Ana T. Solano-Campos is a PhD student in the Division of Educational Studies at Emory University. She has taught courses on comparative, multicultural, and language education. Her research interests include intercultural citizenship, critical applied linguistics, and Latin American history. The primary focus of her research is the process of cultural production, social integration, and civic action that occurs in multicultural and multilingual educational contexts. She also holds degrees in TESOL and applied linguistics. | December Interviewer: Shu-Chun Tseng
1. Ana, thank you so much for being our December guest. Could you please share with us your linguistic, educational and professional background? What made you decide to come to the United States to study?
I am originally from Costa Rica, where I grew up and went to school. Although most people in Costa Rica speak Spanish, I started learning English at a very young age. Back then, elementary schools did not include English as a required subject; so, I attended private classes after school or on Saturdays. By the time I reached high school, English had already been included in the curriculum in public schools, so my classmates and I were required to take three periods per week. It was during my childhood and teenage years that I fell in love with language learning. Yet, the place where I really learned to cultivate my passion for language teaching was college. Upon graduating high school, I enrolled in the Applied Linguistics and EFL Teaching Major at Universidad Nacional (UNA) (one of the state universities). Immediately, my professors at UNA awakened in me a passion for education that I had never experienced. All my professors were outstanding educators, but particularly Sherry Gapper, Oscar Rojas, and Rocio Miranda instilled in me a love for English sounds, second/foreign language acquisition and pedagogy, and English literature. They inspired me to care about students, to infuse language learning and teaching with rigor, but also with purpose and warmth, and to think critically about the world around me.
All along my time as an undergraduate, I dreamed of traveling to an English speaking country and pursuing a graduate degree. However, tied to this desire was the goal to become a better speaker, and thus-I thought- a better teacher of English. I did not realize it then, but I had internalized the assumption that “an accent” was a hindrance in the professional path that I had chosen. Even though we had taken classes on sociolinguistics and learned about the discrimination that speakers of English varieties different from the standard face and how such discrimination is often unfounded, I did not seem to connect that knowledge with my own identity as a NNEST. I wanted to improve my pronunciation and intonation in order to become a better language educator. Overall, I felt that in order to make-up for my “non-nativeness” and be credible to my students, I had to actually experience what it was like to live in an English speaking society. So, I started looking for opportunities to move to the United States or to England. Of course, there were many other English speaking countries that I could have gone to, but reflected in my choice were powerful social dynamics that, in comparison to the English spoken in lands colonized by the United States or England, deemed American English as prestigious. After a couple of years teaching, I joined a teaching exchange program, and moved to the United States to teach ESL.
2. As both an international student and educator in the United States, could you share some of the struggles or challenges you encountered as a result of your international identity?
Being an “international” student and educator has been both a wonderful and challenging journey. During my first years in the United States, I approached the experience as an anthropologist and language learner. I kept a dictionary with the words, slang, and expressions I learned along the way. I also wrote long emails to my family and friends describing curious things and experiences. I noticed that my confidence as a speaker of English decreased, since, in comparison to native speakers, I seemed somewhat unfinished and fake. I realized that it was hard to communicate ideas, points of view, and life experiences that were linked to my Costa Rican background and identity. The hardest part was to acknowledge my emergent identity as a transnational individual. It was difficult to reconcile these two worlds within me: my Costa Ricanness and” Spanishness” and my new found “Americanness” and “Englishness.” I had read about culture shock, assimilation, and acculturation many times, but nothing prepared for the actual experience of these concepts, which were so deeply connected to emotion, memory, and history. I vacillated between wanting to fit in and be more American or wanting to stay “true” to my Costa Rican identity by sharing all things Costa Rican with everybody I met. During my time teaching and living in the United States, I experienced and understood, for the first time, the unique and very complex connection between language and culture. I do not think this would have been possible had I remained in Costa Rica.
