On Jonathan Rosa's Looking Like a Language, Sounding Like a Race
by Zion Mengesha
It is often assumed that English is the official language of the United States. It isn’t. In fact, there is no official language. In 2008, the Linguistics Society of America issued an official opposition to the “English Only” movement, a campaign to attach an official language amendment to the US Constitution. The LSA oppositional statement reads, "The English language in America is not threatened.” By what or whom does the English language feel threatened? And how can a language be threatened? Linguistically, we have accounts of what a threatened language is — a language that is no longer transmitted intergenerationally, from parents to children. By all accounts the English language is not threatened.
At a recent Chautauqua event at the Research Institute of CCSRE, Jonathan Rosa, linguistic anthropologist and Faculty Research fellow at the Center, presented his forthcoming book Looking Like a Language, Sounding Like a Race. In it, Rosa reveals how the “threat” was never linguistic at all. Rather, these ideas of threat, which aren’t based in linguistic facts, are reproducing ideas of threat in a non-linguistic sense. Rosa reveals how a construction of Latinx communicative practices exists in advance of any actual language practices. In effect, “raciolinguistic ideologies produce racialized speaking subjects who are constructed as linguistically deviant even when engaging in linguistic practices positioned as normative or innovative by privileged white subjects” (Flores and Rosa, 2015: 150).
In a current US census debate, questions surround the designation of Latino as an ethnic group – a group that is problematically imagined as an intermediary “brown” population located between Blackness and whiteness, further reifying a racial spectrum. The geopolitical imaginary of Latinxs is manufactured such that, Latinxs are framed as optimistic about the future, but they are also problematically construed as a community struggling with gangs, teen pregnancy, and educational underachievement. It is through these axes of differentiation (Gal, 2012) that, Rosa says, “Latinxs learn to be – and sound like – themselves in highly studied ways.”
Rosa strikingly reveals an imagined linguistic spectrum, that is tied to the racial spectrum, from English-speaking to languageless: Latinxs are ethnolinguistically construed as “languageless” in schools. This linguistic spectrum is superficial, as Flores and Nelson (2015) note, “concepts such as monolingualism and bilingualism are limited in their ability to capture these students’ everyday language practices’ (p. 233). Hence, categories such as English language learners, long-term English language learners, and standard English learners are made to classify people who are typically migrants or immigrants, as deficient. But why are people classified as if something is wrong with them, when these designations really discuss language practices? Rosa says that, from a raciolinguistic perspective, these groups can be seen as occupying ‘others’ framed as deficient regardless of the language practices in which they engage. For this reason, he brilliantly shifts vantage points from languageless objects to listening subjects.
What we come to experience as ‘just English,’ is not some empirical phenomena. Rather, he says, experiences of ‘just English’ are tied to ideological perceptions. Rosa contends that Latinx communicative practices exist in the minds of listeners. Anxiety about Spanish that conjure this threat at the foundation of “English-only” movements, exists in white listeners — the listening subjects.
Through sociolinguistic interviews at New Northwest High School in Chicago, Rosa uncovers how Mexican and Puerto Rican students grapple with others’ perceptions of their identities. In one interview, Rosa asks David, who is in the 12th grade at NNHS whether he has an accent. David responded “No! … I think I might though.” David explains that while playing a video game that allows players to hear one another’s voices through a microphone, one of his virtual opponents called him a Mexican. David was confused by this, saying “Whoa! He came real hard at me. Why you say I’m Mexican? I was just talking English and they come and say I’m Mexican out of nowhere…So yeah, I think I might [have an accent], but I don’t know.” Rosa says that in this interaction “Mexicanness sounded like Spanish. David sounded like a race”. Rosa ends his discussion with analyses of the ways in which Latinxs invoke stereotypes about White America’s stereotypes about Latinxs. This is power inversion, which “demonstrates some of the complex ways that they attempt to fashion linguistic escape routes from modes of discrimination”(p. 41).
For the Principal at New Northwest High school, countering hegemonic notions of Latinx identities meant shaping recognitions of students into Young Latino Professionals. “Young Latino Professionals rejects the notion that Latinxs must either assimilate to normative American whiteness through a disavowal of their Latinidad or maintain their cultural authenticity while accepting a subordinate racial and socioeconomic status” Changing the perceptions and practices of students, the principal pushes the Young Latino Professional identity as a kind of resistance.
Rosa’s research gives insight into the multiple perspectives through which Latinxs can be identified. The notion of threat underlying the English only movement is based on manufactured misunderstandings Latinxs. The Young Latino Professional identity pushes back against these perceptions, but there is an ambiguity in locating the problem: is it within the students themselves or society’s recognition of them? Are we changing perceptions of practices of students themselves?
Zion Mengesha is a PhD Student in Linguistics and a CCSRE Graduate Student Fellow