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Teaching Foreign Language in the Age of Trump

Editor's Note: Kaitlin E. Thomas has worked in multiple public school organizations in the Mid-Atlantic and New England, and is a doctoral candidate in Hispanic Studies at the University of Birmingham (U.K.). She shares how she dealt with racism in her foreign langauge classroom this year.

by guest blogger Kaitlin E. Thomas

The end-of-the year meeting began innocuously enough, colleagues bantering with routine pleasantries as the spring semester faded into the summer recess on that final day of the term. We settled in for our discussion, and I couldn't help but admire the meticulously written Chinese symbols displayed on the chalkboard in front of me. I imagined the student working in that quiet, small classroom space carefully composing each character as they crafted each mark, absorbedly moving from one down to the next.

And then I saw it: "Speak American or GTFO".  

At any institute of learning such commentary is disparaging. In one imbecilic move, the intrusive commentary not only demoted the intellectual pursuit of language learning, but did so using an erroneous concept—"American" as a language. This was just one example, but there have been an alarming number of similar incidents since President Trump won the election in 2016. It appears that, to some, pursuing foreign language and cultural studies is in conflict with current ideas around what patriotism or national loyalty means in the United States.

The current political climate has created a paradoxical conundrum for instructors of foreign language and culture. Since June 2015, this jingoist resistance to global awareness or understanding has surged in the classroom as misplaced defiance and fueled by bogus social conspiracy theories and false threat narrative propagation. It bleeds hostile toxicity into learning that depends on student inquisitiveness, participation, and, ultimately, tolerance.

Silent accusations accompanied by glaring stares meet me as we embark on discussions about communism, fascism, and socialism. When a student refuses to use vocabulary (Ojalá) after discovering it's origins (Insh'Allah), or when a discussion about the current crisis in Venezuela devolves into belligerency toward Chavez's contempt of el norte and its leaders, for example, it is challenging to seize what could be a teachable moment without letting the resulting dialogue succumb to more misplaced nationalist fervor. These are new pedagogical obstacles that have been startlingly absent until now in a craft meant to provoke constructive focus.

It is a foreign language instructor's privilege to serve as ambassador between languages, cultures, and histories, and to embark on the challenge of exposing students to what lies beyond artificially constructed borders and boundaries. It is also a responsibility to encourage a broadening of perspectives that might—full teacher disclosure here—even instigate a process of "unlearning" when need be.

It is within the learning of language and cultures that critical truths—not all Muslims are terrorists, not all Mexicans are rapists, there is no official U.S. language—must be clarified, impressed upon, and reiterated to our students. They must not fear the pursuit of studying other languages and cultures since it is through such scholarship and skill acquisition that their own sense of citizenry and self become coherently realized. Ojalá touched a nerve because of an assumption bred through fear mongering. And how do you think my students reacted when I told them that their beloved ¡Olé! also shares Arabic derivation? Or that their café is more aptly known as qahwa?

GTFO.pngFor the sake of them (including you, anonymous chalkboard commentator), and for the profoundly complicated, unescapably globalized, and ethnically dynamic world that they are only beginning to experience, I confront these hesitations, misconceptions, and now increasingly overt enmity toward learning Spanish language and culture by first tackling the sentiments on a one-on-one level. This facilitates a less charged exchange between the student and me, one in which a conversation, rather than a spectacle, can take place. In other words, I eliminate the crowd mentality factor as much as possible.

This is not to say that I do not address the sentiments with the entire class; I do indeed, and in fact make it a personal mission to do so. Emotion is just as undermining to the issue as irrationality, and so I arm myself with as much all-encompassing (fact-based) information as possible. Do you like and study math? Fantastic—let's talk about mathematical Arabic influence. What about medicine, health, and wellness? Perfect—here's a bit more. And of course, I drive home the point, with as much accessible information as possible, that Spanish and Arabic are beautifully and purposefully connected in cultural and linguistic history.

Much of how an instructor opts to confront these newly emerging obstacles in our foreign language classrooms depends on the student-teacher and teacher-class dynamic. Regardless, it has become and must remain a primary objective to "GTFO" and hit the streets to extoll loud-and-proud the benefits, immense importance, and lifelong dividends of embarking on foreign language and culture studies.

Connect with Heather on Twitter. 

Image courtesy of the author. 

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