New Course Encourages Students to Think Critically about Language

by Catherine Ferraro

Although English is the only language spoken in the majority of homes in the United States, almost 20 percent of the population five years and older speaks another language at home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

What are these languages and who speaks them? Is this similar to or different from other countries and other historical periods? How do multilinguals use the different languages they know? How is their language related to their identities?

Jennifer Leeman

Jennifer Leeman

Students enrolled in Jennifer Leeman's class, FRLN 385 - Multilingualism, Identity and Power, attempt to answer these questions by studying multilingualism from the perspective of sociolinguistics. Beginning with an introduction to multilingualism around the world, the course covers the history, demographics, politics and ideologies of multilingualism in the United States. It also compares multilingualism in the United States and Canada.

This courses is popular with majors in foreign languages (Spanish or French), global affairs, and Latin American studies. It is of relevance to other majors and especially heritage speakers.

"I wanted to teach this class because there has been a recent increase in people's awareness of multilingualism, but very little sound information available," says Leeman, associate professor of Spanish.

"In addition, language disciplines often focus on non-English languages outside the United States. I wanted to develop a class that would educate students about multilingualism in the United States. I also felt that it was important to offer a class that would promote connections among people who specialize in different languages and regions."

Although the primary focus of the class is on multilingualism in the United States, students also discuss and look at

  • Fundamental sociolinguistic concepts
  • Linguistic phenomena associated with multilingual societies
  • Issues related to individual and societal multilingualism, including how a person who speaks multiple languages chooses among them and the differences between areas where the people speak various languages
  • The different attitudes and policies regarding multilingualism in different societies and at different historical moments
  • The relationship of language to cultural ethnoracial and national identities and categories, official and unofficial language policies, and contemporary representations of different languages and the speakers of those languages in public discourse and mass media

The class requires students to research demographics, history and sociolinguistics of various languages and the speakers of those languages in the United States and Virginia; perform hands-on analysis of linguistic data and critical examination of artifacts such as advertisements, letters to the editor, cartoons and public space; and complete several reflective assignments about their own experiences with multilingualism.

For their semester project, students researched the most commonly spoken languages in Virginia by analyzing data from the U.S. Census, studying the history of the ethnolinguistic groups that speak those languages and visiting local communities where those languages are spoken. On Nov. 19, students presented their research to the Mason community at an open house called Multilingualism in Virginia.

The last part of the class focuses on educational policy related to multilingualism, including bilingual education and foreign language teaching.

"I really enjoy teaching this class because I learn so much from my students about their different language backgrounds and experiences with multilingualism," says Leeman. "My goal is to engage the students to think critically about multilingualism and to question their own assumptions about language, something many of them had never thought about before."

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