mean that the status quo cannot be changed and that we should not push for more linguistic diversity in our curricula, research outlooks, departmental ideologies, and policy statements. As prominent language rights activists have warned, it is counter-productive to present the language question in terms of an “either English” or “mother tongue” logic (Alexander). Tove Skutnabb-Kanga, Robert Phillipson, and Miklos Kontra, for instance, point out that

[i]t is perfectly possible to match up ethnolinguistic and socio-economic concerns—there is no necessary contradiction. Likewise, children need two or more languages in education, learned additively. It is not a question of either the mother tongue or a dominant language, but two or more. No language needs to be sacrificed in additive learning. (148)

        Unfortunately, there can be quite a lot of binary thinking in language rights discourse within writing studies. According to Susan Peck MacDonald, the SRTOL statement “embodied important understandings about language and sociolinguistics that are beneficial for teachers of English to acquire” (599); however, “part of the legacy of the SRTOL has been to undermine other aspects of language education through its binary framing” (599), which implicitly set up the notion of students’ own language in opposition to Standard English, presenting language policy in the classroom dichotomously: 

The binaries focus attention on how dialects of English vary, whether we hurt students more by teaching them EAE [Edited American English] or not doing so, and how teaching the grammar, punctuation, and mechanics of EAE may be hurtful. With such distinctive binaries, there may appear to be only two positions, which, by implication, are mutually exclusive. (601)

MacDonald shows how the “only two positions” approach has made it hard to have conversations about language within writing studies “without these now familiar binaries determining and constricting the discussion” (600). Claiming that acknowledging the central role of English in US college writing inevitably leads to “a tacit language policy of unidirectional monolingualism” (Horner and Trimbur 595), or that it can “make it so difficult to imagine writing instruction in any language other than English” (595), continues this unfortunate tradition of limiting what is possible to envision as we grapple with questions of linguistic diversity, pedagogical effectiveness, and social justice. Not only does this sort of binary thinking create intellectual straightjackets, but it is also an ineffective rhetorical strategy for building consensus around the need to include LOTE in US academic discourse. 

        First language maintenance and development and second language acquisition have often been portrayed by English-only advocates as being dichotomous. In fact, the idea that making room for LOTE in education would prevent immigrant students from learning English, exclude them from society, and divide the nation has been the rhetorical pillar of English-only discourse. For example, in making a case for proposition 227, which de-facto outlawed the use of LOTE in Californian schools, Ron Unz claimed that bilingual education “has proven itself a dismal practical failure” and “that the unity and prosperity of our society is [sic] gravely threatened by government efforts to prevent young immigrant children from learning English” (in Crawford 106). Similarly, in a monolingual manifesto published in the Reader’s Digest, Linda Chavez suggested that bilingual education was a product of a racist agenda that forced Hispanic students to study mostly in Spanish, which held them back academically. Rep. Toby Roth referred to bilingual education as a “human tragedy” that is “consigning an entire generation of new Americans—unable to speak, understand, and use English effectively—to a second-class future.” To illustrate this “tragedy,” he quoted a Hispanic parent as saying, “My children learn Spanish in school so that they can become busboys and waiters. I teach them English at home so that they can become doctors and lawyers” (13). 

        In reality, from a pedagogical perspective, the idea that first and second language and literacy development are mutually exclusive couldn’t be further from the truth. As early as the 1970s, single studies based on particular programs provided evidence of benefits associated with bilingual education (Rosier and Farella; Troike). Later, more statistically advanced research based on meta-analysis methodology confirmed that programs that support students’ first language lead to better educational outcomes (Willig; Greene; Rolstad, Mahoney, and Glass). A longitudinal study of particular significance was mandated by the US Congress (Ramirez, Youen, and Ramey); students “can be provided with substantial amounts of primary language instruction,” the findings concluded, “without impeding their acquisition of English language and reading skills” (39). Other studies suggest that first and second language literacy development are interrelated, and that “among students learning English as a second (or third or fourth) language, those with a more solid academic grounding in their home language have a much easier time both learning English and learning new academic content and skills” through the medium of English (Lukes 64). 

