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Department of English
TESOL /Applied Linguistics Graduate Students Conference


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2011 TALGS Conference News
February 19, 2011
East Carolina University
Greenville, N.C.

Dr. Ofelia García interviewed by Dr. Andrea Kitta
TALGS Conference, February 19, 2011

Interviewer: I don’t want to take up too much of your time.

Dr. García (G): Sure.

Interviewer (I): I wanted to ask you, first off, since there’re a lot of people reading it that don’t actually have a background in what you’re involved with, how would you explain it to someone that doesn’t necessarily know a whole lot about Linguistics or about English as a second language?

Dr. G: Well, you know, it’s hard to define what I do, because I don’t do Linguistics, and I don’t do ESL either. What I do is: I think about language in society and especially language in classrooms and how people use the languages. I always say I’m not into the language; I’m interested in the users of language. I’m interested in the speakers. And I have always straddled disciplines. What interests me is the use of language in society, and especially the uses of language. So, it’s hard to define me, because I don’t fit in one traditional discipline. I don’t fit in a Linguistics program. I don’t fit in an Education program either. I don’t fit in a Sociology program, but I’m happy sort-of being interdisciplinary in a lot of ways. 

I: That’s great.

Dr. G: Yeah.

I: That’s really nice to hear. I think a lot of people are moving more towards interdisciplinary work…and that is actually what brings me to my second question. I was going to ask you, what drew you to, how did you get to where you are?

Dr. G: Well, I think as always, personal histories, I was an immigrant to the United States at the age of eleven, so I struggled with fitting in and learning English, and being successful in school, so…also sort-of separating from my parents, culture, and separating linguistically; for a long time I didn’t read or write Spanish, and it was sort of in college when I started gaining it back and reclaiming it in some ways. I grew up in the 60s, so the struggles around civil rights at that time impacted me greatly, and I went to college in a public college, at Hunter College. We struggled financially as many immigrant families do, and I was the oldest of four. I connected to the people at Hunter College that were more like me, who were mostly Puerto Ricans. I became involved in The Center for Puerto Rican Studies that looked at issues of how the Puerto Rican community in New York City was doing. So that was sort of how I grew up. And I started getting interested in multilingualism and bilingualism precisely because of my own experiences. I started teaching in what was then Hell’s Kitchen. I think it’s now back to being called Hell’s Kitchen even though it is a very different place now; it’s very gentrified. But when I started teaching, it was still a tough place, the neighborhood where West Side Story was - took place. And, I was an ESL teacher, supposed to be an ESL teacher, but I was given a class of all Puerto Rican children to teach, and I thought “This doesn’t make any sense. I speak Spanish, they speak Spanish, why am I doing this all in English?” and I started sort-of experimenting with bilingualism and education before, before actually bilingual education was something that people thought about. I was then hired in a school of education in the bilingual education program at The City College of New York. And I was hired there because I had a mentor, I had been a teacher in a progressive school, there were many of them at that time. It was a ‘school without walls’, and we did everything through consensus, and we had a very active Faculty. My mentor, who was a Faculty member at City College, knew me as someone who knew what to do in the classroom and was a good teacher, and she thought I would be perfect for this position. But when I started teaching in the bilingual education program, I became painfully aware of the fact that even though I knew how to practice it, I couldn’t make the theoretical connections, because, since that was a field that did not exist when I was going to college, I didn’t really have any training in it. So actually I went and did a post-doc at Yeshiva University, with Joshua Fishman who was the founder of Sociology of Language issues, and I started really learning a lot about not only bilingualism theoretically, but also about language maintenance, language shift, reversing language shift. Fishman was a sociologist of language. I had been trained, not quantitatively, not as a quantitative researcher. I used to do semiotics, and I thought “Ok, I need that kind of training also.” So, after I finished with him – I never finished with him, I still work with him – but this is where I think my work comes from because I was really fortunate enough to be teamed up with someone who was actively doing research when I was young and who actually mentored me, and actually was very kind and generous to me. But as I worked more and more on his research, I became really aware that I was not comfortable with quantitative research, so I did go for a post-doc at the University of Michigan on quantitative research methodology. I did that; learned how to do it, and then realized that, even though I liked doing it, that’s not what I wanted to do, so, you know, you have different kinds of realizations. I think that my biggest realization was that as a statistician at the University I always used to do runs, and came up with very different results from those of the statisticians because I used to manipulate variables in very different kinds of ways from the ways that they saw them which were always static. And I used to see things in interrelationship, and, therefore, manipulated the variables differently. The statisticiansalways used to say to me, “How did you do that?” I used to say “Well, I’ve done poetry: I know how to make meaning out of things.” So I became aware that I liked doing it, but that’s not really what made me happy. Or it didn’t have enough meaning for me: the meaning of the lives of people which is what I was interested in. So…do you want me to continue? (laughter)