As an educator, the task of teaching in the United States was a unique one. I had assumed that one teacher anywhere could be a teacher everywhere. What I had not considered is that there are historical, political, and social contexts that are essential to the task of teaching, and particularly to the task of teaching a second or foreign language. In Costa Rica, I was an insider, immersed in those contexts from birth, but in the United States, as an outsider almost ahistorical being, I had much to learn. In particular, I had to learn about the structure of schooling and the way schools are managed. I had to learn about the ways in which teachers are expected to relate to other teachers, to parents, and students. Luckily, my experience as an immigrant and newcomer helped me relate to my students, who were also immigrant and newcomers. However, I noticed that language proficiency was often perceived by teachers as a determinant of a students’ potential, regardless of that child’s knowledge in their native language. I also realized that some of these prejudices were applied to teachers who were not NESTs
3. In your article, “The Role of EFL Teachers in the ESL Setting”, you concluded that “…it is the EFL teacher’s job to encourage other educators to debunk stereotypes, open their minds, and experience culture in a way that helps develop nurturing relationships with their students…” (p. 191). In your own experiences, what effective strategies have you implemented to encourage your own colleagues to develop such relationships with their students?
As an “international” educator, one of my tasks was to act as a “cultural diplomat.” The idea of the exchange program was to expose children in the United States to other cultures and languages. When I arrived in the United States and started teaching newcomer children, immigrant children from around the world, I realized that it was not the children, but the teachers who needed to be exposed to other national and cultural perspectives. Although many of the teachers were caring -but rigorous- individuals, other teachers operated under terrible stereotypes of their students and their students’ parents. I then became particularly interested in student advocacy. I was lucky to work closely with an educator, a NEST, who understood the needs and challenges of the children. Together, we planned orientation sessions to introduce classroom teachers to the reality of our students’ lives and to give them advice on how to better address students’ needs. Finally, I know that cultural sensitizing, when sporadic and by itself, does not succeed in removing strongly held stereotypes and can sometimes increase them. However, I really tried to get to know my students’ classroom teachers and to support them in anything they needed to instruct the children. I firmly believe that connecting to people is essential, even if it is difficult and leads to conflict. It will also eventually lead to conflict management, and I believe, to a better world.
So, I guess three strategies I would recommend are:
1- To find another teacher, hopefully a local teacher, who can be your ally.
2- To share with fellow educators what immigrant students go through as they enter the U.S. education system. It is important not only to tell them, but to show them how difficult it can be to attend school in a language you can’t understand and how frustrating it is when people disregard your potential because of your accent or level of language proficiency.
3- To get to know teachers in your school and create relationships with them.
4. I notice you have maintained a blog, Kulturelingual, since 2008, to share your culture, language, and teaching experiences. What motivated you to begin such a neat and unique blog? What’s the specific meaning behind the blog’s name? What have you learned by maintaining the blog? What are your expectations for this blog as it continues in the future? Do you have specific goals for it? How do you hope this blog will impact and inspire ESL or EFL educators and advocates?
I started the blog when I got back to Costa Rica, after having taught in the United States for three years. I wanted to create a space where I could talk about the relationships between the language learning/teaching process and the process of cultural production that happens in our many daily exchanges with people. Initially, I contextualized the blog to the English teaching community in Costa Rica. As I have grown professionally to incorporate my interests in multicultural and citizenship education, I have also reformulated the blog as a more critical tool to embrace a more global part of me and of my professional journey. However, this last part, making the content more “global” and “critical” has been challenging because sometimes I do not feel as grounded as I was when I lived in Costa Rica. I believe this is inherently a reflection of the stage at which I am as a student, educator, and as a transnational individual. I hope that in the future I can make the blog a space where theory and practice can come together, but most importantly a place to make and share stories about teaching and learning, not only in the United States but across the Americas.
5. “International Teacher Recruitment in the United States” is a new topic to me, and I am sure for many others. Could you please provide a brief explanation of this issue and its impact on public education in the United States? The recipe you wrote in response to this issue is quiet creative and stirring. What compelled you to compose such an interesting take on this issue?
