Jim Cummins is a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto.
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As educators of linguistically and culturally diverse students we face choices with respect to how we view language and human potential. Is language the means of interpreting our increasingly complex world and mobilizing intellect, imagination, and identity to create new knowledge and act on social realities or is it simply a set of sounds and symbols and the codes that bind them? Can our society benefit from all the intelligence, imagination, and multilingual talent it can get or should schools develop these attributes only among a privileged elite while focusing on English-only basic skills for those constructed as incapable of independent learning?
When students' language, culture and experience are ignored or excluded in classroom interactions, students are immediately starting from a disadvantage. Everything they have learned about life and the world up to this point is being dismissed as irrelevant to school learning; there are few points of connection to curriculum materials or instruction and so students are expected to learn in an experiential vacuum. Students' silence and nonparticipation under these conditions have frequently been interpreted as lack of academic ability or effort, and teachers’ interactions with students have reflected a pattern of low expectations which become self-fulfilling.
Language and the human spirit are inextricably intertwined. We interpret the world through language. We express ourselves through language. Language is powerful. Language can bring us together or set us apart. It can be used to include — to bridge barriers between cultures, religions, worldviews — at the same time as it can be used to exclude by inflaming xenophobia and racism. Language can establish community and solidarity at the same time as it can be used to erect boundaries and divide communities. More often than not, when we turn on the TV we see language used to occlude — to hide reality — to deceive, to spin, to distract, to disempower, to reinforce us versus them conceptions of humanity. Language is no longer innocent. We can no longer conceptualize language as some kind of neutral code that can be taught in classrooms in splendid isolation from its intersection with issues of power, identity, and spirituality.
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