A Case for Multilingual Universities

The English-centric practices of U.S. universities have many detrimental effects, writes Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera.

May 19, 2022
 
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The clock tower at the University of Puerto Rico Río Piedras campus. The author writes that U.S. higher education institutions have much to learn from UPR’s multilingual model.
 

“Those who envision a future world speaking only one tongue, whether English, German, Russian, or any other, hold a misguided ideal and would do the evolution of the human mind the greatest disservice.” —Benjamin Lee Whorf

“There are some awkward constraints to using only one language. I understand we must do it sometimes. It limits how and what I feel, and how I express myself. It’s like swimming with just your legs. I would rather not do it—but I can.” —María Biaggi, UPR student

Spanish is by far the most common language in this hemisphere. The U.S. has more Spanish speakers than any country in the world save Mexico—more than Spain, Colombia, Venezuela and more “than in all of Central America (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama), plus Uruguay and Paraguay thrown in for good measure.” Nevertheless, nearly all institutions of higher learning hold tight to English as the sole language for degree conferral, accreditation, instruction, grant making, admissions, scholarly awards, institutional communication and so forth.

These policies direct literacy itself toward English and away from Spanish in a way that shapes not only student learning and graduation rates but also access to public services, democratic participation and the nature of citizenship.

Monolingualism as a “best practice” is due for reconsideration. Rethinking U.S. higher education’s English-centric policies could address both a cultural injustice and institutional enrollment challenges, as Latinx enrollments have exploded at all levels of U.S. education and are projected to continue to rise.

Indeed, a shift toward a multilingual model like the one in place where I teach at the University of Puerto Rico would almost certainly increase Latinx enrollment, retention and graduation rates—and would have significant benefits for monolingual students from all backgrounds, as research has shown that multilingualism has profound cognitive and social benefits.

A Decolonized Society Requires Multilingual Universities

While Spanish is the dominant language at the University of Puerto Rico, English has co-official status. Each language is used for specific purposes.

As Kevin Carroll, an English professor at UPR’s Río Piedras campus, writes, “the majority of [Puerto Rican] institutions have de facto open-language policies, which allow instructors to use textbooks largely published in English and present their lectures and assessments in Spanish or a mixture of Spanish and English.”

Outside the classroom, language blending occurs in institutional communications, assessment and accreditation paperwork, and faculty meetings and social gatherings, as well as across media, including websites, email, Zoom interactions and the like.

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To stress the obvious, a decolonized society requires multilingual universities. “In order for our educational programs to move beyond colonialism,” note education scholars Lourdes Diaz Soto and Haroon Kharem, “our learners need to be able to read the word and the world bilingually, biculturally, and multiculturally.”

English-only “best practices” in degree conferral, curriculum design, cultural events, scholarly appointments, grant making, institutional-level communication and the cascade of other university activities have important symbolic weight, especially in Spanish-dominant communities: they represent not only the power to define a linguistic and cultural reality, but also to make others accept it.

“So, if you want to really hurt me, talk badly about my language. Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity—I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself. Until I can accept as legitimate Chicano Texas Spanish, Tex Mex, and all the other languages I speak, I cannot accept the legitimacy of myself. Until I am free to write bilingually and to switch codes without having always to translate, while I still have to speak English or Spanish when I would rather speak Spanglish, and as long as I have to accommodate the English speakers rather than having them accommodate me, my tongue will be illegitimate.” —Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera

Multilingualism for Learning and Citizenship

Language policies at most U.S. universities ignore the students’ linguistic repertoires and make it difficult to develop translanguaging as a knowledge-cultivation tool. Multilingual institutions seize this intrinsic and common part of the human condition and engage it to cultivate and broaden the knowledge developed.

The hypothesis of linguistic relativity holds that “that the language we speak affects the way we think about reality.”

Especially in literary and cultural studies, crosslingual conversation allows students to engage more directly with how narrative structure and word choice, expression of feeling and desire, and emotions arise in a language/cultural tradition vis-à-vis another, and how changing between them adds texture to both. When a learning environment draws from the students’ language repertoires in this way, it also engages people to recognize themselves and their communities in new ways, to create and co-construct culture and memory across a broader set of experiences.

The way we communicate is not incidental to what we (can) know, but in monolingual utopias, that fact is often misunderstood.

Furthermore, while higher education is vital to professional formation, skills training and specialized experience, it is also central to the cultivation of critical social responsibility. How people attain power and status, the languages they (may legally) use, the nature of the relationships they develop and the composition of a community (who is a member, who is not and why?) interrelate closely to a university’s mission. Inasmuch as citizenship is a status, it is also a process—part of which is linguistic.

The UPR Model

Here at the UPR was my first time in an institutional setting where I could use my main languages—English and Spanish—interchangeably without feeling uncomfortable. (I have not experienced this in any mainland U.S. setting, except in private.)

My connection to language itself changed during those first days on campus in Mayagüez. Spanish and English, like a friend, could be missed, misunderstood, absent, intriguing or empty and could bring sadness or delight. Languages are also like cities: they have their own climates, histories, senses of humor and passion. There are moments when one is more suitable, more eloquent and expressive, than another. And on occasion, se necesitan varias—y los espacios entre ellas.

Many correctly perceive the presence of English in Puerto Rico as a colonial exigence, an external linguistic directive conceived in a granite office building far from Puerto Rico, in Washington, more than a century ago, but still implemented this very day in places like Mayagüez and Vieques. But the colonial mission failed: English has been appropriated in Puerto Rico into a linguistic ecosystem robust and expansive enough to rewrite its limits, localizing inglés in accordance with how it is useful in Aguadilla or San Germán, in ways that play with the external controls.

At our university, beyond an archaic colonial program, multilingualism allows the institutional dynamics to transcend a closed-in homogeneity and the hegemony subtly enforced by monolingual policies (be them English-only or Spanish-only).

Part of what makes the UPR notable is that the environment identifies use of multiple languages not as incendiary but ordinary. If engaging, thinking, experiencing and performing several languages and traditions each day permits a broader set of scholarly contexts, recognizing these as qualities or intellectual virtues cannot (or at least does not) occur in part due to the nature of competitions that rank scholars: be them in admissions, funding, publications, grants, hiring, prizes, scholarly appointments and so on, UPR students and faculty do poorly across most metrics in no small part due to the ways competitions subtly but specifically prohibit recognition of Spanish-language and multiple-language (and any other-than-English-language) communication as valid. In these competitions (and in the U.S. in general) multilingual agency is not a metric of excellence but an eccentricity.

The emphasis on English as sole mediator of linguistic existence in U.S. universities has serious effects on the study of Spanish and Indigenous languages, particularly in the U.S. Southwest. The Yaqui, Keresan, Taos, Tewa, Zuni and Hopi languages have unique and particular engagements with Spanish, but once U.S. colonization and its linguistic plow arrived, those depths have been largely absent from the language histories developed in colleges and universities serving those communities. While Puerto Rico’s decolonial engagement is mainly Spanish-English based, its educational template could be applied across whatever linguistic map exists in the communities of each institution.

Among the many things I admire about Puerto Rico and its public institutions, one of the most important is the participatory culture that the language policies make possible. If a linguistic democratization were to occur at U.S. universities, this would open students to experiences, agencies and intellectual benefits that are absent in the colonized university. Many realms of what the institutions do—scholarship, teaching, service and the cultivation of citizenship—would have new boundaries.

Bio

Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera is a professor and director of the humanities department at the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez. He is 2022 Obama Fellow at the Obama Institute for Transnational American Studies. His book Decolonizing American Spanish will be published by the University of Pittsburgh Press this fall. 

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