I: Oh yeah! Keep going! Yes! This is fascinating!

Dr. G: So I was at City College for a long while, working in the School of Education, working with teachers, very very happy there, I used to work with mostly bilingual teachers at that time. We had large bilingual education programs in those years, I’m talking about the early 80s, the 80s, more or less, and then the 90s came around, and things started changing, and I think that the biggest change was accountability in some way that people don’t understand, and computers which were able to quantify things, which before could not be quantified. And New York State, I think rightly so, came up with a regulation that said that schools of education had to have an 80% pass rate in order to continue to operate, otherwise they were going to close them down. We had a low graduate pass rate on these certification exams. I think it was 65%. So the Faculty decided that the only way to really guarantee a pass rate of that kind was to give the certification exam in order to come in to the School of Education, which I thought was really objectionable. There were many in the faculty who were against that policy. But the policy passed, and I became very disillusioned about this because I think that communities need their own teachers, and I really think that we need to educate those communities. We can’t just say, “Well, your teachers are not good enough, so, you know, we’re just not going to give you access,” because I do think that community members have certain strengths and certain understandings about those communities that outsiders do not have. And so I became a little disillusioned about being there, and, you know, it was a lot of struggle, and bickering, and all that. And I decided I would start speaking out against it, and to make a very long story short, the President of a small, independent university in downtown Brooklyn with a 90 per-cent minority enrollment heard me one day and said, “Come do it at our place. They’re gonna to shut us down, so I have nothing to lose. We’ll give you the resources. Let’s do it.” And I decided that it was time to do something about what I had been saying, so I decided to get my hands dirty, and went to do it. I became the Dean of the School of Education at this independent school which is called The Brooklyn Campus of Long Island University. And we worked very, very hard, and we worked very successfully. I had a faculty that was, then, very disillusioned. They were working hard, but they didn’t know how to work. They couldn’t get themselves what they needed. But there is one thing that I know how to do: I know how to work with language development. I know how to get students to develop academic English. So, I started to work with the faculty on understanding who those students. The faculty used to say in the beginning that the students needed to cross…there’s a certain street in Brooklyn that is sort of the separation between the more gentrified neighborhood and the poorer neighborhood, and they always used to tell me that the students needed to cross that street. And we started working with the metaphor of “No, no, no, no, no. What we need to do is create this third space in which all of us are in it together.” And we did! They worked very, very hard, we revamped the entire curriculum, we revamped the pedagogy, we brought in new faculty that helped us, really special faculty. We did it well, but then, when it was done, I began to think, “I don’t want to be a Dean, because I don’t want to be an administrator.” I wanted to develop a curriculum that would work for those kids. I wanted to hold on to some community members for the teaching force, but I didn’t want to be an administrator. So, I’m going to bring you to the present.

I: That’s ok! No, this is great!

Dr. G: So, Teacher’s College at Columbia had an opening in bilingual education they had been looking to fill for a while, and they brought me in. And I went to Teacher’s College thinking that, in some ways, I had crossed that street too, you know, I had always been in a public institution and in struggling schools, and ok, now I’m going to a place where there are none of these struggles, where everybody, everything’s fine. I was in the Department of International and Transcultural Studies, where the Bilingual Education Program was. I was very uncomfortable about the fact that TESOL and Applied Linguistics were in a separate department, only because there had been personal fights before I came in, but I was confident that I would be able to bring everybody together, because that’s something that I do well, or, I’ve done well, been successful at. But I must say that I wasn’t really that successful there (laughs) because there were long-standing histories that I couldn’t bridge in any kind of way. The Department was a very exciting department in the sense that it was interdisciplinary, and I am comfortable with interdisciplinarity, and there were people in language, there were some exiles from Applied Linguistics that were there, the Anthropologists were there, which is fun. The Economists were there, and then people who did International Comparative Education Development. So it was interesting, an interesting department, and interesting mix of people, had wonderful students, really good students and some good colleagues, not all, but some. (laughs) And I was happy, but one grows older and one realizes “Well, what is it that I…What is it that I want to do with the last years of my career?” and I started getting restless because most of my students were international students, wonderful students, but they were international students and they were going back ‘wherever’. They were going back to Mainland China, to Japan, to Korea, to wherever.  And I thought…in a lot of ways I really have not prepared, I would like to prepare people who were going to do their work here: the same community that I have always been close to. So, to make a very long story short, the Graduate Center had an opening. The Graduate Center is a doctoral program of City University, they have all the doctoral programs in one setting. The position was in Urban Education, and I applied, and there I am. So I’m there, this is my third year.

I: Oh great!

Dr. G: Ok, so now I’ve given you the whole interview! (laughs)

I: Oh that’s good! No, that’s wonderful! It’s so interesting and I think it’s interesting for the people to see that, especially students, I think they feel like they’re wandering, but they’re not. They’re finding their way and they’re trying to figure out what they want to do with their life, and that’s not a bad thing, so,

Dr. G: Yeah! Yeah! That’s what life is about!

I: It is! Exactly!

Dr. G: It sort-of takes you in different directions, yeah.

I: I think so! And it’s good for them to hear someone who is, you know, who is very successful and to see “No, ok, she moved around a little bit! And you know, she had to go and get a post-doc and just fill in the gaps.” I think that’s good for them to know, because, I think, I really do, especially working with the grad students. They sometimes get a little worried about,

Dr. G: How to get it all together. (laughs)

I: Yeah! How to get it all together, and what motivates them…

Dr. G: Well, you know, I think also, it’s a different generation, because I’ve worked a lot, especially at Teachers College there was a wonderful young faculty member whom I mentored, and I was always shocked by what an incredible plan she had traced for herself, whereas I think my career was sort of in the making, you know, and sort of in the moment. It happened one way or the other. But I think…those were different times. And I think these are very, very different times. So, in a lot of ways young people have to trace what they want right now in a lot more structured ways … I think technology has had a lot to do with it.

I: Yes, I think so too, yeah.

Dr. G: You know, it’s interesting how technology both liberates us and constrains us.

I: That’s very true.

Dr. G: So… people can quantify now what you do, whereas before no one could.

I: No, it’s true

Dr. G: You’re expected to be known all over, whereas before it was just very local, so I think that the pressures on young people are different today.

I: Yeah. I think that’s definitely true. I’m always reminding my students too: “Be careful what you say on Facebook!”

Dr. G: Right! Right! Right! Right!

I: We have to… I didn’t grow up in that environment where I had to think about, “Is this going to be acceptable twenty years from now?”

Dr. G: Yeah. Yeah, I know.

I: Yeah, that’s just something that never occurred to me, but it, you know, someone would really have to track somebody down to find out something instead of it being on the Internet.

Dr. G: (laughing)

I: I wanted to ask you a couple of other things too, if you don’t mind. I was wondering if…I think there are a lot of misconceptions about bilingualism. What are some of the ones you’ve come across?

