Nelson Flores

Uruguayan writer

Nelson Flores studies how language and race intersect in bilingual education policies and practices in ways that are harmful to bilingual students of color. He is an Associate Professor in the Educational Linguistics Division at the University of Pennsylvania.



with Jonathan Rosa

  • I have been accused of being a bully. I think a lot of that stems from precisely my resistance to feel like I need to do the emotional labor of making people feel comfortable about what I’m saying. In particular, as a Latino scholar doing work in bilingual education, I’m particularly resistant to the idea that I need to make white people feel comfortable doing work in bilingual education. I put my work out there. I let it speak for itself. I certainly have never targeted anyone individually and personally insulted them, which is what bullying actually is, right?
  • Whenever we talk about social and academic language today, that’s really the legacy that we’ve inherited – a legacy of semilingualism, of suggesting that there’s something illegitimate about the language practices of racialized bilingual students.
  • we can trace the discourses of semilingualism back to the origins of European colonialism. That’s something that Jonathan [Rosa] and I wrote about in our 2017 piece, which is essentially one of the primary mechanisms for dehumanizing indigenous populations, African populations, by calling into question their language practices and suggesting that their language practices were somehow illegitimate or subhuman.
  • This whole idea of a bilingual brain is still, from my opinion, coming from a monolingual perspective in the sense that most of the world is bi- or multilingual. Why are we exceptionalizing the, quote, “bilingual” brain instead of the quote, “monolingual” brain to begin with? Why aren’t we saying, “What are the unique cognitive traits of monolingual people who are the minority of the population?” Maybe a bilingual brain is just a brain and it’s the monolingual brain that’s actually this weird thing that we need to study. Of course, I don’t actually believe that, but I feel like some of the discourse exceptionalizing bilingualism, when we reverse it and really think about, well, if we describe monolingualism in that way, that would be really strange. Yet, “bilingual” describes more of the world’s population than “monolingual.” What exactly are we doing there?
  • I always say – I own my ideological position. I own where I’m coming from, and I own my locus of annunciation. I just push other scholars to do the same thing. If you’re using discourses that come from the specter of semilingualism, then just own that ideological position and say what you’re essentially saying is that everyone should speak like a normative white person. That’s not progressive and that’s not liberal, so don’t pretend that you’re progressive or liberal if you’re actually promoting an agenda that supports white supremacy. At least don’t be disingenuous and try to proport that what you’re saying is some type of objective representation rather than an ideological one.
  • I think, empirically, we have the data that shows that all communities have complex, rich language practices that they engage in, but people don’t believe it because they don’t wanna believe it because they have deep investment in these ideas that certain communities have more rich language practices than other communities. At that point, you can’t disprove white supremacy. If people are invested in white supremacy, then they’re gonna be invested in white supremacy.
  • Mayor Pete (Buttigieg), people are like, “Wow! He speaks like a gazillion languages. Isn’t he so smart?” And I’m like, “Well, actually, you could go to many places in the world where people speak those gazillion languages, right, and they’re not positioned as smart in the same way.

Interview on Vocal Fries Podcast (2019)

