The Ethics of Linguistic Democracy in Schools and Society


  • Donaldo Macedo



The prohibition of minority languages has profound ethical implications that go beyond the standard “English only versus native language” debate in educational research. Debates regarding monolingualism in teaching curricula that focus solely on individual student success fail to consider the larger social contexts in which languages are important vehicles for culture, community and identity – and, by extension, are important mechanisms for validating students’ sense of self and belonging. What is more, the depoliticizing of language education contributes to a dysfunctional democracy by ignoring the undemocratic nature inherent in the denial of the people’s right to be literate in their first languages as well as in English.

In this paper, I argue that academics and teachers who view English-only programs as benefiting minority students are performing what Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed calls “false charity”, which encourages students to equate their ‘success’ with a form of assimilation that, despite the student’s achievements in mastering English, is never fully acknowledged by dominant society – a society that will simply continue to view non-White English speakers as well as non-English speakers as ‘other’ when the suppression of their native languages is legitimized. ‘Charitable’ teachers may inadvertently perpetuate the underlying racist and ethnocentric views of dominant society by ignoring this fact and defaulting to English-only teaching as the best way to help students. Instead, one of the ways teachers can challenge embedded racism and ethnocentrism of dominant society is to remove the conditions that privilege academic English as the only tolerated language and deny or devalue the use of other languages so that students feel they must ‘give up’ a part of themselves and their community to succeed in the dominant culture.

(a translation into Italian of this paper is available in this issue)