International teacher recruitment in the United States refers to the trend of hiring foreign teachers, often NNESTs, rather than local teachers, to work in American schools. Ironically, I learned about international teacher recruitment not from having been an international teacher myself, but when I moved back to the United States and met Alyssa Hadley Dunn, now an Emory alumnus and assistant professor. Dr. Dunn has written extensively on the topic. You can read Dr. Dunn’s (2011) article “Global Village Versus Culture Shock: The Recruitment and Preparation of Foreign Teachers for U.S. Urban Schools” in Urban Education and her upcoming book “Teachers Without Borders?: The hidden consequences of international teachers in U.S. schools” (Teachers College Press, forthcoming February 2013) for a more in-depth discussion on this issue. I had the opportunity to present in an American Education Research Association (AERA) session organized by Dr. Dunn on the topic of international teacher recruitment, and in doing the research for that presentation I immediately thought about international teacher recruitment of native speakers of English and the implications of this trend to issues of linguistic power and oppression. I also thought of the high number of “international” teachers in the United States who are NNESTs and how being a NNEST plays out in their quality of life and teaching experiences. Finally, I thought about how individuals, like myself, willingly and without noticing, participate in social dynamics such as international teacher recruitment that are put into motion by larger neoliberal processes. I expand on this topic on an article I am currently writing and hope to publish soon.
The “International Teacher Recruitment Recipe” is a piece that I wrote for the Georgia National Association for Multicultural Education (GA NAME) Newsletter. At that time, I was struggling to write a “theoretical” piece on the issue and decided to present it instead as a recipe, more like a recipe for “disaster.” I presented various social and historical processes and actors as ingredients, among them individuals like myself who are somehow “trained” with the skills, such as English proficiency, to qualify for positions as “international” teachers. I then explained how the different ingredients were mixed to create a global phenomenon that compounds other elements such as brain drain and structural inequality.
6. You mention in your article, “Strategies to Raise Cultural Awareness and Create Multicultural Materials and Activities in the Language Classroom”, some teacher struggle to incorporate culture in the everyday functioning of their language classrooms. How do you successfully intertwine language and culture into your daily classroom activities and lessons? Could you please provide tangible examples of activities that promote cultures?
The issue of incorporating “culture” in the language classroom is a tricky one because “culture” is not a fixed, static, entity. It is something that we construct every day, something fluid and overlapping. However, as a language teacher, I noticed that sometimes we focus way too much in structure of the language rather than in its context. When I first came to the United States, even though I had studied about the different English varieties, I still had an idea of the “American English” and the “American culture” that rendered them as one monolithic entity. I think it is our job as language teachers to break the stereotypes that our students may have about the homogeneity of any one language and cultural group. So, it is important not only to teach about particular linguistic or cultural elements in one cultural group, for example, but about the fluid nature of culture itself. A video that I love to show my students is the TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story” by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie. The talk speaks to larger issues of stereotyping, but it speaks nicely to the idea of language or culture as a mosaic or collage.
7. In 2008, according to your blog posts, you appeared to accept the fact that your accent is a part of your overall identity. Since then, has this perception altered or has it remained the same? What would you suggest for other non-native speakers struggling to accept their own accents as they work to develop fluency and proficiency in their target languages?
I do not think that I ever got over that struggle. I struggle with this a lot. I constantly feel that losing my accent involves losing myself and to some extent, faking or acting myself into someone that I am not. Yet, I also feel that in choosing to keep my accent, I will never be able to “belong” and will constantly feel like an outsider. Other days I am reminded how lucky I am to be surrounded by people who accept my English just the way it is. In that reminder, I am fully aware of the ways in which I have incorporated English into my identity to make it mine and unique. It is like a roller coaster; you may feel sick the first couple of times you ride it, but eventually you learn to enjoy its ups and downs and the different views and insights you get from different heights. What I have found along the way is that it is important to work at building relationships with NESTs, no matter how either one of us sounds. If I feel anxious about my accent, I like to imagine the other person speaking Spanish… That helps me remember that, as many scholars have pointed out, we are all native speakers of a language and non-native speakers of many others. So, even when I don’t feel like it, I put myself out there; particularly, because we have to create ways to cross those imaginary bridges that we, as a society, have built by and for ourselves.