  • what Hart and Risley and many people who propose the word gap do is that, they take practices that have typically been associated with middle-class, upper-middle-class affluent white populations, and, surprise, surprise, they decide that those are quality. Um, which, of course, is not an objective statement, um, and, one could argue, is actually a racist statement, to claim that a particular cultural background is higher-quality than the other.
  • I’m not suggesting that white middle-class and upper-class people don’t have a rich cultural practices that they engage in. The issue is that all communities have rich cultural and linguistic practices that they engage in, and that’s something that the word gap discourse completely ignores. It completely ignores decades of anthropological research that documents the rich cultural and linguistic practices of all communities, and supposes that the practices of one is somehow objectively more quality than others.
  • it is part of a much longer history where the language practices of racialized communities, of low-income communities, have always been framed through a deficit lens. Now, if we even go back to the early years of European colonialism, we can see raciolinguistic ideologies being used to dehumanize indigenous communities. Where people would describe the language practices of indigenous peoples as, um, almost animalistic, as a form of dehumanization. Now, nowadays, people wouldn’t say things like, “People are speaking like animals,” or at least most people wouldn’t say that. Um, but the underlying logic of there’s something somehow deficient about the language practices of racialized communities has remained consistent since the early days of European colonialism. And so, it’s not surprising that the 30 million word gap is so seductive, because it reinforces all of these ideologies that people have been socialized into accepting, for multiple generations.
  • you can trace these discourses, they’re consistent throughout history, of putting the onus on racialized communities to undo their own oppression by modifying their behaviors, rather than undoing the structures that actually are the primary challenges that they confront.
  • language is not just a series of decontextualized vocabulary words. And more isn’t always necessarily better.
  • There are lots of social practices that we engage in, where being concise and using fewer words is actually seen as better than using more words, right?
  • the idea that more is inherently better isn’t universal and isn’t necessarily true. But of course, we actually use language to engage in social practices with other people. So we’re not just listing vocabulary words [laughs] when we’re talking to other people. We’re engaging in dynamics that we’ve been socialized into, that we’ve gradually become familiar with as we become more socialized into those practices. Um, and so, to decontextualize language in that way, I think, really shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what the function of language is, which is to communicate, which is to engage in practice. It’s not to memorize vocabulary lists.
  • schools may like people to memorize vocabulary lists, but that’s a different argument, right? If, if what you’re saying is that these are the types of decontextualized language practices that they’re expected to be successful with in school, then that’s a different conversation. Because then I would argue, well, why are we using these decontextualized language practices in school, when we know that in the real-world that’s not how people actually use language. Maybe the problem isn’t that these particular students haven’t mastered a particular list of decontextualized vocabulary words. But rather, the fact that schools have decontextualized language from the practices in which they’re engaged in. Um, and I think that may be part of, – that would be a more interesting conversation, for me, than to look at these decontextualized vocabulary words.
  • anthropology has shown us, for decades, that regardless of how many words people may or may not be hearing, that they’re being socialized into complex practices.
  • that reminds me of the work of Lisa Delpit, right, who, um, kind of looked at the cultural differences in parental communication, and found, in her work with African American parents, that they were more directive, um, than in white middle-class families. And then, what happens when those children get to school is that, the teachers who have been socialized – because most of the teachers are white women, by demographics – they’ve been socialized into this more passive way of making requests, where they’ll say, “Don’t you think you should be doing this?” The child, the child may not actually understand that that actually was a directive, right? Because it was a directive-the teacher was making a request, and the child didn’t necessarily understand it was a request, and maybe actually thought that they had a choice when you said, “Don’t you think you should – ” Which gets, again, to the importance of understanding cultural difference, and not assuming that one is more quality than the other. I mean, Lisa Delpit makes it very clear, in her work, that it’s not that black parents care less about their children. They love their children, they are – they have a particular history, um, where maybe there are needs to be more directive. Because if not, um, their child isn’t gonna be socialized to deal with an antiblack world, that expects people to – expects black people, in particular, to adhere to directives, right?
