Chronicle article: Beware the language police

Alkistis Fleischer fleischa at
Tue Jul 8 17:58:35 UTC 2003


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              - The text of the article is below -

  From the issue dated 7/11/2003

  Beware the Language Police

   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
  should be. 
  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
  following efforts:
  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,
  hard-working, competitive.
  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.


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Copyright 2003 by The Chronicle of Higher Education
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