Dr. G: There are so many. It’s almost like…I think in this country we don’t understand it at all. I think the most common is to think that, well, that bilingualism is something that is not good, right? Whereas in the rest of the world bilingualism is just not enough anymore, right? And the Europeans are pushing now what they call ‘pluralingualism’, which is many languages, not just one. And not just totally, but just feeling comfortable with many of them. But I think that in this country we still hold on to the fact that bilingualism is not a good thing, that bilingualism is about only minorities and not majorities, that bilingualism is just about Spanish/English and not the many, many, many different languages that we have in this country, that bilingualism means that people don’t want to be Americans, whereas I think the opposite is true. I think that bilinguals are often a lot more loyal Americans than monolinguals, who may think that you can only have one language and one identity, whereas what we know and want to understand is that we have multiple identities, and it’s also possible to have multiple languages and ways of behaving. I think that those are the ‘big ones’. And then there are ‘little ones’ that have to do with even the way in which the field thinks about bilingualism. Do you want to go into those?

I: Oh sure! Go ahead! It’s very interesting. When you said the thing about the English/Spanish divide, I think a lot of people do think that, that it’s just those two…

Dr. G: (laughing)

Dr. G: Yeah. You know, of course, those are the big ones, and I think that it is the fear, and I think that’s what moves a lot of people to work against bilingualism, that Spanish is big in this country and people don’t want to recognize that. Even though it’s interesting, my international students always couldn’t understand what I was saying because if you, if you come in with a different lens, and you have not heard this, and you have not heard the discourse, and if you just have an ear, and you’re in New York City, you can’t understand what the argument is, because after all, in New York City you hear almost as much Spanish as you hear English, maybe more in certain neighborhoods where the students live. So my international students could never understand this. That was always very interesting to me: how if you have not grown up with it, and you are just using your ear, it’s obvious to you. 

So, the ‘little ones’… I think that even in the field we’re still working with old conceptions of bilingualism that were developed in the 20th century, developed mostly in North America, and mostly by Canadian scholars and U.S. scholars, and bilingualism today, in the 21st century, is a lot more complex than that. And also, if you think of bilingualism or multilingualism beyond West Europe and North America, what you have is a much more complex multilingualism where languages are not always separated, but where you can, you go from one language to the other, it’s much more of a continuum. So I think that that is a very big difference: the idea that we continue to insist that for a person to be bilingual you have to be able to speak, read and write in two language perfectly, whereas that is a theoretical impossibility, and where if you look at bilingualism or multilingualism outside of those Western concepts, what you have is Africans knowing seven languages, the languages do not have boundaries, I think the idea of language. What language is also has to be unpacked. We know that languages, in many, many cases have been assigned to people and given a ‘name’, even though people have local practices, and if you look at local practices, local language practices, sort of from the people up, what you have many times is not bilingualism ‘one language or the other’ or multilingualism, one and two and three and four, in different domains, which is the way that it’s always been described, but rather a lot more fluid use of language practices. So I think that the idea that societies can only sustain more than one language when they are functionally assigned to different domains, is probably false in the 21st century, and you know, I say this carefully because since I have always worked with Joshua Fishman, this is one of his main theories: that diglossic societies, societies that use two languages in functionally different ways are the only way to have stable bilingualism, because otherwise there is language shift because societies cannot sustain two languages permanently if they are used for the same purposes. You have India, for example, where Indians go from one language to the other and nothing goes, it’s still there, you know? So I think that’s also a concept that we have to question. The whole ‘separateness’ of the languages has to be questioned, because bilinguals are not two monolinguals in one, bilinguals have these integrated language practices and I think that they have to be recognized for that.

I: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, that’s interesting. I also wanted to ask, if you were going to give advice to maybe, say, somebody in this Department, about approaching bilingualism in the classroom, what would you say – “Here’s something you can do if you, if you have no bilingualism in your classroom”, or where’s a place you could start?

Dr. G: Right. I don’t like to give advice, but –

I: (laughing) Well of course, it’s culturally based.