        In light of this research, I would argue that more than a “rhetorical concession” that “leave[s] unchallenged several of the key assumptions made by those arguing for English only” (Horner and Trimbur 615), the National Council of Teachers of English 1997 argument that “English language learners acquire English more easily if they are literate in their native language” is the assertion of a research-based pedagogical fact that debunks the rhetorical pillar of English normative monolingualism: it’s either English or other languages. The two cannot coexist. The last thing we should do to promote multilingualism is reinforce this false dichotomy by arguing that English needs to be displaced in order to make room for other languages. 



        On the one hand, translingual theory has brought about a great opportunity for moving beyond binary thinking in grappling with the role of language within writing studies. The idea that languages can be conceptualized as “whole bounded systems associated with whole bounded communities” (Heller 11) has been called into question by translanguaging scholars who have argued that “the original complex interrelated discursive practices” of people that speak more than one language “cannot easily be ascribed to one or another traditional definition of language” (García and Wei 22). Within this framework, it should be easier to conceptualize the need to promote linguistic diversity and facilitate access to the dominant language as two sides of the same coin, rather than competing pedagogical goals. In fact, a lot of the impetus for the advent of the translingual paradigm came from the need to acknowledge the complementarity of first and second language acquisition and challenge the strict separation between languages that characterized bilingual education in the United States.

        On the other hand, translingual theory has come with normalizing tendencies and its own set of binaries that are limiting what can be envisioned in conversations about language, pedagogy, and social justice. To begin with, translanguaging is often presented as “the normal mode of communication that, with some exceptions, in some monolingual enclaves, characterize communities throughout the world” (García and Beardsmore 44). Keith Gilyard warns that normalizing tendencies within translanguaging theory run the risk of causing a “flattening of language differences” that can elide the power asymmetries that characterize linguistic exchanges in a racialized society (286). This elision, he maintains, can “become off putting to scholars of color in the manner that post-modernist and post-structuralist theory were in the 1980s and 1990s” when “the preference to valorize theories of fluidity and decentering” at the expense of racial injustice “reigned supreme in English departments” (287).

        As a linguistic minority who has lived bilingually since the age of eleven, studied on four different continents, and lived across a wide range of sociolinguistic communities, I would argue that there is no “normal mode of communication,” and monolingualism is not the exception: it is an integral part of linguistic diversity. While monolingualism might be more prevalent in certain parts of the world than others, suggesting that monolingual populations such as 80% of US residents are an “enclave” and an “exception” does not do justice to the linguistic complexity of our planet. I would also argue that theorizing about monolingualism as an abnormality that is set up in opposition to a translingual norm does not provide the best starting point for engaging monolinguals with difficult conversations about language ideology, pedagogy and power relations. 

        While it is important to keep in mind that boundaries among languages are fluid and that many of our students cross these boundaries seamlessly as they live transnational lives, it is dangerous to argue that “languages do not exist as real entities in the world and neither do they emerge from or represent real environments; they are in contrast the invention of social, cultural, and political movements” (Pennycook and Makoni 2). First of all, there is no reason why a translanguaging approach should be conceived as being dichotomous with the idea that there are separate languages that do exist as “real entities in the world.” Languages shift, they evolve, they can be mixed, molded, and reinvented through agentive practices that have been described as “crossing” (Rampton), “polylingualism” (Jørgensen), “metrolingualism” (Otsuji and Pennycook), multivocality (Higgins), and “codemeshing” (Canagarajah), just to name a few. At the same time, however, languages do exist as distinct communicative systems and markers of identity, with their own rules, which might be ever morphing, multifarious, and contestable, but nevertheless present enough consistency to allow verbal communication and identification within a certain group of speakers. As Gilyard puts it, “when I am around a group of people who speak a language foreign to me, it amounts to nothing to counsel myself that language is really an abstraction and that those speakers don’t really have that language that I don’t comprehend” (287). 

