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«Available online at Linguistics and Education 21 (2010) 257–281 Positioning proficiency: How students and teachers ...»

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The focal students all share the school identity of “newcomers” in the dual immersion program because they entered after the majority of their peers began the program earlier in kindergarten. Brenda entered the program in the second grade, Estela in the fourth, and Iliana in the fifth grade. Whereas Estela and Iliana arrived with limited experience in English, Brenda arrived with limited experience in Spanish. They were classified by the school district as Hispanic, although their cultural heritage, ways of self-identifying, upbringing and social class differed dramatically.

The central construct explored in this paper – perceived proficiency – is part of one’s ethno-linguistic identity, which is inextricable from issues of race, ethnicity, gender and social class. Social groups at the school and discursive practices about perceived proficiency were often defined by race and class lines that also existed beyond school walls. Students identified their differences using racial and ethnic descriptors like “moreno, blonde, mexicano, jewbu, oaxaquito, filipino”, and manifested these differences in the ways they used language. For example, although a mixed heritage student (not a focal student here) was proficient in her parents’ two languages (Spanish and English), she identified the cultural mismatch between herself and most of her Spanish speaking peers.

As a result, she demonstrated a different kind of perceived proficiency than another bilingual peer who self identified as “moreno like my friends from Mexico”. While I recognize the influence of institutional racism and societal stratification categories in schools, it is not within the scope of this paper to analyze these issues apart from the following contextual descriptions of the focal students. In future research I hope to look more closely at the racializing of their language-learner identities (see Motha, 2006). Instead in this study, I have tried to capture meso-level forces (e.g. teacher, student and school ideologies) that worked through participants and contributed to how perceived proficiency was constructed in their discursive practices and acts of positioning (see Fig. 1).

The first transcript comes from Brenda, who was often positioned as a member of several distinct social, ethnic, racial and language communities. Although Brenda’s birth parents were Mexican, she was adopted as a baby by English speaking parents of European descent. Brenda shared dominant features with her Latina classmates (her olive complexion, thick black hair, and quickly developing adolescent body) yet Brenda affiliated herself with music, dress and speech styles that were more common among Anglo, middle-class youth in her community. She hung out almost exclusively with the other English dominant students. When responding to my student survey, she indicated that three out of four of her close friends were English-dominant and one was bilingual. At times Brenda and her English-dominant peers, who were the minority on the playground, chose not to participate in recess by helping in the school office. This removed them from their larger, Spanishdominant peer group during a highly social time of the day. Analyzing her event maps throughout the year, I found that Brenda was often a non-ratified listener in Spanish class. She used avoidance strategies in order not to be caught speaking flawed Spanish in front of her peers or teacher. Her Spanish teacher was worried that Brenda’s Spanish literacy skills were below grade level, yet Brenda seemed to fly below the radar of the English teacher who often forgot to mention Brenda when she spoke generally of students from “English-only homes”.

M. Martin-Beltrán / Linguistics and Education 21 (2010) 257–281 267 The second excerpt involves both Brenda and Estela. Estela enrolled in Escuela Unida in the fourth grade with an inconsistent record of prior schooling in Mexico, which was cause for concern for both her Spanish and English teachers.

Estela was described by her teachers as shy and unlikely to participate in class discussion in either English or Spanish.

Comparing event maps of Estela’s participation across time and space showed she was often a non-ratified listener in both Spanish and English large group situations; however, toward the end of the year she began to take the floor and participate more actively in small group situations, such as in her ESL pull-out group. Estela was often marginalized at school by students who recognized her distinct Oaxacan heritage, reflecting practices of marginalization common in the surrounding community among immigrants who perceived themselves as non-indigenous. Several teachers and the principal on one occasion asked about her indigenous heritage, that was signaled by her small stature, long thick black braid, dark smiling eyes and deep cinnamon skin. Although her mother told me she spoke to her children in both Mixtec11 and Spanish, Estela claimed to speak only Spanish. Estela chose to spend most of her social time with fellow newcomers at school. She told me she rarely saw any students outside of school. When responding to a student survey, she indicated that three out of four of her close friends were Spanish-dominant and one was bilingual. Estela was part of an English as a Second Language (ESL) pull-out group for newcomers who met three times a week with a separate teacher during the regular English reading period.

The third excerpt focuses on Iliana, who arrived with her mother and siblings from Michoacán, Mexico the summer prior to this study to join her father, who had found a steady job in construction in the area. Prior to enrolling at Escuela Unida, Iliana attended five years of school in Mexico where she developed strong literacy and study skills.

Although she was a new student, Iliana demonstrated confidence and leadership when working in groups, especially in Spanish class. In her mainstream English class, she was reluctant to participate in large group discussion but often led discussions in her small group, Spanish-dominant class. When responding to a student survey, she indicated that three out of four of her close friends were Spanish dominant and one was bilingual. Iliana was named more often as a “close friend” than either Estela or Brenda on the other students’ surveys, suggesting a higher social status, which may have allowed more social mobility. Comparing Iliana’s event maps (see Appendix A), I observed stark differences in the participation framework as contexts changed. For example, in large-group Spanish class she was a ratified participant, yet in a similar large group discussion in English class, she was a non-participant, which reified her positioning as a limited English proficiency student. However, in her small-group ESL class, Iliana was given more opportunities to become a ratified participant.

