Suhanthie Motha

NNEST of the Month

May, 2011

Suhanthie Motha

swmotha [at] uw [dot] edu

Suhanthie Motha is an Assistant Professor at the University of Washington. Her research explores the intersection of race, empire, and identity in the context of TESOL teacher education. Her work has appeared in TESOL Quarterly, Modern Language Journal, Critical Inquiry in Language Studies, TESL Canada Journal, Educational Practice and Theory, Language Teaching, Peace and Change Journal, and the International Journal of Innovation in English Language Teaching & Research in addition to several book chapters. She serves on the editorial advisory board of TESOL Quarterly.

NNEST blog May interviewer: Todd Ruecker

Could you tell us why and how you decided to become an educator?

Before I answer that question, let me thank you for having me on the NNEST of the Month Blog, which is one of my favorite columns to read. It’s an innovative and engaging format, and I’m honored to be a part of it.

There are two answers to the question about my journey into TESOL. The first, which parallels the experiences of most of my colleagues, is that it was a serendipitous accident: I walked alongside TESOL for a while, pursuing a different path working for an economic consulting firm but volunteering at night teaching English to immigrant adults. I became aware that I was looking forward to my evenings with my students with a jubilant anticipation that I never experienced around my daytime job, which was itself beginning to feel increasingly devoid of meaning and consequence. For a while, TESOL escaped my notice as a possibility for a profession, and by the time I recognized my growing passion for the work, I felt as though I had somehow tripped and fortuitously fallen into it. I enrolled in a master’s program at the University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP), at first part-time and then leaving my full-time position. I was blessed with stimulating, supportive faculty and a lovely, lovable cohort of classmates. When I graduated, I taught in a variety of contexts, most notably teaching at and eventually coordinating the intensive English program of a small university in the Bay Area. I ultimately returned to UMCP for a Ph.D. with two foci, Teacher Education and TESOL. I am now at the University of Washington in Seattle, having completed two years of my tenure track.

The second answer is a bit more complex. I could capture it by turning to the title of Kathleen Casey’s (1993) book on women teachers: I Answer with My Life. My linguistic history is complicated, and the language socialization of my grandparents and great-grandparents has meant that my relationship with English has been somewhat knotty since before my birth. I was born in Sri Lanka and raised primarily in Australia and Nouvelle Calédonie (a small island-nation in the South Pacific colonized by France). TESOL is not a surprising career choice when I consider that I have on some level been untangling for many years the ways in which English becomes mine yet is simultaneously alien at the confluence of my race, heritage, and postcoloniality.

In your Critical Inquiry in Language Studies 2006 article on decolonizing ESOL, you wrote about your heritage language loss of Singhalese and Tamil and your family’s privileging of English.  While admitting that English has served you well, you acknowledge some loss.  What advice do you have for others struggling with the loss of their heritage language(s) or the pressure to deny their background in a quest to speak fluent English?