        Just as it would be limiting to think about different languages as tight compartments that are stored in different parts of our students’ brains and that should only be used separately, it would be limiting to think that there can be no thinking about language outside translanguaging. How could we even have conversations about monolingualism, multilingualism, and language hierarchies if boundaries among languages were so blurry that the concept of separate languages did not exist as “real entities in the world?” How can we argue in the name of translanguaging that “the monolingual orientation is not just politically harmful, but also untenable, since there is no way to draw clear-cut boundaries around . . . language” (Flowers 35) without, by virtue of this argument, acknowledging the existence of languages as distinct systems of communication that function as distinct markers of identity within socio-economic hierarchies? 

        Finally, I would like to suggest that just as boundaries between languages are porous, contested, and ever shifting, so are boundaries between ideologies. While concepts such as monolingual orientation and language rights are very important for conversations about language, pedagogy, and social justice, they should not be conceived as diametrically opposed ways of thinking that cannot find a common ground. For sure, there are fundamental differences in the way normative English monolingualism and a linguistic rights perspective conceive of the role of diversity in US national identity, but a language rights discourse that equates “identifying with opponents” (Wible 109) with the danger of “ceding rhetorical grounds” (Flowers 36) is more likely to feed polarization and entrench conservative positions than bring about a constructive dialogue that can build consensus for progressive change. 



        The need to have a constructive dialogue about language and educational outcomes at Bronx Community College (BCC) has been close to my heart for variety of reasons. Part of the City University of New York, this institution of higher learning is a Hispanic Serving Institution with 66.5% of first-time freshmen identifying as Latinx in Fall 2018 (“BCC Office”). Academic success rates are low: the one-year retention rate for the entering class in 2008 was 65%; only 20% of the entering class of Fall 2003 completed their associate degree within six years (“BCC Office” 1). I was aware that structural barriers to academic success related to socio-economic inequality play a big role in shaping these educational outcomes (“BCC Office”), but given my background in critical sociolinguistics, I was convinced that BCC’s monolingual policy created an additional barrier that could have been mitigated through teaching practices that acknowledge and build on students’ diverse linguistic capital. Except for the courses offered by the Department of Modern Languages, Standard English is the only language of instruction and assessment. Yet, 40% of first-time freshmen self-identified as native speakers of LOTE (“BCC Office”). 

        As a member of the English department teaching both developmental ESL writing and credit bearing composition courses, the extent to which LOTE played a part in the learning process was evident to me. Although classes were taught in English, texts were read in English, and essays were written and rewritten in English, the moment students carried out the literacy tasks I had assigned in groups and pairs, translanguaging took over, creating scenarios that resembled the one Ofelia García and Claire E. Sylvan capture so aptly in the following vignette:

[Students are] talking, arguing, trying to make their points and collaborating on a project together. In so doing, they are using different language practices, including those they bring from home . . . . [Y]ou find students . . . using bilingual dictionaries (both electronic and paper) . . . . Multiple conversations are happening at multiple times in many languages with occasional breaks in the “chaos” for the teacher to explain a concept or practice a skill collectively that students immediately apply in the work they are doing. . . . Students have considerable choice in how they arrive at the final project, including the language practices with which they negotiate, and the eventual form that the project takes on, but activity guides and rubrics (often collectively designed between teachers and students) establish parameters in which students operate . . . . Students depend on one another to share their experiences, knowledge, perspectives, and understanding of the text; they teach each other. The teacher is not the only “expert” in the room, and considerable control is handed over to the students. (393–94) 

        Perhaps because I have spent most of my life living as a language minority, I did not feel threatened by this apparent babel-like “chaos,” even at the beginning of my teaching career in US colleges, before I encountered research on bilingual education and culturally responsive pedagogy further along in my doctoral studies. Although by the time I started teaching college writing it had been several decades since English supplanted Italian (my mother tongue) as my primary language for academic purposes, I hadn’t forgotten that when you are trying to make sense of a language that doesn’t make sense, your mother tongue is your first go-to place. Maybe that’s why, although I always encouraged my students to practice their English as much as possible, unlike a few of my colleagues, I never reprimanded them for speaking another language in class, or for thinking in another language when they wrote, if their essays showed signs of a literal translation from the home language that didn’t work. 

