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Developing Educator Expertise to Work with Adolescent English Learners
Module 2 – The Language We Use to Talk about English Learners and Our Work: A Focus on the Conversation with Guadalupe Valdés

By Aída Walqui

OVERVIEW    |    INTRODUCTION    |    PART 1    |     PART 2    |    PART 3    |     PART 4    |    REFERENCES

Part 4: Extending Understanding of Uncritically Accepting Language or Programs for English Learners

This section offers you the opportunity to think about the concepts that have been addressed throughout this module and put your ideas all together in coherent ways in order to inform your new actions.

Activity 4.1: So what?

Participants will engage in: Writing a brief essay (outside of class)

Duration: 20–30 minutes


After having explored one article and an interview with Guadalupe Valdés, reflect on what you plan to do differently in your educational activity moving forward.

  • Write a brief essay indicating what you will do differently in your educational activity, why, and what steps the process will involve.

Additional optional reading


Noted scholars are sometimes called to inform lawmakers or federal and state authorities about themes in their realm of expertise. On March 3, 2006, Guadalupe Valdés was called to present a testimony to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In the following text, you will find selected portions of that testimony, accompanied by text boxes with questions intended to focus your reading and expand your awareness of language beyond educational settings.


You can read the full text on the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s website.


Written Testimony of Guadalupe Valdés


Good morning Commissioners Feldblum and Lipnic, and Members of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace. Thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today.

My name is Guadalupe Valdés and I am the Bonnie Katz Tenenbaum Professor of Education at Stanford University. I work in the fields of applied linguistics and sociolinguistics and specialize in the study of bilingualism and bilingual populations. As a student of bilingualism, I have carried out research on language use in Latino communities in the United States and have been extensively involved in examining the language characteristics of immigrant adults, English language learners, ethnolinguistic identity, and language-based discrimination.

Bilingualism and multilingualism in the United States

As you read the following segment, consider the following questions:

  • What processes lead to societal bilingualism or multilingualism?

  • Who carries the burden of developing bilingualism?

  • Can you think of other reasons that lead to societal multilingualism? For example, in Europe it is the norm for individuals to speak at least two languages, if not more. What kind of bilingualism do they develop? Why is understanding this difference important for us?

Bilingualism/multilingualism is a common human condition that is both an individual and a societal characteristic (Bhatia & Richie, 2012; Hickey, 2010). Bi/multilingualism emerges as a consequence of commerce and trade, invasion, conquest, colonization, and migration. It is the movement of peoples for numerous reasons (trade, conquest, migration) that brings about the need to communicate with other individuals who do not speak the same language. In all of cases, the burden of bilingualism falls on the less powerful, the conquered, the colonized, the displaced, and those who migrate from their original places of residence. I refer to such bilinguals as circumstantial bilinguals to distinguish them from elective bilinguals, that is, persons who elect to learn and maybe use a foreign language for travel and other personal or professional purposes (Valdés & Figueroa, 1994).

Bilingual individuals, whether they are circumstantial or elective, are never two monolinguals in one person (Grosjean, 1989, 1998, 2010). Their language development and acquisition reflects the opportunities that they have to interact with individuals who speak those languages. More importantly, perhaps circumstantial bilinguals become bilingual as part of bilingual communities. In the United States these communities include (1) newly arrived monolinguals that speak a non-English language, (2) a large number of persons who have varying strengths in both English and a non-English language, and (3) established third generation individuals of their same ethnic group who may now be English-speaking monolinguals. Bilinguals communicate on a daily basis using bilingual communicative strategies most recently referred to as translanguaging (Creese & Blackledge, 2005). This means that they use the linguistic resources of one or both their languages to communicate most effectively. Rather than using a six-string guitar, when bilinguals speak to other bilinguals they use a twelve-string guitar using communicative strategies. They do not have to limit themselves to a single language to express nuanced messages.

