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Review of  Language, Space and Power


Reviewer: Debbie Cole
Book Title: Language, Space and Power
Book Author: Samina Hadi-Tabassum
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Sociolinguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Spanish
Book Announcement: 18.258

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Review:
AUTHOR(S): Hadi-Tabassum, Samina
TITLE: Language, Space and Power
SUBTITLE: A Critical Look at Bilingual Education
SERIES: Bilingual Education & Bilingualism
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2006

Debbie Cole, Department of English, University of Texas, Pan American

This monograph records and analyzes observations of participant behavior in
a fifth grade dual language immersion classroom in the United States.
Children in this classroom voiced meta-linguistic awareness of inequalities
between Spanish and English, pointing out that ''we need to add more Spanish
words'' (197). The teachers agree both on theoretical and pedagogical
grounds, but in practice English is always the default language out of
perceived convenience and necessity. The book makes an interesting and
timely contribution to our understandings of linguistic inequalities and
bilingual program implementation: When authoritative teacher voices do
respond metalinguistically to student observations of linguistic
inequalities, teacher mediations favor English-dominant interlocutors
perceived as needing protection from a possible alienation that might
result from not understanding more words in Spanish. The author, Samina
Hadi-Tabassum, raises reader consciousness about three current issues: The
relationship between theory, research, and practice in classroom pedagogy,
the asymmetrical power relationship between student-teacher discourse, and
the details of the received ideological binary distinction between Spanish
and English in current public debate.

SUMMARY

In Chapter 1, the author introduces the research site as an exemplary space
for observing linguistic border negotiations. The democratically stated
pedagogical goals and practices of a dual immersion classroom are made
explicit: Child fluency in Spanish and English are to be achieved through
classroom practices that give equal time to each language. The reader is
positioned to see the dual immersion classroom as a space where
institutionalized linguistic equality has a good chance of succeeding
because many participants (parents, teachers, students, administration, the
larger community) support the endeavor both vocally and practically. The
information provided in this chapter makes the subsequent failed
negotiations over unequal language borders particularly poignant, even more
so because the negotiations were often initiated by children.

In Chapter 2, the author shows how advocates of dual language programs
justify strict temporal and spatial divisions between Spanish and English
in the classroom on evidence that bilingual speakers have separate mental
representations for different languages. The logic goes 'since the brain
keeps track of these two languages in discrete mental spaces it must need
discrete kinds of input that can be guaranteed by separate-but-equal
spaces, times, and activities in which one-and-only-one language is used at
a time.' The author notes that dual immersion program advocates did not
actively make use of research-based evidence that mental representations of
multiple languages can be either distributed across the brain or that
brains access the same areas regardless of which language is being
produced. This chapter implies but does not fully explore the possibility
that an acknowledgement of a more networked, distributed language storage
and retrieval system (i.e. the brain) could lead to more successful
teaching practices and learner outcomes in second language acquisition.

In chapters 3, 4, and 5 readers share the author's observations of
student-student and student-teacher everyday interactions as they move back
and forth between Spanish speaking times and spaces and English ones. In
their dialogs, participants stumbled over language borders enforced by
authoritative discourses claiming bilingual equality, yet whose very
presence at metalinguistic epiphanies where students point to inequities
seems to function to police the language divide. Since teacher practices
informed by research in education are also such that spaces and times were
made available for student reflection, students sometimes exerted the
agency they are afforded to question the validity of claims about
linguistic equality.

Each of Chapters 3 through 5 is didactic, making the book suitable for
students of pedagogy. Through the detailed descriptions of classroom life,
we become virtual members of a particular third grade classroom sharing the
author's gaze as a student of human behavior. The ''The Cheers'' chapter
teaches that although educators may have the tools and resources to create
spaces where children can become reflexive about language practices, they
seem to lack the ability or willingness to allow student concerns about
inequitable behavior to change their own behaviors in ways that actually
address those concerns. The ''Jack, Su Mama, Y El Burro'' chapter teaches
that when children attempt to hold authority figures accountable to their
promises of linguistic equality their efforts are applauded but then no
attempt is made to actually make good on those promises, in fact it becomes
clear that there is no plan for such an eventuality. The ''The Flow and
Movement of Music'' chapter teaches that authoritative claims about
authentic and inauthentic language can be elided in shared musical
practices where sound-based intragroup interactions (rhythmic, auditory,
vocal, etc.) not only provide effective alternative ways of learning new
linguistic material but enable shifts in perspective about socially
prescriptive binaries like las fronteras between idiomas.