        After I started grappling with critical language and literacy theories, it became evident to me that there was so much more the mother tongue could do to improve academic achievement if used strategically. It was especially Cummins’ linguistic interdependence theory and culturally responsive pedagogy’s insistence that students’ cultural capital be validated through our teaching praxis that prompted me to try to find ways to create a writing program that would bring the mother tongue out of the closet and give it a more prominent role in my students’ academic literacy development. At the same time, my familiarity with language ideology debates, combined with my own life experience as a second language English speaker, made me well aware of the workings of normative English monolingualism and of the fact that if I wanted to see this program come to life, I had to start small and tread very carefully. 



        Given such a strong presence of native, heritage, and second language Spanish speakers on campus, and given BCC’s commitment to improve its success metrics, I would have loved to see the administration taking steps towards a bilingualization process among its successful high-impact initiatives that have gained national attention. As an untenured assistant professor whose work up to that point had focused primarily on teaching and research, I knew there was no way I would be able to convince movers and shakers to implement a formal Spanish-English bilingual program that would involve a significant investment on their part. I simply did not have the necessary political capital within the institution to mobilize financial and human resources of great magnitude. What seemed feasible instead was to take advantage of the existing learning community program and the fact that the Department of Modern Languages already offered Spanish courses for native speakers.

        Learning communities, as defined by Hanson and Heller (2009), can be described as a “small group of students who take a cluster of courses together with both the faculty and students learning and teaching together” (1). These types of programs “vary from minimal arrangements of linked or clustered classes, to team-taught interdisciplinary programs, to more elaborate models with designated residence halls, in-house advising, and the ambience of a small college on a large research campus” (Shapiro and Levine xi). To be successful, they require a high level of curricular integration, which can take the form of common themes, learning activities, projects, and assessment criteria whose goal is to “provide greater coherence, develop a deeper understanding . . . and encourage student-student, student-faculty and faculty-faculty interactions” (Hanson and Heller 1). 

        Learning communities are an ideal pedagogical space for designing mother-tongue based pedagogical solutions that can help mitigate the dire consequences of structural inequality: studies have shown that “students’ socio-economic status had less effect on their achievement gains in schools with collaborative teacher communities” (McLaughlin and Talbert 9). In addition, Rebecca Mlynarczyk and Marcia Babbit have found that creating a learning community program built around the specific learning needs of speakers of English as an additional language had a positive impact on “retention and graduation rates of ESL students,” and “created a special classroom chemistry, enabling students to be more active and efficient learners” (73). 

        Learning communities had been offered at Bronx Community College for a long time, but there were no clusters linking English college writing to Spanish composition courses for native speakers. This type of link was easy to create, as long as I found a way to engage constructively with monolingual orientations within my department, the institution, and among prospective students too. Not only did BCC have a substantial cohort of students who share the same mother tongue but Spanish classes for native speakers were already being offered. These classes, though, were taught as stand-alone courses, which did not help students capitalize on an academic literacy skills transfer between their first and second language, like the translingual approach I envisioned. Also, most BCC students need to fulfill a foreign language requirement in order to graduate; given that Spanish speaking students are doing the entirety of their course work in a language that is not their mother tongue, it made sense for them to use the foreign language requirement to create a learning situation that was likely to promote academic success in their second language. An additional advantage was that these students were able to receive college credits for the Spanish class at a point in their career where their course options were severely limited by prerequisite requirements they did not meet. Last but not least, this link would not cost the college anything, other than the course reassignment time that is normally given to instructors who participate in a learning community.



