Gender, first language, coursework and experience: What variables predict U.S. teachers’ language ideologies?

Mariana Alvayero Ricklefs investigated this question with 180 teacher candidates at a large public university in the Midwestern U.S., using a language ideology survey with closed- and open-ended questions. Analyzing the data quantitatively and qualitatively, she concluded that there were six major language ideologies held by the teacher candidates and identified the demographic-, education-, and experience-related variable(s) that influenced each ideology. After reporting on this fascinating research, I give my own interpretation of some of the findings.

Ricklefs, M. A. (2021). Variables influencing ESL teacher candidates’ language ideologies. Language and Education. 1-15. Early view. https://doi.org/10.1080/09500782.2021.1936546

Culturally and linguistically diverse students in the U.S., increasingly called “emergent bilinguals” (EBs) rather than “English language learners” to avoid deficit labels, could be recent or not-so-recent immigrants, or even U.S.-born and placed in ESL classes because they speak another language at home. In this study, Ricklefs wanted to know what variables influenced preservice teachers’ language ideologies towards EBs, defining “language ideologies” as “socially and politically loaded cultural beliefs about the form and function of language in society… [which] can have as much effect as the legal framework on the use and social value of languages” (Woolard, 2018, p. 7). 

Many applied linguists, within and beyond the U.S., categorize language ideologies into one of three kinds, which were proposed by Ruíz (1984) in a well-known article: language as problem, language as right, and language as resource. Briefly, language as problem is an assimilationist view that sees EBs’ lack of mastery of the dominant societal language as the reason they encounter many problems at school, work, and elsewhere. Language as right is the ideology that immigrant and indigenous groups have a right to speak and maintain their languages without suffering discrimination based on them. Finally, the ideology of language as resource, which decouples language ownership from belonging to an ethnic or cultural group, suggests that all languages belong to whoever wishes to learn and take them up, and they should be seen as assets in people’s lives.

[Side note: Language as right and language as resource seem positive, but also have their dangers and sometimes contradict each other. Language as right is about the language rights of different groups, but risks cultural essentialism—stereotyping the self or others according to fixed descriptions. Language as resource transcends cultural essentialism, but risks cultural appropriation—can indigenous languages or Black American English be reduced to “resources” for anyone to take up, irrespective of history? Moreover, even though we should never take a deficit view of students’ linguistic and cultural practices, teachers still have to deal with the challenge (not problem) of increasing students’ language proficiency. These issues are beyond the scope of this summary, but if you search Ruíz’s paper on Google scholar and click on “Cited by” (i.e., other papers that have cited it and the discussions that have arisen from it), you can investigate these ideologies in more depth.]

Back to Ricklefs’ study. Her 180 participants were in the process of obtaining a teaching certification; nevertheless, many had some classroom experience on practicum. They taught “in a city with a large population of diverse EB children” (p. 4) and attended “a large public university in a Midwestern state of the U.S.” (p. 5). The majority of the teachers were white, and ESL was one of the most sought credentials that could be added to their teaching licenses, due to a shortage of ESL teachers in the state. This ESL credential (which was one of the variables she investigated… had teachers taken it or not, and did it make a difference?) required half a dozen courses: multicultural education, two courses on ESL pedagogy, one course on ESL assessment, applied linguistics for teachers, and an elective (bilingual education or multicultural literature). The teachers taught three age groups: preschool to gr. 2, gr. 1-5, or gr. 6-8.

Methods

Ricklefs adapted a survey on language ideologies that was created and validated by Fitzsimmons-Doolan (2011), for the purposes of measuring the language ideologies of voters. (An endnote reveals that she got Fitzsimmons-Doolan’s permission.) The survey included 31 questions/items on a 6-point Likert scale, which goes something like 6=strongly agree and 1=strongly disagree. Examples of items were:

– “The standard- or model-form of a language is the most appropriate for school.”

– “In the U.S. the use of more than one language should be promoted.”

– “The use of more than one language makes social mobility difficult.”

– “The use of language is a human right.”