  • I actually am one who’s not particular interested in what one’s intentions are. Um, and so, it’s, like, I’m sure they had good intentions, I mean, I don’t think people do research with – or, or at least social science research, without wanting to make a difference and help. But it doesn’t really matter, in the grand scheme of things-if you’re still producing racism. And, and I think that, even terms like “covert racism,” oftentimes, I find problematic, because who are they covert to? Um, like, oftentimes, the victim of it. it’s only covert to the one who isn’t aware that they’re being racist, right? so, I think that for me it’s, like, less important what their intentions are, and more about, I think that the framework that they’re using is fundamentally flaws, and has led to interventions that are quite damaging. Um, and I know that that sounds maybe extreme, in some ways, but I do think that interventions that are coming from a racist deficit perspective are damaging to children.
  • I think that all of the money going into it might give you some indication for why people were so defensive about a response that called it into question, because there is a lot of money that’s going into it. I mean, remedial compensatory education, which has been funded by government and nongovernment officials since at least the ’60s, um, that are designed to fix the so-called cultural and linguistic deficits of racialized communities, have always been, um, a very lucrative industry. Um, there’s always been tons of money going into it. I mean, I don’t even know how much money – probably billions of dollars, at this point, honestly. And I always wonder, like, what would the world look like if we actually, like, invested that money in revitalizing communities, and, like ending poverty, and, like, ensuring that children had access to quality healthcare.
  • I think our society finds fixing racialized communities as a seductive narrative. Because it really leaves the rest of the society off the hook, right? So, we don’t have to reflect on the root causes of racial inequalities, because we can just say, “Oh, it’s their fault, because they’re not using – they’re not asking their children questions.” I don’t know how anyone who, who has any experience working in neighborhoods, um, that have experienced multiple generations of racialized poverty, um, could possibly think that changing the way that you ask questions to your child, or increasing the number of words [laughter] that you give them, is really going to be what’s the make-it or break-it for whether that child is gonna thrive or not, right?
  • All of these structural issues that are much more salient in the lives of these childrens and these, and these family, right? Um, but in education circles, we tend to think that none of that has anything to do with, like, what we should be talking about, right? We should just be talking about fixing the kids. Um, and I think that’s, that, one, it’s misguided, because of all of these other challenges that I, I think are much more salient. But, two, it then socializes teachers to come from the perspective that the kids are broken and need to be fixed, right? And that is not a productive perspective to begin with, especially when we look at the demographics of teachers versus students, when there’s already this divide between them, right, the last thing that we wanna do is increase that by teach, telling teachers that their job is to be like these people in that website that you were talking about these benevolent white people who are trying to fix racialized communities.
  • there’s no objective basis for determining that being nondirective is more quality, right? That's not an objective statement. That’s coming from a particular ideological position. So, if you can own that position, if you can say, “Yes, I think that all racialized community should behave just like white people,” I would disagree with you, but at least I would say, “Well, you’re being honest with what your perspective is, and you’re not hiding it behind “this veil of objectivity.”
  • complex from whose perspective, right? Um, richer from whose perspective? Like, these aren’t objective designations.
  • we can’t describe language outside of an ideological perspective on what language is, right? And I always try, in my work, to be very explicit in terms of how I’m thinking about language. And in particular, how I’m thinking about language and race, and how they co-construct with one another. And so, my ideological position I try to put on the table and say, “This is my perspective. This is where I’m coming from. This is kind of my stance.”
  • I think what language socialization research helps us, then, to think about is, if we’re starting from the perspective that all children are socialized into complex language practices, and there, there isn’t an inherent hierarchy in terms of the complexity, then how do we incorporate the language practices of all children into the classroom? How do we stop framing certain language practices as deficient and in need of remediation? and I think that that’s a more productive beginning of a conversation, and I think there are lots of different ways you can answer that, right?
  • If you’re writing a story, for example, about something that you did with your grandmother speaks Spanish, you, as the author, can decide to use Spanish as dialogue in that text, right? So you’re, you can bring some of those home language practices into your writing, and that you should do that.
  • bilingual authors have more tools, perhaps than monolingual authors. Or perhaps not, because monolingual authors maybe have different dialects, right? But, but that we all, as authors should be strategically deploying all of our communicative repertoires, um, in order to create our voice as authors. which is very different than saying, “Make everyone talk like a white person,” right?
