What Does Language Have to Do with Social Justice?

by Ruslana Westerlund
This post was inspired by the Social Justice Panel at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where I participated as an invited speaker.  It was organized by Carl Grant, Professor of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  This post does not reflect the content of the panel.  The panel inspired me to continue the conversation we started at the panel by zeroing in on language as a missing component in many social justice frameworks.  A special thank you to my colleague and friend Lorena Mancilla who helped me process my thinking.

If we are attuned to the injustices around us and are listening attentively, we hear, view, read or discuss social justice in various areas of our lives almost every day: from criminal justice to women’s rights, from children’s lack of access to education in their first language to access to quality education.   In general terms, social justice requires actions that de-marginalize people who have been marginalized  because of their race, ethnicity, gender, social class and other differences.  Since this blog is primarily dedicated to education,  I will contextualize social justice to the field of education.  To prepare for this blog, I have reviewed  a few definitions of social justice in education and found that most of them are concerned with the categories such as gender, social class, ethnicity, race.  Language is not specifically called out.   For that reason, I will be discussing missed opportunities of language learning as a problem contributing to the academic achievement gap.   I’ll be using Nieto’s definition of social justice education from Teaching as Political Work: Learning from Courageous and Caring Teachers .  She describes it in these four dimensions:

In the first dimension, Nieto states that social justice “challenges, confronts, and disrupts  misconceptions, untruths, and stereotypes that lead to structural inequality based on race, social class, gender, and other social and human differences” (p. 2).  Language is not specifically mentioned along with class, gender, social class, or race but is most likely subsumed in the “other human differences” category.   The second component is about providing students with all the resources they need to learn to their full potential as well as as emotional resources such as a belief in students’ ability and worth and high expectations and rigorous demands.   Nieto doesn’t place the whole responsibility on the teacher or just providing students and teachers with resources.  She stresses the school-level approach to social justice which ask leaders to reform school policies and practices around behavior policies, school climate, family outreach, high-stakes testing and others.   The third component gets at the heart of social justice because it requires drawing on the talents and strengths that students bring to the classroom.

A third component of a social justice perspective is drawing on the talents and strengths that students bring to their education. This requires a rejection of the deficit perspective that has characterized much of the education of marginalized students, to a perspective that views all students—not just those from privileged backgrounds—as having resources that can be a foundation for their learning.  These resources include their languages, cultures, and experiences (p.2)

A fourth essential component of social justice is creating a learning environment that promotes critical thinking and supports agency for social change.   Nieto further adds that for education to be rooted in social justice, it needs to be responsive to the language needs of the fastest growing student population in our schools: linguistically diverse children (National Center for Education Statistics).  The injustices against our linguistically diverse children are framed by the national English-only language ideologies.  Schools are nestled in the society which primarily promotes English at the expense of students’ first languages which leads to disengaged learning and fragmented identities.   By stripping away children’s languages, we strip them of their true identities.

How does language ideology play out in education?
How does language ideology play out in education?

Social justice may start in the classroom but always goes beyond the classroom walls because schools are situated in a society with values and ideologies that impact the classroom.  If we are aware of the injustices perpetrated against many linguistically and culturally diverse learners, we can not remain neutral, paraphrasing Paulo Freier: an educator can never be neutral.

An educator can never be neutral.

Despite the demands the academic standards place on students, students are deprived of the opportunities to engage in cognitively demanding curriculum.  In the current era of standardized testing (thanks to the NCLB), teaching methods in many ESL departments have shifted from employing natural language learning techniques toward strict test-prep strategies. These methods have one goal: get students to score well on standardized tests.  Grant (2004) sums up the consequences of high-stakes testing as follows, “high-stakes testing reduces teaching and learning for [many students] to simple routine procedures.  It marginalizes their effort to learn and engage in a critical examination of themselves and society and detours their pursuit to become reflective and critical citizens” (p.11).  In  “Teach to the Test” Robbing Newcomer Students of Precious Language-Learning Time, new immigrants “at Old Mill and across the nation are experiencing fewer teachable moments like … most teachers espouse in their classrooms. Why? No time.  Instead, hurried students are being put through a regiment of word drills, grammar exercises and rote memorization designed to arm them with basic facts and test-taking skills. This approach of teaching to the test – repetition without full comprehension – is designed to help students score well on federally mandated multiple-choice tests.”   This is an issue of social justice:  language development for academic achievement is denied.  It’s not that the students aren’t able to learning.  They are denied an opportunity to learn in the first place.