Thinking about how language ideologies become naturalized has been a long, befuddling voyage for me, a voyage that I suspect may have no endpoint. It’s taken a while for me to appreciate the ways in which what Gogolin (1994) terms monolingual habitusmakes itself evident on an individual level, the inscribed and reinscribed normalization of monolingualism through discursive practices, the notion that one must develop a primary allegiance or identification with one language over another. I am also still learning to recognize the ways in which some language identities become more desirable because they are associated with privilege, Whiteness, modernity, trendiness, and the concept of “Western-ness.” As a field, we are still learning to understand how desires are formed and fed and the role they play in shaping language choices. I’m optimistic that as we come to understand better how these types of language ideologies work, we will be better equipped to avoid heritage language loss. In many contexts, heritage language maintenance is difficult. On an individual or family level, it requires a glaring intentionality and continuous critical analysis of surrounding discourses. For instance, Aneta Pavlenko draws our attention to a passage in the biography of Dominican-American author Julia Alvarez (1998, in Pavlenko, 2001). Alvarez tells of the time when her mother was speaking to her daughters in Spanish in a store in New York City. A stranger commented that if they wanted to be in the country, they should learn the language. Many ideologies are embedded within the stranger’s few simple words: the ever-present monolingual habitus—the notion that if you are speaking Spanish, you are unable to speak English; the assumption that a mother in New York should be speaking only English with her children, regardless of what language is intimate; the idea that this stranger would know better than a Spanish-speaking mother what is best for herself and her children. If we are not vigilant, these ideologies remain unquestioned and become naturalized. Alvarez describes her mother’s response. ‘I do know the language,’ my mother said in her boarding school English, putting the woman in her place” (p. 61-62). Her response challenges some ideologies, but it does so by summoning others. For instance it invokes class privilege, raising other questions: Do mothers who do not have the class privilege that usually accompanies boarding school have the legitimacy to make language choices for their children? If she were to respond in a different form of English, for instance English that the speaker might associate with undocumented day laborers, would her choice to speak Spanish have carried less authority? Beyond the family level, heritage language maintenance requires a concerted recognition among individuals, schools, institutions, policymakers, and parents of the value of heritage language maintenance and can be difficult for a family to achieve alone. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the multiple ways in which linguistic identity intersects with class, for instance of discourses that attach English monolingualism to class privilege—in many EFL contexts, English proficiency has historically telegraphed class privilege, but English monolingualism even more so—and of the ways in which these contribute to heritage language loss.


A few of your early articles focused on ESOL programs in K-12 settings.  How did you get involved in this type of research and have you been conducting any other studies in this area?

I care deeply about school reform. Schools offer great promise for engendering widespread social change, and I am (usually) optimistic about the role that education can play in making the world a better place for all its inhabitants. As a novice teacher myself in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, I became intrigued by the ways in which the institution of public schooling served to socialize teachers and children into certain positionalities, and I was particularly surprised by the gap between what I had learned in my teacher education program and what I experienced in K-12 schools. TESOL had been an alluring career option for me for several reasons, one of the most significant being its potential to provoke social change. My master’s program helped me to think about and talk about my commitments to anti-oppressive pedagogical practice and to supporting social justice in my future teaching contexts. However, in the hallways of the underresourced elementary school I eventually found myself in, my pursuits seemed to lose their viability. For instance, I still look back with puzzlement upon one conversation I recall, wondering at my lack of critical questioning when in a discussion of a lesson on voting rights, my mentor teacher explained to me that “Democratic classrooms don’t work, they’re a nice idea, they’re just not practical with these students.” Later, as a supervisor of student teaching for several years during my doctoral program, I often heard my own earlier dilemmas mirrored in the words of the teacher candidates whose practica I was coordinating, and I became interested in exploring how teachers came to terms with these fissures and made sense of their practice in such fragmented terrain. This pondering led to my dissertation study, which was an ethnographic study of four first-year K-12 teachers’ processes of learning to teach. In terms of current research projects, I tend to be more comfortable researching a site or participants with whom I have some familiarity, so I’m currently working on knowing more intimately local educational contexts and building relationships in my new space in the Pacific Northwest.

In the abovementioned articles, you drew rather extensively on race and postcolonial theory in analyzing the power dynamics in K-12 ESOL programs.  Was your interest in these theories sparked by your own language experiences?  Could you explain how these theories have been useful in your scholarship and how they can help scholars and teachers address inequalities in TESOL?

It’s actually quite difficult for me to carry out any analysis of TESOL that doesn’t draw on theories around race and empire because these form the basis of our field (Motha, 2006a; 2006b; 2006c; Motha, Jain, and Tecle, forthcoming). The historical dissemination of the English language was racialized and rooted in colonialism, and the contemporary proliferation of English continues to be entrenched in racialized and (neo)colonial power relations, so I remain interested in these theoretical frames. Theories of race and empire offer great promise in helping us to understand the role played by English in the inequitable distribution of resources and power globally and the differential English learning experiences of learners in different contexts. They help to explain why English language varieties are assigned different values and the consequences of these differences socially. They shed light on possible avenues for transformation and as such offer exciting potential for shaping the ways in which we as a field approach teacher education. As I began my master’s degree, I was fortunate to have a sociolinguistics class with Shelley Wong, who was artful in explicating the relevance of race theories and postcolonial theories for TESOL. The class highlighted for me the importance of including this type of theoretical content in TESOL teacher education.