EVALUATION

The children in this study felt free to engage in metalinguistic discussion
of inequities precisely in and around those conversational spaces where
they were encouraged to perform culturally structured texts (creating a
class cheer, performing a class play, singing Spanish folk songs). Since
this propensity for humans to use culturally structured linguistic texts as
sites for the performance of otherwise repressed speaker agency has long
been well described and understood in linguistic anthropology, this
monograph may appear on the surface as just another case study. However,
the particularity of the authors' site (the joint facts that the
metalinguistic cognition occurred in child utterances and that the
particular language borders being negotiated are English and Español) make
the book read like a text book example of the details of sociolinguistic
conflicts and resolutions arising in second language acquisition environments.

Two dimensions of the author's writing practices in the book are
instructive. First, one apparent danger of the particular gaze that seeks
to encompass the whole classroom and all the bodies and discourse within it
is the tendency to slip into a social psychoanalytical perspective that
claims authority in identifying and interpreting unexpressed mental
processes for which the reader may or may not have evidence. An example of
this is in chapter 3 where the author claims that a mental residue remains
after a missed opportunity for self-identification by students as
authentically 'dual-language' even though the students and teachers never
discussed what appeared as disappointment in their behavior. Another
example of this occurs when the author attributes a feeling of alienation
to an English-dominant actor in the school play upon hearing improvised
lines in Spanish, even though the dialog itself and the author's
description of the actor's facial expression support an interpretation that
he was simply ''puzzled'' (202).

The second and perhaps more interesting instructive aspect of the text lies
in how the author gets caught in the politics of representation. In
observing students struggle to inhabit and reproduce the binary distinction
between English and Spanish in the classroom, the author found that
students recognized the binary's role in their own lived experiences and
had the confidence to both explicitly identify the binary and to question
assertive discourse making claims about representing linguistic equality in
public performances of scripted texts. When these authoritative claims
later proved to be largely unsubstantiated and student concerns largely
ignored, the author notes that the participants did not then proactively
engage in practices that would balance inequality, question why student
concerns were not being addressed, nor discuss potential ways that
classroom inequities were related to life outside the classroom. In the
writing of the text itself, the author's metalinguistic awareness of failed
negotiations around language borders has done little to offer an
alternative to maintaining an English dominant binary even within academic
discourse. Like the other participants in the study, the author's position
reinforces the authoritative production of dominating English, as has mine
in this review.

Although the text does not reflexively address complicitness in English
domination, it does raise important questions that could lead to getting
out of representation politics and into multilingualism. What for example
might be the effect of not including translations into English of
participant discourse in the observed classroom? Presumably the book would
then provide some advantage to the Spanish dominant reader, and in some
cases the represented speakers themselves. This option is theoretically
and practically available since the author clearly commands an
understanding of Spanish, so perhaps the fear of alienating the imagined
English-dominant audience is at work here as well.

Another set of research questions comes out of observations about effective
mimesis in chapters 4 through 6. The author invites us to consider a ''
narrative constitution of the Spanish Other ...[that]...subsequently raises
the possibility of a different, non-ethnocentric way of relating to
Otherness.'' (189). The evidence provided for this in the text is that this
different way of relating is mediated through the physical properties of
sound. One English-dominant speaker describes her articulatory fluency in
other languages like this, ''I guess I have an okay accent and I like saying
words. I just don't know what they mean.'' (190). The author goes on to
describe the students' abilities to present themselves comfortably in their
second languages as producing ''an uncanny effect'' where student ''voices
oscillated between being themselves and being their Spanish other
character'' (189). What would it mean for us to apply this observation of
child facility with linguistic border crossing to our own practices? What
would it mean to talk instead of ''oscillating between being themselves and
being their...[English] other character''?

Taken as a whole, this book points to exciting possibilities for
collaborative research in the areas of learning theories, sociology and
anthropology, political science, cognitive musicology, pedagogy, language
acquisition, and neurological science. Further, este libro is a useful
reminder of our propensity to enforce physical borders between languages in
our own practices of representation. En mis clases, I only rarely make
choices to hablar en Español even though I teach courses aimed at raising
student consciousness about linguistic equality to a student population
overwhelmingly comprised of Spanish speakers: I am afraid to relinquish
the power of the floor and of potentially being misunderstood. My
research, reading, and critical thinking, however, tell me that there is
solamente un cuerpo: Practice is articulated theory and linguistic acts are
completely physical. To step outside of the brain and the physicality of
language is to go nowhere. Hadi-Tabassum has pointed out that our current
version of linguistic equality is ''an abstract mathematical oscillation
between Spanish and English, of a 1:0 and 0:1 ratio'' (271). Vamos a
trabajar together to redefine linguistic equality as something closer to a
ratio of uno to one.
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER


Debbie Cole is an assistant professor of linguistics and anthropology in
the Department of English at the University of Texas Pan American. Current
projects include a student produced "Codeswitchers Guide to the Rio Grande
Valley: Un Diccionario of Pan Americana" and research on listener attitudes
towards Spanish influenced accents of English.


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