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Affecting Language Policy: Start With Your Language Orientation

by Naashia Mohamed |

Many people equate policy with law and politics—something that brings to mind lawmakers and politicians rather than educators. However, teachers are central to policy implementation in a number of ways:

  • Classrooms can turn educational policy into action.
  • Teachers are key actors who enact language policies in education.
  • Teachers make decisions about which languages to use during instruction, which languages to encourage among learners, and which languages or varieties are not accepted in the classroom.

These decisions about language are shaped by teachers’ language orientations.

Language orientations, or our predispositions about languages and their roles in society, affect the way we think and talk about language and language issues, and influences our approach to teaching multilingual learners. Nearly four decades ago, Richard Ruiz presented three fundamental language orientations as a way to facilitate our thinking about language in society:

  1. language as problem
  2. language as right
  3. language as resource

In more recent times, other scholars have attempted to unpack the ideas aligned with these orientations. Drawing from these papers, I summarize the three orientations and include questions for you to consider with regards to your teaching situation.

Language as Problem

This orientation stems from a monolingual mindset that regards linguistic diversity as a threat to national unity. Policies and practices that follow this orientation aim to restrict multilingualism and frame speakers of nondominant languages using a deficit perspective, viewing their use of the dominant language as a disability. Consider your educational context:

  • Which languages (if any) are considered “problems”?
  • What social problems are linked to language problems?
  • What concerns are raised about individuals and groups who are multilingual?
  • How do language programs support the transition to English?

Language as Right

This orientation views language as a basic human right. Central to this orientation are the right to use one’s own language and the right not to be discriminated against based on language. Following this orientation, we recognize the right of individuals to identify with their own languages, and for minoritized groups to maintain their languages. In your educational context:

  • What personal freedoms are associated with language?
  • What language rights are promoted/granted?
  • Which individuals or groups are granted language rights?
  • What legal foundations exist to facilitate equal access to education for linguistic minorities?

Language as Resource

This orientation highlights the benefits of multilingualism and multiculturalism and promotes tolerance and acceptance of diversity. Rather than viewing multilingual learners as lacking, this orientation regards the ability for speakers to develop multilingualism as desirable. As such, the development of new language abilities and the maintenance of existing ones is seen to be crucial. When educational programs follow a resource orientation, additive language learning is a core objective. In practice, this implies that teachers should use students’ home languages as a tool for thinking and communication while simultaneously learning and developing proficiency in the language of instruction. Key questions to consider include:

  • How are dominant societal languages and minoritized languages regarded as resources? Are there differences between them?
  • How is language maintenance among minoritized language communities facilitated?
  • How is the revitalization or expansion of declining languages facilitated?
  • How do educational programs facilitate the development of lifelong multilingualism?

Distinguishing Language Policies in Your Own Context

To consider what language orientations form the basis of the language policies in your teaching context, you need to first identify policies. Language policies may come in the form of:

  • documents that guide and inform practice
  • curricular documents
  • handbooks and websites

In addition to these overt and explicit policies that appear in published documents, language policies may also be covert and implicit. For example, educators’ and administrators’ normalized behaviours and ideologies regarding language and language use can also be considered to be policy.

Having identified language education policies, consider:

  • the relationships between different languages in policy documents
  • the alignment between policy and the sociolinguistic context
  • the extent to which (stated and practiced) policies promote equitable multilingualism

Teaching is not an apolitical act. Teachers play a crucial agentic role in representing, producing, and reproducing language education policies in their talk and actions, making decisions about whether to enact policies or subvert them. Understanding language policies and their impacts on learners and society is important for teachers to enhance their ability to navigate their roles as policy actors.

About the author

Naashia Mohamed

Naashia Mohamed is a Senior Lecturer of TESOL at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Her work in teacher education focuses on addressing the needs of language learners in schools and considers how school policies and practices can reduce the educational gaps faced by immigrant children and youth. Naashia has published in journals such as TESOL Quarterly, Current Issues in Language Planning, International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies, and ELT Journal. Her research addresses issues of identity, power, and equity in language education policy and practice.

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