Many years later, I remain intensely interested in these theories. I am currently teaching a new graduate seminar at the University of Washington titled: Race and Empire in TESOL. The class is filled with exciting emerging scholars who are already doing engaging and important work that draws on these frames to look at how race and postcolonialism intersect with language minority rights, evangelism, globalization, gender, representations of English as a lingua franca, sexual identities, the supremacy of native speaker identity, and numerous other themes. Most of my writing these days is for my book Looking at the Light Cast by Someone Else’s Lamp: Race and Empire in English Language Teaching.

In addition to applying the abovementioned theories, you have used feminist theories as well as theories such as Norton’s (2000, 2001) theory of imagined communities and Foucault’s (1980) theory of regimes of truth in your work.  Could you explain why your work is so theoretically driven and provide advice for teachers and graduate students seeking to understand and apply theories in challenging the linguistic equalities they witness in the TESOL profession?

I think of some of the work you refer to as theoretically informed rather than theoretically driven. I try to avoid attempts to “apply” a theory or force a real-life situation into a theoretical framing, rather than the converse—that is, rather than allowing theory to flow from critical reflection on life. For me, it is helpful to have as a point of departure the concrete and tangible, whether this takes the form of data, people, pedagogical practice, incidents, or conversations. For instance, the work you refer to, which brings together the two frameworks of imagined communities (Norton, 2000) and regimes of truth (Foucault, 1980), emerged from conversations with my co-authors, Sherrie Carroll and Jeremy Price, in which we struggled to understand the tension between on one hand language learners’ creative and inspiring imaginings of their future selves and on the other hand dominating, even unattainable images of who they should be. The theorizing was spawned within our conversations of patterns and themes that cut across the lives of both Sherrie Carroll’s participants and mine. Of course, working with the concrete in isolation is equally dissatisfying. Theories can offer explanatory power and help us to understand individual interactions more deeply; they give us access to understanding across incidents, contexts, and disciplines. Freire’s (1998) words often come to mind when I contemplate the tension between theory and practice in my teaching but also in my research and scholarship: “Critical reflection on practice is a requirement of the relationship between theory and practice. Otherwise, theory becomes simply ‘blah, blah, blah,’ and practice, pure activism” (p. 30).

One of the data sources for one of your studies included afternoon tea sessions, and you ended up privileging the data from these discussions over other data collected during this study.  You wrote about the value of this unorthodox method in a 2009 book chapter.  Could you explain your research choice in this instance and the value of challenging accepted methodologies, especially in addressing inequalities?

Over the years, tea has come to take on rich meanings in my day-to-day life. I serve it during my practicum classes, my office hours, upon returning home with my young daughters after picking them up from school, in gatherings of my writing collective. I sip it continuously wherever I write, in the island cabin I sometimes escape to, in my favorite Seattle tea house writing spot. Tea has come to represent for me comfort, community, contemplation, consolation, camaraderie, and creativity. I add other troubling cs to my associations with tea—for instance, in the context of Sri Lanka: colonization. Another c is ceremony, evoking the ways in which obfuscated social knowledge surrounding formal teas has served to reinscribe social hierarchies. In her wonderful new book, Interrogating Privilege, my friend and mentor Stephanie Vandrick (2009) similarly connects tea with various associations, including, she tells us: “…my childhood in barely post-colonial India, my Anglophilia, my beloved English novels, women’s groups…” (p. 18) and expresses misgivings that resonate with my own: “… it is also a source of ambivalence because of its postcolonial and social class associations.” (p. 18).