8. I enjoyed reading the paper that you and your colleagues wrote about the TSA (Think, Share, Act) project. I studied critical pedagogy and the research methodology of participatory research which was inspired by the ideas of Paulo Freire and developed by Alma Flor Ada and Constance Beutel (Ada and Beutel, 1993). Could you discuss for our readers more about the work of Paulo Freire in education and the extent of his influence on education in your home country and in other countries of the Americas?
(By Terry Doyle, ESL instructor at City College of San Francisco)
Surprisingly, I did not learn about Paulo Freire in Costa Rica. I had never heard about him until I started my masters in TESOL at Greensboro College and eventually through a friend who is doing a PhD in theology. Even then, it was not until I started the PhD program in the Division of Educational Studies at Emory that I had the opportunity to read Freire’s philosophy in depth.
Paulo Freire tells us that education is a tool for liberation from oppression (social, economic, racial, linguistic). Freire (1970 ) reminds us “Liberation is praxis; the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it” (p. 79). As such, liberatory education sees students, not as empty vessels to be filled in with content, what Freire calls “banking education,” but as individuals possessing immense knowledge and creative power.
Once I had read Freire, I wondered why I had never encountered his work before. I realized that there had been a disciplinary gap in my professional journey. Critical pedagogy was something that students in education majors studied, but as a linguistics major, issues of ideology were kept at the margin. In the United States context, Lilia Bartolome (2010) has spoken to the need to infuse critical perspectives into applied linguistics to prepare language teachers. She states that “teachers need to develop political and ideological clarity in order to increase their awareness of these assumptions, values, and views before they take action to ensure the language learning and academic success of their students” (p. 48).Critical Applied Linguistics, particularly the work of Pennycook (2001), has been instrumental in bringing the political, historical, and social dimensions of linguistics and language teaching to the forefront. However, the work of critical applied linguists is often not present in education majors. Again, there seems to be a disciplinary, at least theoretical, separation between Freire’s critical pedagogy and critical applied linguistics. Yet, I have found that methodological orientations like action research, in general, and Participatory Action Research (PAR) in particular, have somewhat addressed that gap and provided opportunities for scholars to focus on praxis, a basic critical pedagogy tenet, something that we need to do more in academia.
I would really like to see more critical applied linguistics classes in higher education in Costa Rica. Particularly with the large amount of Costa Ricans learning and teaching English, it is important that we are aware of the elements, at the macro-level, that move the demand for English speakers, the role we play in these dynamics, and the potential of English learners and language teachers to use language to transform the world into a socially just place and not just to perpetuate current social hierarchies.
Ada, A.F and Beutel, C. (1993). Participatory Research as a Dialogue for Social Action.
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. NY: The Continuum International Publishing Group.
Solano-Campos, A.T. (2008). The English as a Foreign Language teacher’s role in the English as a Second Language setting. Letras, 44, 179-191.
Solano-Campos, A.T. (2009). Kulturelingual. Retrieved from http://kulturelingual.blogspot.com/
Solano-Campos, A. T. (2009). Strategies to raise cultural awareness and create multicultural materials and activities in the language classroom. Revista de Lenguas Modernas, 11, 383-390.
Solano-Campos, A.T. (April, 2011). International Teacher Recruitment to and from Costa Rica. Paper presented at AERA, New Orleans.
Solano-Campos, A. T. (Summer, 2011). Recipe for international teacher recruitment. GA NAME Newsletter: What’s the IDEA? 4 (1), 9.
Solano-Campos, A.T. (2012). Kulturelingual. Retrieved from http://kulturelingual.com/
Pennycook, P. (2001). Critical Applied Linguistics: A Critical Introduction. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum.