Language across Difference: Ethnicity, Communication, and Youth Identities in Changing Urban Schools
reviewed by Anne Harper Charity Hudley - June 14, 2014
Title: Language across Difference: Ethnicity, Communication, and Youth Identities in Changing Urban Schools
Author(s): Django Paris
Publisher: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 1107613965, Pages: 228, Year: 2013
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Most studies of language and culture focus on insights for a particular social, cultural, ethnic, or racial group. Educators are often left wondering: What should I know about the language and culture of students in my classrooms who speak languages that I myself do not know? What happens when many different languages are spoken within my classroom or within my school?
In his book, Language across Difference: Ethnicity, Communication, and Youth Identities in Changing Urban Schools, Django Paris addresses these questions and in doing so, takes a stance for humanizing education research in order to focus on the linguistic and cultural richness that students from various backgrounds and communities bring to a particular school.
Paris is transparent about the ways that he is culturally similar and dissimilar to the various students that he is learning with. His courageousness through ethnography and reflection brings a level of authenticity to his research that further privileges the voices of the students and the communities that he seeks to better understand.
Chapter One critically examines how both schools and researchers humanize and dehumanize language. The school that the students attend, South Vista, is a charter school and Paris acknowledges what that charter status means and illustrates a shifting demographic in a community and school that were once predominantly African-American but that are now increasingly Latino and Pacific Islander. The demographics of migration and contact create new linguistic communities where languages and language varieties are being used not only by in-group speakers but by out-group speakers as well. Paris sets himself the task of documenting these changes in progress.
Chapter Two focuses on students' use of Spanish. Paris focuses on notions of "losing Spanish" and of Spanish and African-American English in contact with examples of contact synergy and contact conflict. He shares examples from students who place a high social value on notions of who knows Spanish or African-American English or both. In doing so, Paris presents a pluralistic model where notions of fluency and use of Spanish bind and separate students across language predominance, race, ethnicity, and proximity.
Through this approach, Paris demonstrates that the notion of speaking Spanish is not just a functional identity, but a multifaceted identity that Latino and other students possess along a continuum in various contexts. Paris deemphasizes empirical or descriptive analysis in favor of student perception and ideological information; the strengths of the chapter are the findings that Paris presents about how students perceive their own language and how it is intended to be heard.
Paris begins Chapter Three with an explanation of his relationships with the Pacific Islander students at Alta Vista and with a narrative of connection that revolves around basketball and his attempts to learn Fijian, Tongan, and Samoan. Paris admits that as someone who is not a speaker of the languages and who is more removed from the culture, the findings presented are more of a starting off point and a call for future research than are the work in his other chapters. Paris's analysis reflects the power inequality that students who are Pacific Islanders experience at the school as he notes that the lack of prestige of their language and the absence of cognate words make even partial assimilation of the language more of a linguistic challenge for the Samoan speakers than from the Spanish speakers. Paris does describe a comfortable space for Pacific Islander students, but it is outside of school in a Samoan church. As he notes, these are restrictions that language learners face, and when the language and culture are not present in the school context, educators must seek to find them wherever they may be.
Paris notes that there are limitations in Chapter Three due to his lack of language proficiencies in Samoan, Tongan, and Fijian. He notes that he accessed what he could access, but he does wonder what he missed and did not accurately represent. He calls for future work that will require teams of researchers who can reach deeply across languages and cultures.
African-American English and its long educational and linguistic history set the tone for Chapters Four and Five due to the linguistic founder principle that is exhibited in Alta Vista High, the wealth of information about African-American English, and Paris's own cultural background and linguistic proficiency. Paris re-invents questions about African-American English in the multilingual space. He asks about ownership and shows the use of African-American discourse forms across language and specific contexts with examples from rhetorical forms including playing the dozens and the use of the N-word inside and outside of the classroom.
Paris presents literacy as more broadly defined in the school context. He emphasizes students forms of literacy that are often encouraged to be hidden, from the writing on backpacks and the choice of tattoos to language choice in texting and rapping. In doing so, Paris demonstrates the ways that literacy manifests for students at South Vista across contexts. Paris urges the reader to look for information in such literary identities, and instead of dismissing them or saving them for after school, to build on them for the assets that they are and to use them as identities of participation. Paris shows the language and literacy strengths that the students bring from their communities in detail so that educators can build upon them in both school and community contexts. Paris maintains a strength building narrative and does not grapple directly with how the information will help students meet the unjust demands of current school curricula or show how the successful students at the school transverse the literacy demands of the school versus those of their communities. I hope for such examples in future work.
Chapter Six re-frames the purpose of school with a focus on students rather than a focus on the educators or the system and in doing so, Paris calls into question the general purpose of school and calls for linguistic pluralism in context. The blueprints for such changes, however, are not given in the present text so there is a lingering question of what Paris owes the particular students in his study in the short and long term. His response appears to be humanization. Paris gives a model where researchers who focus on ethnographic and community based participatory research take the time to make the changes based on careful, long-term considerations of the students that they wish to support. In sum, Paris states: the linguistic life of students in a school context needs to be humanized, and students need a voice. To provide such a voice, they need us to listen. They also need our time.
Language across Difference: Ethnicity, Communication, and Youth Identities in Changing Urban Schools is a call to action to each community and school, and a call to make our research findings the beginning of a linguistic humanization that doesn't exist for many students either because they are rapidly emerging in a particular community or often ignored. The book contains no lessons or recipes for what to doin that sense it is descriptive in naturebut it focuses on the students and their practices and privileges their voice throughout. Paris provides a focus on students, but future research will reveal how teachers understand this work and how to make the work with teachers collaborativeso that voices are not mitigated and so that information about the cultural and linguistic abundance of students is placed front and center. Paris reminds us that in rich ethnography, the students are teaching the teachers and the teachers are teaching the researchers. It is our responsibility to bear witness and listen to those we teach.