  • I think one of the things that could be improved, in school, is that maybe some of those tasks could be less kind of decontextualized vocabulary lists, and more kind of actual authentic interactions.
  • schools should be socializing students to new language practices; the question is how they should be doing that, right? And, and from my perspective, the way they should be doing that is building on the knowledge that the children already have. Now, anyone who’s taken an education course, ever, knows that the first basic thing that you learn in pedagogy 101 is, if you want students to learn new content, you have to connect it to their prior knowledge, right? That’s the first thing you learn. So, why do we think language is any different? Um, if you want students to learn new language practices, you have to connect it to language practices they’re already familiar with, right? And once you do that, they’re much more able to then retain it, remember it, feel like it’s part of who they are, and not feel like it’s this thing that’s completely removed from who they are as people and who they understand themselves to be.
  • we need a fundamental transformation of the institutions that children are in, right? and I think that that change isn’t going to happen overnight, and that change happens over generations. And some of that has happened, right? Like, looking, as someone who has studied the history of bilingual education, in, in the United States, um, the fact that there are some children, in Philadelphia and in other cities, who are able to be in classrooms where Spanish is not only acknowledged but used as part of instruction. And that allows new immigrant children to come in and seamlessly become incorporated into the classroom, that was a fundamental transformation of that institution, that happened over generations, right?
  • we have to keep engaging in political struggle, knowing that many of the changes that we’re advocating for may not benefit us or our children, but maybe will benefit our grandchildren or our great-grandchildren. Or our descendants, if we’re not having children.
  • what teachers can do on their day-to-day is really thinking about how they can strategically build on the home language practices of children. And you don’t have to know those languages, in order to be able to do that, right? Um, one thing that is very easy for an elementary school teacher to take a few minutes to do is to acknowledge that there are children in the class who speak languages other than English. And to ask them how to say a few words in that language, right? Um, you don’t have to know the language, but you’re acknowledging that there are children in your class who do know those languages, right?
  • I know that the way that standards are implemented are sometimes problematic, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with giving teachers some standards in terms of what students are expected to do at their grade level, right? Like, that’s a good thing to give teachers. but teachers who are instructing in languages other than English, oftentimes, don’t have even that to start with. And so, they’re kind of building things from scratch and constantly reinventing the wheel. and so I think that is something that could happen from a policy perspective.
  • oftentimes, in our work with teachers, we tend to frame the issue as, “We need to raise the consciousness of teachers,” and we kind of frame it as an individual thing, but the issue that we look at in this article – and I say “we” ’cause two of my doctoral students wrote it with me – are the ways that broader sociopolitical processes impact what is possible in the classroom, and what we, we call what institutional listening subject positions teachers aren’t able to have it. so, the school that we look at is a bilingual school, so we look at the ways that bilingualism is completely normalized in the school. But we think of that not solely as great teachers – and they are great teachers, but because of the history of political struggle that has allowed for these spaces to emerge. And so, it’s a combination of teachers who are onboard, and the possibility of this space emerging, through political struggle.
  • which spaces are these linguistic tokens policed, and what histories are being cited in those spaces? And how it’s really not just about individual teachers; it’s really this broader sociohistorical process that has allowed for this emergence of policing to begin with. And so, it connects to the point I was making, before, where we conclude, there, that any efforts at raising the consciousness of teachers has to also be situated within broader political struggles, that then can allow teachers to inhabit new listening subject positions, right?
  • We have normalized bilingualism in some public schools in the United States, because people have pushed for the possibility of new listening subject positions in these institutions. So we have to keep thinking about what do we want teachers to be able to do, and how can we transform the institutions to allow them to be able to do that.

Quotes about Nelson Flores

  • Flores and I (2015) have shown how raciolinguistic ideologies relegate racialized students designated as Long-Term English Learners, Heritage Language Learners, and Standard English Learners to a perpetual status of linguistic deficiency regardless of the extent to which, from many perspectives, their linguistic practices might seem to correspond to standardized norms. Thus, we suggest shifting focus from modifying racially minoritized subjects' linguistic practices to contesting hegemonically positioned subjects' modes of perception.
    • Jonathan Rosa, Looking Like a Language, Sounding Like a Race: Raciolinguistic Ideologies and the Learning of Latinidad (2019)