Shifting Directions: Recap of the “Cultures and Languages in the Class” Workshop


The loss of one language, said Wade Davis, a University of British Columbia anthropology professor, is akin to clear-cutting an “old-growth forest of the mind.” The world’s complex web of myths, beliefs and ideas – which Mr. Davis calls the “ethnosphere” – is torn, just as the loss of a species weakens the biosphere, he said…the destruction of their language is profoundly tied to a loss of identity. 

Catherine Porter (June 11, 2017)


As the last public workshop for this academic year in the University Worth Fighting For series coordinated by the Futures Initiative, the Cultures and Languages in the Class was held on Thursday, March 7th. This workshop focused on cultural and linguistic diversities, especially in higher education settings. Considering that colleges and universities in global cities are at the forefront of a gigantic wave of linguistic and cultural diversity due to the continuously increasing presence of immigrants and international students as well as native-born ethnic minority and working-class students, we as educators are called upon to respond inclusively and responsibly to the diversity of cultures and languages in the classroom and in our everyday campus life.

We designed this workshop to guide participants to be more interactive in sharing their own interests, experiences, and thoughts on the topic – to be active participants rather than a passive audience. For example, I briefly introduced the workshop first in Korean, which is my first language, and then in English. This was a practice to revisit English-only cultural politics embedded in the public sphere that has oppressed communication in other languages other than in English. Then I asked the participants to discuss their feelings and/or thoughts they had at the moment when I spoke in Korean and to share their own experiences and ideas related to the topic. This activity was designed first to open up the possibility that different languages along with English can be used at academic events to debunk the problematizing of linguistic hierarchies in which white English is considered the most superior language, and second to guide the participants to experience a variety of emotions and difficulties, including their sense of having alienated and stigmatized identities similar to what students from other cultures often experience in the classroom.

Our four panelists, Susana Alvis, Luis Henao Uribe, Kahdeidra Martin, and I presented the cultures and languages from different angles. Firstly, I presented the self-alienation of working-class Korean international and 1.5 generation of Korean American students at a public community college in Chicago. These students, who experienced and witnessed the dominant power of U.S. military, political, and economic imperialism, and who had internalized U.S. racism and imperialism before they moved to the United States, uniformly positioned themselves as inferior to their native-born upper- and middle-class white Americans. They attempted to be invisible, trying not to expose their Korean origins that indicated their inferiority, and also to suppress the fear that their academic capabilities would lead to a suspension by the institutional personnel. And, I finally discussed that the community college personnel reinforced U.S. English imperialism in their interactions with Korean international and Korean immigrant students, for example, by quickly pointing out their “poor” English.

Susuana, a native-Spanish speaker and an undergraduate student, shared her own efforts to learn English as well as other languages after she moved to the United States in her early 20s. Her effort to learn English was powerful in terms of suggesting and encouraging participants to try to learn other languages for a deeper understanding of our neighbors, peers, and colleagues.

Luis began his talk by discussing how in Columbia the language in which knowledge is embedded is utilized as a significant tool of social distinction and representation. Under the country’s politics, he pointed out that discrimination toward the people whose languages were not validated was justified in such linguistic politics. Building on his findings within the Columbian context, he argued there needs to be a shift in considering a “student’s lack” of English skills to the institution and system’s failure to appreciate students’ diverse languages and their related cultures and knowledge. Luis suggested several pedagogical practices for both in and outside of the classroom, such as collective projects, peer reviews, recognizing organic leadership and roles and opportunities for choice inside the classroom, and learning from nontraditional sources of knowledge, oral history, and public-facing projects outside of the classroom.

In her presentation entitled, Culturally Relevant & Inclusive Pedagogy in English Composition, Kahdeidra Martian introduces her practices to employ culturally relevant and inclusive pedagogy in her composition class. Kahdeidra highlighted the significance of languages as the sphere that our core cultural identities are embedded in different forms such as idioms, proverbs and gestures. And, she introduced her students’ autobiographical poems and responses on their peers’ works. Here is the part of an autobiographical poem by one of her student, Mark Sookdeo:

My street is like a mall.

The neighborhood reminds me of a market place in Guyana.

After being at school all day long my house feels like a spa.

It smells as sweet as scented candles.

My bedroom is my sanctuary.

It is where assignments get done and dreams begin. 

I close my haggard eyes, and peace and harmony is what I see.  

My mind is a fascinating piece of art.


To Mark’s poem, Shay responded:

…One stanza that particularly struck me was the first line in poem two “My street is like a mall.” I’ve never really looked at a street in that way. The houses being different retail stores, and you, the shopper, experiencing each ‘store’ as you walk by them on your way home. Each home carrying its own personality. The way stores are adjacent to one another in a mall, homes are racked one against the other in a similar fashion, each home quite different from the next, yet together creating a sense of unity in the neighborhood; quite a clever use of a simile.

Kahdeidra highlighted in her talk that culturally relevant texts enable students to explore their communities and especially students of color are able to reflect their identities through their lenses and further challenge the racialized linguistic ideologies alienating the racial minority and their language practices (Flores & Rosa, 2015).

In the Question and Answer time, an undergraduate immigrant student shared her excitement. She said it was her first time to experience this kind of workshop that was intimately related to her own experiences and struggles. Furthermore, responding to a participant’s question about tips to learn foreign languages, Kahdeidra replied it is important to normalize students by using different languages in classes. Susan suggested using an interesting topic to explore it through the language. Another question was related to how to break students’ silence, especially those who are non-native speakers. Such silence can also be an indicator of their self-alienation because of their internalized shame of their different Englishes [here I intentionally pluralize English to mirror the realities where diversified forms of English are used.] and their related stigmatized and inferior positions. Moreover, the ways the dominant cultural politics requires students to improve their English, which underlines English-only politics, were problematized in our discussions. While challenging the privileged white-English imperial practices, yet appreciating students and/or their parents’ native languages, we discussed the possibility of a campus-wide event in which institutional personnel including instructors and administrators could try to learn students’ diverse languages. As Luis suggested, this would shift the linguistic and cultural politics from blaming students for being unable to speak proper English to recognizing the institutional personnel’s inability to understand.

Overall, this public workshop, Cultures and Languages in the Classroom, was one of the Futures Initiative’s efforts to respond to the existing cultural and linguistic diversities and to change our image of the public language from English-only to multiple languages spoken by students, their families and communities. As discussed above, this is also one of the critical ways to appreciate diverse forms and contents of knowledge and cultures that are currently vibrant in our classrooms.



Porter, Catherine. (2017, June 11). Reviving a lost language of Canada through film. The New York Times. Retrieved from


Flores, N. & Rosa, J. (2015). Undoing appropriateness: Raciolinguistic ideologies and languages diversity in education. Harvard Educational Review, 85(2), 149-171. Retrieved from


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