It is important to emphasize the bilingual individuals establish relationships with others in a particular language. A person, for example, who has developed a relationship with a sister at home only in Spanish, will find it difficult to communicate comfortably with her in English. She may well understand the basic message of the communication, but she will fail to accurately read other more subtle meanings indicating irony or humor that she can always interpret in their habitual language of interaction. Bilingual individuals are always conscious that their two languages are not equivalent. Depending on the topic, context, purpose and relationship, they will be aware that they can use one or the other of their two languages most effectively for a particular purpose: to argue about money, to compliment, to show solidarity, to provide information, to apologize, and to express themselves authentically. Language, moreover, is more than a skill, more than the ability to use a specific language to carry out communicative acts. Language and identity are intimately related. Importantly, there are two aspects to identity, individual identity and group identity. The distinction between individual and group identity is not as clear as it first appears. Identity is socially constructed but people are not free to take on any identity they choose. Language is commonly used to separate one group from another. It symbolizes who people are and who people are not (Fishman & Garcia, 2010).

In societies such as the United States whose populations are increasingly multilingual and multicultural, mainstream monolingual individuals often have negative attitudes toward speakers of non-English languages. Ideologies of language (e.g., unexamined beliefs and perceptions about individuals and groups based on their use of language) are common. We have been influenced by monolingualist, nation-state perspectives in which the ideal has been: one nation — one language (Heller, 2007). In the United States, the use of non-dominant languages in the public sphere by persons perceived to be outsiders is negatively responded to. It is often seen as indicative of these individuals’ refusal to become “American.” When speakers of different languages interact in the same space, friction often results. In the current anti-immigrant context, language is indexical, symbolic of membership in a particularly stigmatized or minoritized group.  

Given these circumstances, language use in the public sphere is seldom neutral. Perceptions about the role and significance of language choice are always influenced by a complex web of unresolved conflicts that, while they play out in the broader national context, are then reflected in the workplace.

English-Only Rules

  • Why have English-only rules and practices been historically proposed in the United States?

  • How do they impact the workplace?

English-only rules directly reflect the unresolved issues present in the American context. The Commission’s guidance on which types of English-only rules constitute a business necessity has been an important step in creating a greater awareness of the possible discriminatory effect of such restrictive language rules.  

No matter how well intended and justified as necessary for customer communications, safety, efficiency in work assignments and monitoring of performance, the fact of establishing English-only rules creates a work climate in which two categories of employees are identified: (1) English monolinguals and (2) “others,” a suspect category of individuals whose language use needs to be monitored because — while they are capable of speaking English — they are considered to be unwilling to do so. The assumption is that bilinguals (by definition) have developed high proficiencies in English and that once dubbed English-speaking they will be able to function effectively in this language in and for all work-place contexts and purposes. There is little understanding that proficiencies vary and that at times, when working with other fellow workers, some individuals might require the assistance of a co-lingual to most effectively argue a position, challenge an assumption, or propose a detailed solution.

English-only rules, such as those that gave rise, for example, to Garcia v. Spun Steak, unfortunately create a hostile work environment in which all uses of a non-English language can be interpreted as voluntary disregard of stated policy rather than as a manifestation of a still developing and uneven linguistic capacity. When non-English language use is positioned as a deliberate violation of policy, or as unjustified celebration of an ethnic culture in spite of stated policy, or simply as uncooperative behavior, policing language can become an activity in which other co-workers join, leading to hostile eavesdropping and snooping behavior where “catching co-workers in the act” of using other languages becomes a lightly veiled act of linguistic aggression. Whether English-only rules are formal and posted or communicated by a supervisor individually to a single worker, the effect is the same. A suspect category has been created that when found to be in violation of stated policy could require dismissal, reprimand, or in the best of cases, referral to language remediation classes. Needless to say, individuals who might occasionally slip in the use of a non-English language at work are working in an intimidating, hostile, context because their job security is threatened on a daily basis.

Focusing on language use

  • How does racist discourse work? What is its societal impact?

