Chronicle article: Beware the language police
fleischa at georgetown.edu
Tue Jul 8 17:58:35 UTC 2003
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From the issue dated 7/11/2003
Beware the Language Police
By WILL H. CORRAL
Even my university's e-mail system is getting in on the trend
toward policing language: It automatically signals me whenever
I use Spanish or English words and expressions that "normal
readers may find offensive," guarding my network much like a
neighborhood "defense committee" in Castro's Cuba. One of the
tragicomic aspects of today's language police is that it is
self-anointed. Another is that its officers seem uniformly
inept in their training and obstinate in their eagerness to
pass their sense of victimization on to future generations.
The rules of engagement began to be laid down in the 1960s,
and have become ever more rigid. By the time I taught at
Stanford University in the late-'80s through the mid-'90s,
they were already occupying center stage. So the recent
publication of Diane Ravitch's The Language Police brought
back unsettling memories of codes instilled early, in primary
and secondary schools, and brought to college by students.
I came to this country from Ecuador in the mid-'60s, when I
was 13 years old, and was thrown into the sink-or-swim
instructional approach of the time. I struggled, perhaps even
more than today's immigrants, and became a professor of
Spanish-American literature without the benefit of courses in
bilingualism or English as a second language, and without
being taught to feel good in class about my native language.
You'd think I would be pleased with the development of
sensitivity to minority students, civilized discourse, ethnic
empowerment, respect for other cultures, and the like.
Well, not with the language police. Although I do not speak
for the immigrant community of which I can be considered a
member, whoever meets me can note that I am physically a
stereotypical "Hispanic-American." As a result, assumptions
about what a Hispanic-American is or should be have,
sometimes, been shoved down my throat. That leaves me puzzled
by the gap between what I know myself to be and what some
Anglo-American colleagues and other people think I am or
By the time I started teaching graduate students, training in
the humanities had become politicized, especially at elite
institutions. By then, recognition of my "positioning" as an
ethnic "subject" had to be the point of departure for whatever
I espoused, whether I thought such notions pertinent or not.
One of the first graduate courses I taught was on what was
then called "colonial" Spanish-American literaturei.e.,
chronicles of the Spanish discovery and conquest of the New
World. The Renaissance view of "man" was part of the context I
provided for the course. A "European-American" student
complained that my use of the generic hombre excluded women.
Before letting me explain the admittedly "sexist" worldview of
the Spanish conquistadores, she insisted I use personas
(persons), or that I employ the formula el/ella (he/she). I
reminded her that personas was feminine in form and therefore
also sexist, even though its meaning included women and men. I
further explained that el/ella was an adaptation of trendy
Anglo-American terminology, and that no native Spanish speaker
went around saying el/ella.
"We are in the United States," she responded. Many Hispanic
students in class saw the "Imperial I" putting us in our
place. No matter. To get on with my teaching (in Spanish), I
urged the complainant to use whatever synthetic form of
Spanish made her comfortable. Almost 15 years later, in a
recent issue of El Pais, a daily from Spain, the "Defensor del
lector" ("Defender of the Reader") responded to a rash of
letters objecting to her use of el/ella in her column. She
said that henceforth El Pais would officially not employ that
formula, since "the result would be an illegible newspaper."
In principle, I have always avoided such awkward usage, since
it is not my job to save a language that has needed no
defenders for more than a thousand years. But I was working at
Stanford with professors who saw their task as saving
Hispanics, and they cared not at all whether they or the
students spoke the language properly. Heritage, as a term of
recent coinage, like training in bilingualism, seemed to mean
that students were under no obligation to make any effort to
acquire full competency in the language their parents or
grandparents probably spoke correctly.
Today, the literacy police has expanded to elementary and
secondary textbooks. Consider some of the words and
stereotypes to avoid when discussing Hispanic-Americans, which
Ravitch draws from a glossary compiled by a historian to
advise writers and editors preparing textbooks for K-12
Latinos who are migrant workers.
Hispanics who are warm, expressive, and emotional.