        Although setting up a translingual writing program essentially entailed combining resources that were already available, establishing a link between the ESL writing courses that I taught and a Spanish course required building several levels of consensus among stakeholders. The department chairs of each of the faculties involved had to approve the proposal for the new cluster link, as did the learning community coordinator. Finding a faculty member as a learning community partner willing to embrace a certain pedagogical vision, work hard to implement it, and negotiate curricular choices with a member of a different department is a fundamental requirement for the establishment of a successful learning community. No less important is the support of colleagues and student advisors, whose conversations with students during registration determine whether a certain cluster reaches the minimum level of student enrollment to run. Last but not least, this type of initiative needs to be appealing to the students themselves, who need to be convinced that the big investment they are making in signing up for these classes is going to pay off in terms of their personal socio-economic aspirations. 

        As I went around campus knocking on doors and building consensus for this program, my strategy for dealing with monolingual orientation was very different from what Katherine Flowers, or Horner and Trimbur recommend. First of all, I did not approach stakeholders, who could potentially raise eyebrows at the thought of encouraging ESL students to take a class in their mother tongue, as “opponents,” but rather as interlocuters who felt differently about an important pedagogical issue. I assumed that these differences of opinions, at least on our campus, were more likely due to misinformation than a conscious intention to harm our students. The most important piece of misinformation to address, to pave the way for the translingual intervention I envisioned, was the idea that bringing Spanish into a writing program would somehow detract from English acquisition. Because of my research on bilingual education, my role as an ESL specialist within an English department, and the fact that I am an ESL speaker myself, I was in a good position to make a convincing argument when faced with comments such as “oh, but our students already spend too much time speaking Spanish,” or “I already know Spanish, and how is a Spanish class going to help me get ahead in the US anyway?” Frankly, I don’t think I would have gotten very far had I tried to address those concerns by professing my faith in “policies that directly counter the monolingual orientation” (Flowers 50), by challenging “the notion that English is a necessary component of composition” (51), or by claiming that given that “there is no way to draw clear-cut boundaries” around language (35), nor that it doesn’t make sense to talk about English and Spanish as “whole bounded systems” (Heller 11) in the first place. 

        It is true that by centering English in attempts to build consensus for bringing a LOTE into a writing program I might have missed an opportunity to question the notion that English acquisition should “form the guiding assumption of US writing instruction” (Horner and Trimbur 616). What is not true is that my failure to question this guiding assumption or its “sense of inevitability” (595) fed into “a tacit language policy of unidirectional monolingualism” or that my alleged “accommodationist rhetoric” stood in the way of an “actively multilingual language policy” (597). The “actively” bilingual and bidirectional policy that shaped the writing program I shall now briefly describe was implemented because I chose a rhetoric that was conciliatory, rather than confrontational, and because it was built on the one principle language rights and monolingual orientations should agree on: the importance of giving students access to the language of power. 



        The program was the object of a longitudinal study that I carried out with the help of the Office of Institutional Research to assess the impact on English acquisition and retention. This study involved a comparative analysis of academic success metrics combined with ethnographic observations, focus group interviews, and in-depth interviews with individual students. The findings have been discussed fully elsewhere (Parmegiani, Using). All the students who enrolled in the program were native Spanish speakers, mostly from the Dominican Republic, and had been placed in the highest level of the ESL writing course sequence. 