In addition to 31 questions like these, there were open-ended questions written by Ricklefs. For the Likert scale questions, she discusses exploratory factor analysis on pp. 6-7, which I do not understand. For the qualitative coding, inter-rater reliability was checked with the help of two colleagues (p. 7).

Some further facts about the teacher candidates: 75% were female and 76% were 18-23 years old, which seems very young to me; I wonder how solidly formed language ideologies are with such limited work/teaching experience. Given their newness to teaching, I think participants would give their answers based more on background than experience, but then, that is the point of this study: to investigate those background factors in addition to any effect of immediate education (coursework) or practicum experience.

Eighty-seven percent of the teachers spoke English as a first language (L1). Fifty-one percent had not started the TESL certification; the other half of the candidates had completed at least one course. The sample was also quite evenly split (45% vs 55%) in terms of whether teachers were currently on clinical placement (practicum). However, 98% had no more than 20 hours of clinical experience… which makes it all the more interesting how even a little practical experience had a significant effect, as discussed below.

Results

Ricklefs and her fellow coders identified six major language ideologies:

1. Standard language as a marker of competence. The belief that using not only English but “standard” English shows your linguistic and cognitive ability.

2. English as a marker of U.S. cultural identity. The idea that speaking English goes hand-in-hand with being American.

3. Plurilingualism as an asset and resource. This is similar to the language as resource discourse mentioned earlier.

4. Plurilingualism as a problem. This is similar to the language as problem discourse mentioned earlier.

5. Bilingualism as a complex skill. This is related to some facts typically learned by taking an introductory applied linguistics course. First, psycholinguists know that the language mixing of simultaneous bilinguals (i.e., people who acquire two languages from birth) is grammatically systematic. Their mixed-language utterances avoid breaking the grammar rules of either language. It is not careless or unprincipled but rule-governed and based in instinct like the implicit knowledge of the grammar rules of your first language (if you have only one first language). In addition, sociolinguists know that code-switching and code-meshing are skilled practices learned by growing up in bi/multilingual communities.

6. Plurilingualism as a right. This is similar to the language as right discourse mentioned earlier.

The 31 questions/statements loaded onto one of the 6 ideologies, e.g., “In the U.S. public communication should occur in English” loads onto “English as a marker of U.S. cultural identity” (see table of factor loadings on p. 8). All the teachers’ responses were combined; then, each of these six ideologies was examined with regard to which variables (if any) influenced that ideology. The variables were: gender, whether English was the teacher’s L1, whether the teacher had taken ESL/bilingual coursework, and whether the teacher had had their clinical placement.

Three ideologies were influenced by multiple variables: (1) standard English as a marker of competence, (2) English as a marker of U.S. cultural identity, and (3) plurilingualism as right. Two ideologies were influenced by one variable each: (4) bilingualism as complex skill, and (5) plurilingualism as resource. There were no statistically significant influencing variables found for the sixth ideology, language as problem, but the first two ideologies are about language as problem, so we can think of them as a stand-in for that.

Let’s begin with standard English as a marker of competence + English as a marker of US cultural identity. The influential variables here were English L1 + lack of coursework + lack of experience. In essence, this is the “blank slate.” If you grew up an English monolingual white person, in the Midwestern U.S., and you had no coursework on ESL or bilingualism, and no teaching experience with linguistically and culturally diverse students, you will lean towards these ideologies. [According to Lippi-Green (2012), middle-class Midwestern English is the closest we can get to a concrete example of “standard American English.”]

What is interesting is how quickly these ideologies become compromised with education and experience. For the ideology that standard language is a marker of competence, “teacher candidates who had taken more than one ESL course, or that had taken the bilingual elective course, oriented more negatively toward, or were more likely to disagree with this language ideology than those who had not taken any of these courses. Teacher candidates who were in a clinical placement oriented more negatively toward, or were more likely to disagree with this ideology than those who were not” (p. 9). When it came to English as a marker of U.S. cultural identity, “teacher candidates who took two or three ESL courses oriented more negatively toward (or disagreed with) this ideology, than those who did not. Teacher candidates who were in a clinical placement also oriented more negatively toward (or disagreed with) this ideology, than those who were not” (p. 10).