Hispanics in urban settings (ghettos or barrios).
Hispanics wearing bright colors, older women in black, girls
always in dresses.
Mexicans grinding corn.
If newly arrived Hispanics were to live, not just talk, those
language rules, a number would have to assiduously avoid a
whole range of activities and behaviors. Further, equally
grave, is the barely disguised assumption that Hispanics
belong to a certain class, or to one or two nationalities. No
matter. To bring the guidelines cited above to fruition, let
me propose that all immigrant Hispanic-Americans make the
If you have a college degree, but do not speak English, do not
work in factories or fields. It does not matter that you have
to feed your family, have no time for English classes, and are
happy to have any kind of job. Hispanic students should take
down Cesar Chavez posters. Che Guevara, as homophobic as he
was, is still fine for our self-image.
Be distant, inexpressive, and phlegmatic. Do not watch Don
Francisco Presenta, or any Venezuelan, Colombian, Mexican, or
Puerto Rican soap operas.
Live in manicured academic enclaves like Cambridge or Palo
Alto; the real barrios (disregard the full Spanish meaning,
simply neighborhoods) next to those communities are now
reserved for academic research, done strictly in English, on
such topics as bilingualism. Be careful, because your original
linguistic codes might throw off scholars who survive on
cryptic allusions to what a barrio does to or for you;
nevertheless, do not become a monolingual English speaker,
which would also confuse academics, who emphasize (usually in
English) your innate ability to be bicultural and bilingual.
Even older women, wear anything Jennifer Lopez might use, even
if you're in mourning. Guideline authors will attribute your
disrespect to "your culture."
Avoid eating Salvadoran pupusas, tortilla chips, plantains,
etc. Only Anglos can safely enjoy them.
Of course, you may find yourself mired in a few
contradictions. Yes, it is preferable to present
Hispanic-Americans as very intelligent, ambitious,
hardworking, and competitive. But also keep in mind other
guidelines, cited by Ravitch, on images to avoid when speaking
about Asian-Americans: very intelligent, ambitious,
The problem is that all such rules seek to avoid stereotypes;
but all have the effect of homogenizing language, culture,
thought, and even appearance. I wonder: Were the guidelines
above determined by asking real migrant workers, Hispanics
toiling in factories, grandmothers, urban dwellers, or
lifelong farmers what they thought, instead of academics who
appropriate "essences" through reticence and euphemism?
The poor economic conditions of Hispanic countries are
partially responsible for the popular stereotypes to which we
Hispanics fall prey in this country. But so are the
pedagogical impositions that cosmetically change what has
historically defined us. The paternalistic and condescending
academics who impose the regulations want us to conform to
particular worldviews -- broadly based on trite utopianism
about natives -- and to the Anglo guilt and politics that
underlie those views.
Of course, if academics were consistent in their beliefs, they
might refuse to eat in fancy restaurants in which Hispanics
are not management; the Modern Language Association might not
want to patronize hotels that employ Hispanic maids. But
wouldn't boycotting hotels only cause those maids to lose
their jobs? A former Stanford colleague's unending
breast-beating over the fact that she had Hispanic "help" made
her raised consciousness transparent for what it was:
ideological bullying and hucksterism about diversity.
The guidelines that the language police have laid down in
textbooks and classrooms are nonsensical and unethical. They
are also pedagogically unsound, for they give Hispanic
students an unfounded social confidence, rather than a
realistic view of how images can become a standard. Why do we
let impositions recondition young minds -- perhaps the most
vulnerable to indoctrination -- in clearly forced ways? Maybe
because academic ideologues feel good if they can change
linguistic realities, even though that does nothing to alter
the actual lives of the Hispanics about whom they are
flaunting their concern.
Will H. Corral will become a professor of Spanish-American
literature and culture at California State University at
Sacramento in the fall. His book Contras ciertos dogmas
latinoamericanistas (Against Certain Latin Americanist Dogmas)
will be published in November by Paradiso Editores.
You may visit The Chronicle as follows:
Copyright 2003 by The Chronicle of Higher Education
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