Dr. G: -- but I will tell you what I see, and some of what I’m going to speak about today. What I see is that we have language education policies that say one thing. I just saw awonderful lesson, but when someone asked about the switching, the teacher sort of got very nervous because that’s something that teachers are always told: you can’t, you can’t switch in the classroom, right? But what I see in the classrooms is totally the opposite of what we tell teachers to do, because if you’re teaching in a multilingual classroom, and by multilingual classroom, I mean a classroom where children speak different languages, and perhaps here in North Carolina you haven’t faced that yet, but it’s coming. But in New York it’s almost impossible to teach in a classroom that is not multilingual, with children that are coming in with many different home languages. The only way to teach those kids who are recent arrivals, and have to develop English is if in some way you support their home languages. How one does that depends on the mix, depends on who the teacher is, but I think there has to be some support and recognition of their home languages. And, you know, I see people, in New York City at least, teachers do it in very different ways. Teachers who are not bilingual, because it’s impossible given the linguistic complexity that we have right now, it’s almost impossible to match teacher’s linguistic abilities with children’s linguistic abilities. But certainly it is possible to allow kids to bring in stories from their homes, to have parents come and read to the kids in the different languages, to have listening centers where you have material that is different, to go out on the Internet and to print stories in different languages, to allow the kids to access the Internet in different languages. You know, and these are things that I see all over the world that we just refuse to accept, many times, in the U.S. I think one of the most interesting examples is Luxembourg, where you go into a fifth-grade class and the kids have a project that they are working on, but they are accessing the Internet to look for the information in German and in French. The teacher doesn’t tell them what language to look it up in, you know, that’s one of the resources they have. And whereas they’re speaking to each other usually in Luxembourgish which is not written, so there is all this complexity that comes in, that rarely comes into classrooms in the U.S., and yet they have to overcome. And I would say that if we changed our conceptions of bilingualism, so people give up this idea that you have to really have these two languages that are balanced in some ways, and we became more, much more comfortable with this linguistic flexibility that I think is the skill that is going to be the most needed in the 21st century: this ability to go from one medium to the other and the ability to go from one language to the other. I think we will be a lot more comfortable in picking up many different languages and becoming much more comfortable to ourselves with this linguistic complexity. So, we would have to give up our conceptions of bilingualism as being static and think of it in a lot more dynamic kinds of ways.

I: That’s very interesting. One of the last questions I had for you is, why did you decide to come to this conference, of all, you know? (laughter)

Dr. G: (laughing) Should I tell you, “Because Lida wouldn’t leave me alone?” (Both laughing)

I: That’s good! Persistence is good!

Dr. G: So, that, maybe that one. But also, you know, I speak mostly in the, well you know, it’s interesting, I try to stay on the East Coast, but I’m asked sometimes to speak in the big states, in the states with big immigration, and in Europe a lot, and internationally a lot. But I know that the greatest growth of the kids that I call ‘emergent bilinguals’ and that people usually call ‘English-language learners’ – and we can talk about ‘why’, you’ll hear me later – it is in these states, in these Southern states. In North and South Carolina, in Georgia, so I thought “Well, why not?” because you always get something from listening to people in different contexts. And it’s always interesting to me how, again because I think that language is socially situated, how language is understood differently in different contexts, because in some ways – this is just from having gone to one session, so I may be completely off the mark here – but in some ways, the session that I was just at reminds me of where New York City might have been at fifteen years ago. And so that’s always very interesting to me: how language is so situational, and you need to get a sense of, if you’re going to speak nationally, and internationally, you need to get a sense that is beyond the local, which I do very well, and I know very well, because I have spent my whole life in New York City, well since I was eleven, so I know the schools in New York City very well, and I work in those schools very closely, and I’ve seen them over the years and how they  have changed and what have been the changes. But that’s not enough to paint a national picture, so I think it’s interesting that you’re discussing that here in North Carolina.

I: It is! And I think a lot of people don’t really think of North Carolina as being necessarily bilingual,

Dr. G: Right.

I: or of this being an issue at all, but of course it is.

Dr. G: Right.

I: You know, it’s everywhere.

Dr. G: Right, right.

I: Sounds great! Well, I really appreciate you taking the time to come and talk to me!