The afternoon teas weren’t even in the initial proposal for my study of four first-year ESOL teachers; they arose quite organically from my study-partners’ desire for a space in which to come together and support each other. The study was designed to draw primarily on interview and classroom observational data over an academic year. Within the first fortnight of the study, two of my study-partners, Alexandra and Katie (names are pseudonyms), asked whether they could start meeting with their former classmates, and the five of us began gathering in my living room every two or three weeks after the last school bell rang. As I began to analyze my data, it became clear to me that the afternoon tea data were quite different from all of the other data, particularly the interview transcripts and observation field notes, in three important ways. First, they positioned me more closely to the teachers’ voices than the observations ever could have. In my observation field notes, I was relating the events of classrooms that I did not belong to. The afternoon tea transcriptions afforded me an extra layer of proximity to the teachers’ interpretations of their pedagogies because in the afternoon teas, the teachers recounted their own lives. I hasten to add here that I do not claim, of course, that I am offering an accurate or complete representation of my study-partners or their teaching lives: in my telling of events I still choose which pieces of data to include or exclude, how to frame each piece, and which other scholars to put the data into conversation with, so my narration of the afternoon teas remains me telling someone else’s stories. Second, absent in the observational and interview data was the element of community. As the teachers began to support each other, they changed their own but also each other’s and my practice as they coached, mentored, and worked through challenges with each other. The sociocultural richness of this dimension would have been more elusive without the afternoon teas as a data source. And thirdly, the afternoon teas were for me a hospitable site for praxis. Because in the afternoon teas, teachers were sharing their thinking about their teaching, the teas brought together teachers’ pedagogies and their theorizing about practice.

As I became more appreciative of the connection between the afternoon tea transcriptions and these three elements, voice, community, and praxis, I felt a growing need to find a way to privilege that data. I used constant comparative methodology, but I coded the afternoon tea data first, then introduced other data only as they related to the themes that I had seen emerging from the afternoon tea data. In this way, I sought to create a space that honored, methodologically speaking, the teachers’ voices, power of community, and praxis.


Casey, K. (1993). I answer with my life: Life histories of women teachers working for social change. New York: Routledge.

Carroll, S., Motha, S., & Price, J. N. (2008). Accessing imagined communities and reinscribing regimes of truth. Critical Inquiry in Language Studies, 5(3), 165-191.

Foucault, M. (1980). Power/knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings 1972–1977. C. Gordon (Ed.). London: Harvester.

Freire, P. (1998). Pedagogy of freedom: Ethics, democracy, and civic courage. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Gogolin, I. (1994). Der monolinguale Habitus der multilingualen Schule. Münster: Waxmann-Verlag.

Motha, S. (2009). Afternoon tea at Su’s: Participant voice and community in critical feminist ethnography. In S. Kouritzin, N. Piquemal, and R. Norman (Eds.), Qualitative research: Challenging the orthodoxies. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Motha, S., Jain, R., and Tecle, T. (forthcoming). Translinguistic identity-as-pedagogy: implications for teacher education.International Journal of Innovation in English Language Teaching & Research, 1(1).

Motha, S. (2006). Racializing ESOL teacher identities in U.S. K-12 public schools. TESOL Quarterly, 40(3), 495-518.

Motha, S. (2006). Decolonizing ESOL: Negotiating linguistic power in U.S. public school classrooms. Critical Inquiry in Language Studies, 3(2/3), 75-100.

Motha, S. (2006). Out of the safety zone. In Curtis, A. and M. Romney (eds.), Color, race, and English language teaching: Shades of meaning. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Norton, B. (2000). Identity and language learning: Gender ethnicity and educational change. Harlow, England: Pearson Education.

Norton, B. (2001). Non-participation, imagined communities and the language classroom. In. M. Breen (ed.), Learner contributions to language learning: New directions in research (pp. 159–171). Harlow, England: Pearson Education.

Pavlenko, A. (2001). In the world of the tradition, I was unimagined: Negotiation of identities in cross-cultural autobiographies.International Journal of Bilingualism, 5(3), 317-44.

Vandrick, S. (2009). Interrogating privilege: Reflections of a second language educator. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

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About Ana Solano

Ana is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. Ana holds degrees in Applied Linguistics, TEFL, and TESOL and taught EFL/ESL for many years. She is interested in qualitative, interdisciplinary, and comparative perspectives to the education of bilingual/multilingual immigrant and refugee children in top migrant destination countries.

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