Take a moment to reflect on what this means for the gap that divides teaching professionals from the general public in an English-dominant place. In other words, many teachers realize that the ideologies are flawed, yet the public at large continues to believe in them… unless they become professional ESL educators themselves. It points to the difficulty teachers have when trying to get the general public see what they see. We cannot simply chalk this down to “university indoctrination,” since both coursework and practicum experience teaching multilingual children and youth led to the same ideological changes.

When it came to plurilingualism as a right, two variables, taking TESL coursework and an L1 other than English, contributed to teachers’ leaning towards this ideology.

I now move on to the two ideologies that had only one affecting variable. Plurilingualism as resource was affected by having an L1 that was not English. Similar to translanguaging scholars, one teacher said: “English learners do not learn each language separately or in isolation, but English learners use all of their linguistic resources.” Another said, based on their own experience, that “children need to continue their development in their first language while they are learning their second. There are many benefits and cross references children have with two languages” (p. 11).

Finally, bilingualism as a complex skill was affected by a single odd variable, and that was gender. Frankly, this is the only part of the study I think is flawed (one small part). I think this ideology is tied to knowledge of facts (see above) that you typically learn in an introductory course in linguistics or bilingualism, but the questions/items that loaded onto the construct were unrelated and vague: ““One should be patient with people learning a second language”; “Using one language to complete a task is better than using two languages” (p. 8). Since the statistics were very different for male and female teachers (p. 11), even if Ricklefs captured a real gender difference in their ideologies, those questions loaded onto a factor that is not “bilingualism as a complex skill”—maybe something more like “values females/males are socialized into having in educational settings (e.g., empathy, multilingualism, efficiency).”

Conclusions

Ricklefs concludes with the good news that coursework and experience cause a shift in teachers’ misperceptions that standard English is a marker of competence and that English is a marker of U.S. cultural identity, while coursework and having a multicultural background increase teachers’ awareness of language as right. However, the same cannot be said for an understanding of bilingualism as a complex skill or language as resource. She puts forward the idea that “future research could use longitudinal studies to understand teacher candidates’ ideological trajectories” (p. 12). Maybe these other ideologies will shift in the long term?

What is interesting about this study—and what I like about it—is the apparent line that was drawn between the ideologies that were impacted by coursework and a little teaching experience, and the ones that were not. Ricklefs didn’t speculate on it, but I will here. “Bilingualism as complex skill” and “plurilingualism as resource” require more advanced teacher education. Unlike the ideologies that were addressed by the coursework and experience, these two points are not just changes in beliefs and values (i.e., deficit- to asset-oriented perception of multilingual students). You cannot take up these last two ideologies without “hard” sociolinguistic, psycholinguistic, and pedagogical knowledge. Such knowledge is about (1) how bi/multilingualism is psycholinguistically complex and involves sociolinguistic awareness (i.e., how to conduct a multilingual interaction) acquired by growing up in a multilingual society, as discussed here and here; and about (2) how languages are resources because there are concrete pedagogical strategies that draw on them for the purposes of academic learning, as discussed here and here, and as mentioned by the statements of bi/multilingual teachers in Ricklefs’ study.

Without this “hard” knowledge, people who speak a dominant societal language as L1 and have limited bi/multilingualism can have a hard time understanding what the complexity of bi/multilingualism involves or how languages work as resources, because they haven’t personally experienced anything that would concretely illustrate those points. Even I, with some degree of bi/multilingualism, cannot fathom the practices of bi/multilingual friends who are professionally fluent in two or more languages. However, anyone can relatively easily shed deficit orientations and recognize languages as a human right after some coursework and a little teaching experience. Therefore, concrete examples of why multilingualism is complex and how multilingualism is a pedagogical resource are always needed.

References

Lippi-Green, R. (2012). English with an accent: Language, ideology, and discrimination in the United States. Routledge.

Ruíz, R. (1984). Orientations in language planning. NABE Journal, 8(2), 15–34. https://doi.org/10.1080/08855072.1984.10668464

Woolard, K. A. (2018). Language, identity, and politics in Catalonia. Brown Journal of World Affairs, 25(1), 1–20.

Published by annamend

Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education, University of Hong Kong

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