Summary of “They’re Bilingual…That Means They Don’t Know the Language” by Jonathan Rosa

In the chapter “They’re Bilingual . . . That Means They Don’t Know the Language,” extracted from the book “Looking Like a Language, Sounding Like a Race: Raciolinguistic Ideologies and the Learning of Latinidad” by Jonathan Rosa, the author discusses the ideology of languagelessness in practice, policy and theory. The author looks into popular ideologies of ‘bilingualism’ in the Latinx community and the impacts they have on ethnic kids (mainly Latinx) in school, mentioning this particular school called New Northwest High School (NNHS).

I believe the main arguments that the author highlighted in this excerpt can be represented and divided into three parts: the redefined idea of bilingualism, the problematic and rather questionable system of bilingual education, and the notion of racialized ideology of languagelessness.

I think it’s vital that issues like these are discussed amongst ourselves in a mixed and multicultural nation like the United States, because it has direct impacts on our kids which essentially means our future. And since language is indispensable in any civil society, working on this is equivalent to working in the root cause of any given problem.

Now let’s talk about the three main arguments that the author presented in the chapter. The first one discusses the very definition of bilingualism being redefined in another misleading way by both the school system and the parents. As the author states, “bilingualism is generally associated with abilities in two languages (e.g., English and Spanish), it becomes redefined as linguistic deficiency altogether,” it shockingly gives us an idea of how faulty the definition itself became to people. Bilingualism, as Mia Nacamulli describes in her TED-Ed video, makes your brain healthy, complex and actively engaged; therefore looking at it as a deficiency altogether can be substantially ignorant. The very notion and title  “They’re bilingual . . . that means they don’t know the language” proves that it contradicts the original definition of bilingualism. Instead of looking at it as an advantage or an individual quality, it is presented as a deficiency. And when this notion is planted so early in a kid’s brain, it automatically and subconsciously works as a deficiency rather than a power they could have used otherwise. This raciolinguistic ideology frames the linguistic practices of racialized populations and creates an inverted conceptualization of bilingualism.

The second and rather the most discussed part is the questionable system of bilingual education in New Northwest High School (NNHS) which I believe is a representation of most high schools in the United States. The author personally went to the school to understand and evaluate the bilingual education system and assess the differences among the general students and ELL (English Language Learner) students. He found out that most of these ELL students’ skills were measured only in relation to lack of their limited English proficiency and there was no formal way in which their Spanish language proficiency was recognized as academically useful. As Rosa explains, “The emphasis on English language deficiency rather than Spanish language proficiency laid the groundwork for bilingual education programs that would focus on transitioning students from the use of languages other than English to monolingual English use.”

The third part I believe is a wrap of all the ideas in the chapter which is the racialized ideology of languagelessness. The ELL students are labeled as having deficiency in both English and Spanish language or a “non-non”- “The notion of “non- non” is an explicit example of a racialized ideology of languagelessness”. The irony is that while bilingualism is understood as a valuable asset or goal for middle class and upper- class students, for working- class and poor students it is framed as a disability that must be overcome. The languagelessness is planted in the root of these students that invokes the notion of them belonging to neither party.

In conclusion, I would say that looking at bilingual students as students with deficiency, the primary language of children considered a problem and treated it as inessential to ‘real’ education, and labelling their bilingualism as languagelessness severely affects the students in so many different ways. It has a lasting negative impact on their educational and social confidence. This is why the most effective and important change should be from within. We ought to change our own thinking paradigms about bilingualism and educate ourselves first so that we don’t unknowingly contribute barriers to our next generation’s success.

Rosa, J. (2019). “They’re Bilingual…That Means They Don’t Know the Language”: The Ideology of Languagelessness in Practice, Policy, and Theory. In Looking like a language, sounding like a race: Raciolinguistic ideologies and the learning of Latinidad. 1-19.

TED-Ed. “The benefits of a bilingual brain – Mia Nacamulli.” Online Video Clip. YouTube, June 23, 2015.

One thought on “Summary of “They’re Bilingual…That Means They Don’t Know the Language” by Jonathan Rosa

  1. This is a well-organized summary in which you clearly lay out in your introductory paragraph the points you will be covering. Nice job.

    Although I haven’t read Rosa’s chapter extensively, my guess is that the “racialized ideology of languagelessness” is more central than your summary acknowledges. The redefined idea of bilingualism is part of this, but (from my cursory first reading) less central. Also, Rosa has an extended discussion of how state language policies affect those at NNHS that isn’t reflected in your summary.

    Your summary would benefit from a bit more detail about Rosa’s supporting evidence. You summarize it well in paragraph 5, but I would like to know how/why Rosa arrives at this conclusion, and whether you found this a convincing conclusion.
    Good assessment of the contribution and implications in the 6th paragraph. Your summary would benefit from expanding this in the conclusion, rather than concluding with your opinions about the problems with those approaches to bilingual education the author is analyzing.

    Several lengthy direct quotations, but most are well-integrated. In 5th paragraph, however, you end with a quote from Rosa. This quote might have been paraphrased, but more importantly, avoid using the author’s words as an “”explanation,”” because in a summary you’re trying to explain what the author is saying, and when including lengthy quotes like this, always follow with your own explanation of what it’s saying, why it’s important, etc.

    Especially in summaries, avoid “I believe” or “I think” or “I would say”. Just say, e.g. “the main points are…” or “It’s vital that issues like these are discussed…”

    Excellent integration of outside materials.

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