        The Spanish class was scheduled right before my ESL writing course started in order to allow me to sit in. Normally, instructors teaching as partners in learning communities meet on a regular basis to discuss their integrated pedagogical strategies and their students’ progress, but they don’t audit each other’s course. I have discussed more fully elsewhere why I felt it was important for me to participate in the Spanish class as an additional language learner/participant observer (Parmegiani, Using), but there were three main reasons. First, I felt that it was important for me to familiarize myself with my students’ linguistic and discursive practices if I wanted to build on them and facilitate the transfer of academic literacy skills I envisioned. While I did have some rudiments of Spanish and some knowledge of how English grammatical structures and rhetorical expectations around academic discourse differ from Romance languages, it would have been presumptuous of me to assume that I knew enough about my students’ language practices to bring them into my curriculum without taking the time to observe my students’ engagement with those practices. Second, in keeping with the recommendations of culturally responsive pedagogy (Ladson-Billings), I felt that it was essential to make room for pedagogical spaces where students’ cultural capital would be validated and they would take on the role of language and literacy experts. To this end, I designed the learning process to be bidirectional: my commitment to teaching my students the dominant language became intertwined with my commitment to learn their primary language from them. Finally, taking on the role of an additional language learner in the Spanish class was also a way to reduce power asymmetries by exposing my linguistic vulnerability and limitations, and by reminding me what it was like to participate in academic discourse in a language that hasn’t fully been mastered (Parmegiani, “Inviting” 74–6). Oftentimes, I would be stricken by panic when the Spanish instructor asked me a simple question, and I ended up stammering something, feeling embarrassed and ashamed for making a fool out of myself in front of my students, who were so much more eloquent in their language than I will ever be. Other times I would be the one needing to translanguage, with my students’ or the instructor’s help, not to drown in a discursive abyss that, without a frame of reference, was beyond my comprehension. 

        Students were encouraged to practice their English as much as possible in the ESL writing course that followed the Spanish class, but translingual moments were not confined to informal communication among students or group activity. In fact, the ESL class would often begin with me initiating translingual check-ins during which I asked students about words, phrases, pieces of discourse, or cultural references I had jotted down in my notebook in the Spanish class. Sometimes these check-ins led to animated discussions where students took on the roles of cultural-linguistic brokers, asking for my help and other students’ help in expressing their thoughts in English. This translingual co-production of knowledge facilitated a bidirectional learning process that helped the students and me to master lexical, mechanical, and discursive structures to allow meaningful academic interaction. In addition, this collaborative approach, which mobilized the linguistic resources of the whole class, helped students understand the workings of their languages and discourses contrastively and critically, for example, by examining how college writing constructs such as “plagiarism” and “critical thinking” are culturally specific and tied to fundamental assumptions about power relations in the classroom. I would argue that rather than leading to unilateral English monolingualism, this process, which did develop English acquisition among students, is more likely to develop the sort of “rhetorical dexterity” (Carter 14) students need as they move across the complex linguistic landscapes that characterize their lives as global citizens. 

        More generally, I would like to point out that my concern with the appropriation of English, both as a rhetorical strategy for building consensus and a pedagogical imperative, is not incompatible with “creating opportunities for students to learn how to communicate across languages and modes” (Flowers 53) or with imagining “writing instruction in a language other than English” (Horner and Trimbur 595). My centering of English, in articulating “the field’s theories about language and literacy education to a broader constituency” (Wible 180), actually led to “writing instruction in another language” and to writing instruction based on communication “across languages and modes.” By centering English, I might have “sneaked-in the mother tongue through the back-door” (Parmegiani, Using) rather giving it the starring role it arguably deserves, but once it was in, it stepped out of the closet in ways I couldn’t even have imagined. 

        In the Spanish class, students earned college credit for using their first language to read books from cover to cover, find their own meanings, and support those meanings through textual evidence in animated academic discussions that took place through the medium of their mother tongue. Writing assignments were composed in Spanish, marked in Spanish, reexamined in Spanish, and they played a role when students wrote in English, too. As my student Juana explained to a research assistant during a focus group interview, “The ESL professor said to me ‘your essay is fantastic!” but that was because I was able to apply what I had learned from the Spanish professor” (Parmegiani, “Bridging” 112). 