During the first week of school Iliana wrote a letter to her English teacher, Ms. Golden, that began with the following:

“Querida maestra: Quiero decirle que la clase que usted da me parese [sic] muy bien para los que hablan ingles pero lo lamento es que yo no le entiendo nada de ninguna palabra....” “Dear teacher, I want to tell you that your class seems to be very good for those who speak English, but I’m sorry that I don’t understand anything, not one word....” With this introduction, Iliana recognized that this class was meant for “English speakers”. She declared herself a non-participant of the English classroom discourse community. Using the words, “for those who speak English”, she indexes those students as different from herself. This introduction shaped future affordances to use English with her teacher and peers, even though her English proficiency improved throughout the year. Her teachers did not ask students to re-introduce themselves after the initial getting-to-know-you practices at the beginning of the year, seeming to assume that identity is static and unchanging as a particular kind of student (see Anderson, 2009).

5.3. Uptake of others’ declarations of one’s own perceived proficiency The first example comes from an occasion when I was equipping Brenda with a microphone and audio recorder. I was at the back of the room before Spanish class helping Brenda set up the audio recorder while her friends Heather and Miranda observed curiously.

–  –  –

Speaker Utterance Heather: You know you’re not gonna hear Brenda speak much Spanish here. She speaks English most of the time Yeah, @@ [laugh] my mom says I’m struggling in Spanish... if my grades don’t improve in this class I might have to switch schools


Miranda: They do cooler stuff in the [other school] anyway Brenda: [overlap] I’m not so good at Spanish Despite the school’s explicit additive bilingual policies, I observed many moments like the excerpt above where one language was placed in opposition to another language (i.e. she speaks English instead of Spanish rather than in addition to). In this excerpt Brenda’s English-dominant friend Heather declared Brenda’s lack of competence in Spanish, which was similar to Heather’s description of her own Spanish proficiency. While her declaration excluded Brenda from the Spanish speaking community, Heather seemed to be expressing her solidarity with Brenda, further reifying Brenda’s membership in the English-only discourse community. Brenda appeared to confirm Heather’s declaration of her perceived low proficiency in Spanish and provided further evidence in the form of reported speech from her mother. Brenda invoked her mother’s evaluation that she was “struggling in Spanish”, and she asserted that her weak, perceived proficiency could lead to further non-participation, exclusion, or actual withdrawal from the school.

Referring to the levels of analysis mentioned in Fig. 1, one can see how the personal, interpersonal, institutional levels were all indexed in this excerpt. On a personal level, Brenda named herself a struggling Spanish speaker. At the interpersonal level, other students positioned Brenda in their descriptions, as did her mother and her teacher by way of grades. The institution or school is also embodied in this brief interaction, as the institution plays a role in tracking where she might be placed. We also see that a switch to another school was connected to the macro-level discourse concerning opportunities for language-majority students: they can choose to transfer to another school that is assumed to be in her dominant language.

Throughout the school year, I observed Brenda using avoidance strategies in her Spanish language production (talking around topics and inserting English words) possibly to protect herself from the continued evaluation from others that she was “struggling”. During lunchtime when I initiated a conversation in Spanish, Brenda replied with, “Do we have to speak Spanish now? Spanish class is over!” Throughout the year, I observed several examples of resistance or non-participation (Norton, 2000) and several occasions where Brenda’s struggles in Spanish became a public topic of conversation. Brenda’s difficulties in Spanish class became salient during parent–teacher–student conferences, at report card time, and even during playground talk among the English-dominant girls when they discussed whether they would continue in the dual immersion program into middle school. These discursive practices shaped and severely limited Brenda’s future affordances with Spanish language learning. Despite her difficulties and her resistance to using Spanish in contexts where she felt threatened, there were several occasions when I observed Brenda speaking Spanish confidently with Spanish-dominant peers. This shifting of perceived proficiencies is illustrated in the excerpt that follows.

5.4. Accommodation practices that position others as non-participants

The second excerpt comes from English class, during an interview activity where Brenda was supposed to follow an interview guide in English in order to gather information for a letter written to an English speaking recipient. Instead of carrying out the interview in English, Brenda demonstrated her bilingual competence by translating the written questions to Spanish in order to accommodate for her partner Estela. In this example, Brenda’s use of Spanish both refuted and replicated Heather’s earlier practice of positioning another student as a limited language speaker. In this context, Brenda disproved the declaration that she did not speak Spanish using Spanish quite competently with her peer, Estela. However, Brenda’s use of Spanish positioned Estela as a non-participant in the English class activity, during which other students were using predominantly English.

–  –  –

Throughout the interview, Brenda positioned Estela as a monolingual Spanish speaker. She did not allow space for Estela to demonstrate English skills. Unlike most students in the class who responded to the same question, “What languages do you speak?” with at least two languages, English and Spanish, Estela chose to report only Spanish. Brenda did not question Estela’s single language response. With an additional question from the researcher, Estela reluctantly added “a little English” to her interview guide. Brenda switched to English to address the researcher signaling her distinct perception of this interlocutor’s language proficiency in contrast to Estela’s perceived proficiency. Brenda sought permission to proceed (in line 6) as if she needed the authority of the teacher/researcher to counter her own perceptions and challenge prior public declarations of Estela’s limited language proficiency. This pause in the interaction or moment of recognition reveals the power that authority figures (i.e. teachers) may have to shape perceptions and further language affordances.

Even after her written recognition of Estela’s knowledge of English, Brenda continued the interview only in Spanish throughout the class period. Although their conversation was in Spanish, Brenda recorded her responses independently in English. With these written responses to the interview, the students were supposed to co-write a letter to an Englishspeaking recipient. Since Brenda reformulated and translated all of Estela’s words for her rather than with her, Estela was treated as a non-participant in this writing activity and, subsequently, was also excluded from dialogue with the letter recipient.

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