Equally serious and offensive is the use of language-based, racist discourse in the workplace. In the case of Hispanics, for example, scholars who study minority groups in the United States have found that the positioning of Hispanics as ethno-racial others includes views of them as the sombrero-wearing docile others or as an invading Latino threat. Both views, moreover, involve the stigmatization of their linguistic practices, whether English or Spanish, as incorrect, too heavily accented, and/or inappropriate for public space. Ridicule is a strong weapon. As the anthropologist Jane Hill (1993, 2009) points out, the use of “mock Spanish” or junk Spanish by non-Hispanic Americans in public spaces is an example of racist discourse that reproduces the subordinate identity of Hispanics, particularly Mexican Americans. Acting as coded discourse (similar to veiled references to trailer trash, and welfare mothers) these discourses often purport to be humorous and light hearted. To get the joke in the case of mock Spanish, listeners must share the negative attitude toward the supposed simplicity of the language of its speakers. Strategies for producing mock Spanish include incorporating and distorting Spanish words into English in order to produce a jocular or pejorative key, for example: mistake-o numero uno, hasta la vista baby, no problemo, no way Jose. When such supposedly light humor is used in public work spaces (e.g., lunch rooms) by White Americans intending that they be overheard by Spanish speakers, they are engaging in linguistic ridicule that is fundamentally racist. The equivalent would involve the use of speech imitating an Aunt Jemima dialect in the presence of African Americans. Sociolinguists agree that, in the workplace, the use of language-based humor intended to mock particular groups is offensive, insulting, hostile, and a clear example of workplace harassment.

My final example has to do with discriminatory language actions that result from (a) the hiring of bilingual individuals for their proficiency in a non-English language and (b) the assumption that all members of a group have non-English language proficiency.

The case of Perez v. the FBI, for example, brought up the question of whether and to what degree an employer has the right to require an employee to use her two languages on the job. If monolinguals and bilinguals are paid at the same rate, does the employer have a right to insist that employees who speak two languages should use them? Should the employer provide extra compensation? Are greater burdens being placed on bilingual individuals? Does this unequal treatment have important consequences?

In the case of Perez v. FBI (1988), which involved the mandatory testing of all Hispanic FBI agents, bilingualism was considered desirable and essential for the work of the Bureau, and at the same time, the presence and use of bilingual skills was not compensated. Rejecting the statistical summaries presented by the FBI, the Court determined, that Spanish language skills for Hispanic or Latino agents were routinely treated differently than those same skills were treated for non-Hispanic individuals. Anglo (elective) bilinguals were not expected to use their Spanish in job assignments, nor were they required to take on wiretap duties. More importantly, however, the Court determined that because of their knowledge of Spanish, Latinos had been discriminated against in terms of benefits and promotions.

The Cota v. Tucson Police Department case (1992), on the other hand, presented a very different result. In this case, the Court was not convinced that the requirement that bilingual police officers speak Spanish on the job, help with translations, and help other officers when the need arose resulted in placing a greater burden on these police officers than on the monolingual members of the force. What is significant is that in the Perez v. FBI case, the outcome centered, not on the language demands made on a particular group of agents, but rather on the effect of those demands on promotions and advancements. Indeed, it was implied by Perez v. FBI that, as long as there were no discriminatory consequences in terms of pay, advancement, and promotion, requiring bilingual agents to speak Spanish was not problematic in and of itself.

Other related types of harassment arise because of the varying language proficiencies of immigrant-origin populations in the non-English language. When “bilingual” individuals are expected to use their non-English language even though their language experiences did not include the development of the styles required in a formal workplace, insistence that they use their minority language results in the creation of a hostile work environment. It cannot be assumed that an employee’s presumed bilingualism is at the service of her employer. When an employee feels incapable of using the non-English language to carry out responsibilities for which she was not originally hired, and her supervisor insists that this language be used, this creates an impossibly hostile workplace.         

The issues surrounding the ownership of employees’ language abilities are many, and attempts to treat employees fairly will often involve making difficult determinations about the ways in which language proficiency can be assessed by an employer, about the burdens placed on bilingual personnel who must deal with clients/customers in two languages rather than one, and about the rights of bilingual personnel to refuse to use the minority language in the workplace.

To summarize briefly, individuals who are the products of minority communities in the US and who use non-English languages in their everyday lives experience language-based harassment and frequently in both direct and subtle ways. This discrimination includes exclusion, close monitoring, differential treatment, and ridicule. For these vulnerable populations, language in the workplace is a loaded weapon, and one that can fire at anytime. The Task Force’s attention to this very important issue is much needed.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today. I am happy to answer questions.

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