        The bilingual writing program I have briefly discussed was built on a rhetorical stance towards the role of English within writing instruction that some theorists within our field have warned against. While this program aimed to give more prominence to a LOTE within US college writing instruction, it was marketed to students, colleagues, and administration as an initiative that would promote English acquisition and the ability to succeed through the medium of this language. From the point of view of an oppositional language rights discourse that struggles to envision points of contact with monolingual orientations and policies that facilitate access to the language of power while promoting marginalized languages, the program in question could be easily criticized. For example, it could be accused of being born of a naive “rhetorical concession” that, by seeking to “identify with the opponents” (Flowers 36) ended up alienating potential allies. 

        Admittedly, the bilingual program presented the need for mother tongue development “primarily as a means of improving one’s knowledge of English” and did not even attempt to question the idea that facilitating language minority students’ access to English should “form the guiding assumption of US writing instruction” (Horner and Trimbur 615–16). It would not be fair to say, though, that it promoted “unidirectional English monolingualism” (595). First of all, the program ran, and I am not sure this would have been the case had I tried to build consensus with an oppositional rhetoric centered around the argument that “we can abandon the notion that English is a necessary component of composition” (Flowers 51). Because it was able to run, it succeeded at centering Spanish, together with English, translingually within a writing program at an English-only US institution of higher learning. In doing so, it actually broke away from the long monolingual tradition of writing studies and “the territorialization of the modern languages as reading courses” that has characterized rhetorical instruction in the US since the demise of the classical curriculum (Horner and Trimbur 596–602). This interdepartmental pedagogical alliance points to the possibility of a whole new role for departments of Modern Languages in US universities. In addition to promoting multilingualism among native English speakers, Modern Languages departments could be vital partners in helping English departments design writing programs that “intentionally work across languages or national boundaries,” “conduct research with students to understand their backgrounds,” and “conduct archival research on teaching traditions across cultures,” as recommended by the 2019 Statement of Globalization in Writing Studies.

        Most importantly, the program made it possible for students from a vulnerable student population attending a community college in the poorest urban county in the US to use their mother tongue to take ownership of the dominant language: increasing GPAs, credit accumulation, retention, and the likelihood of being propelled into the middle class (Parmegiani, Using). The learning outcomes of this pedagogical initiative cannot be generalized due to sampling and variable control considerations, but they do confirm the most relevant finding for the language rights debate that emerged from decades of research on bilingual education: first and second language academic literacy development are complementary; promoting more effective access to English and a greater use of LOTE are not mutually exclusive. 

        Rather than embracing an antagonizing rhetoric that reifies the false dichotomy that lies at the heart of English only discourse (“it’s either English or LOTE”), writing studies should challenge this sort of binary by pushing for mother tongue-based interventions that promote the ownership of the dominant language and dispel the myth that access to English and promoting LOTE are caught up in a zero-sum game. The idea that promoting English acquisition is a fundamental part of our job description as writing instructors in the US and a political and pedagogical imperative for language rights activism in this country will be unpalatable to some of us, but it is a reality that should not be ignored if we want to bring about social change through language policy and practice. Language policies need the support of their stakeholders in order to have an impact on language attitudes and practices. In terms of our students and the general public, denying, or even underplaying, the role English plays as a common language in the United States (Flowers 36) is not only a statement that is very easy to attack, but also one that lends credence to the rhetoric of the opponent: proponents of multilingualism are anti-English, they do not want immigrants to learn English, so ultimately they are hurting the very people they claim to care about, and are undermining the very fabric of the nation in the process. 

        In terms of building consensus for multilingualism in our departments, we must not forget that the English language has been a fundamental aspect of the professional identity of college writing instructors in the US, most of whom are hired by English departments. Claiming that there is nothing inherent in terms such as College Composition and Communication, Writing, Rhetoric, Literacy or Discourse that would require scholars to center on the English language” would be much more likely to “alienate potential allies in efforts to cultivate language rights” (Flowers 33) than a commitment “to ensuring continued respect both for English, the common language, and for the many other languages that contribute to our rich cultural and linguistic heritage” (36).


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