…evidence is mounting that the testing frenzy—which is a direct result of the call for so-called “high standards”—is actually limiting pedagogical approaches and constricting the curriculum, especially in classrooms serving the most educationally battered students.

As educators work with language learners, the dimension of language in the social justice equation is of particular importance.  Many language learners are placed in systems that ignore their language needs and instead, blame the kids for their socio-economic status or lack of parental involvement, and other excuses.  The problem is not only inherent to the United States.  A recent post I was reading from Australia nailed the issue in their article Dodgy Data and Language Misdiagnosis.


“Language-related issues become displaced onto race or socio-economic disadvantage. Educators and the general public fail to see a child needing English language support in order to achieve academically. Instead they see an aboriginal child achieving poorly.  We then collectively throw up our hands in despair and decide that indigenous education is a problem that is too big and intractable to fix.  Because there is nothing we can do, we might just as well ignore the problem for another year”.


To what degree does this happen in your school?  Is the testing crazy constricting the curriculum for children who need an enriched curriculum?  Does anyone see the irony here?  Is the achievement gap so huge that leaders just throw our hands up in the air and say, there is nothing we can do?  Or we try to do something, but leadership is not aware of the language needs and instead turns everyone into interventionists to provide a steady dose of simplified texts, decontextualized drill and kill, or skill-based reading instruction that robs children of language-rich reading opportunities?  How can we move the language needs of language learners to the forefront of our “achievement gap” conversations?  If we think about it, those aren’t achievement gaps, those are opportunity gaps.

To leave you on a positive note, I will use the words of one teacher who did not let herself be discouraged with the injustices perpetrated against culturally and linguistically diverse learners.  She said,

I teach in public school because I still believe in public education. I believe that the purpose of public school, whether it delivers or not, is to give a quality education to all kids who come through the doors. I want to be part of that lofty mission… I may be naïve, but I believe that what I do day in and day out does makes a difference.

Jennifer Welborn, a middle school science teacher

 Let us not give up hope.  Let us be educators who are never neutral.


Grant, C. (2004). Oppression, Privilege, and High-Stakes Testing.  Multicultural Perspectives, 6(1), 3-11

Nieto, S. (2006) Teaching as Political Work: Learning from Courageous and Caring Teachers.  The Longfellow Lecture. Child Development Institute, Sarah Lawrence College

Nieto, S. (Ed.) (2005). Why we teach. New York, NY: Teachers College Press

Nieto, S. & Bode, P. (2012). Affirming diversity: The sociopolitical context of multicultural education, 5th rev. ed. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon




10 thoughts on “What Does Language Have to Do with Social Justice?

Add yours

  1. I am your fan from afar! I read all your articles. This was by far the best point you have raised yet. The inability to speak adequately in stressful areas of life creates enough stress to do harm to others. Thank you for bringing to public attention what many of us in ESL have known for a long time.


    1. Thank you Georgia for reading and commenting. As a former ESL educator myself, this has bothered me but I couldn’t articulate it with conviction. I hope the public will read and get educated on these matters of social justice. This is why I blog. Sharing my thoughts with the world. Thanks for reading them. Please feel free to contribute to this blog by being a guest blogger. I welcome social-justice-minded bloggers.


  2. Another point to consider is that even English speakers can be marginalized if they speak a low-prestige dialect like African American Vernacular English. Of course, this is hard to unpack from the injustices of society because of their race, but it’s there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sal, thank you for adding this to the conversation! In my panel presentation that I’m referring to in the introduction, I shared this example of attitudes about what we consider a smart-sounding accent/ethnolect/language. I often have meetings with people who speak British accent and the people who are in the same room with me say to them. You sound so smart. Every time you speak, I just love listening to your accent. No one says Every time I hear AAVE, I just love the sound of your accent. Race and language are interconnected.


  3. Thanks, Ruslana! Good to see ‘language’ put on the social justice map! You might also be interested in my new book about ‘Linguistic diversity and social justice’ (out from Oxford University Press later this year), which tries to provide an overview of language-related social-justice issues in contemporary highly diverse societies.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ingrid, it’s an honor to meet you. I’m truly humbled by your interest in my amateur blog. I hope to exchange ideas and works in the future. We both work toward a common purpose: eradicated language-related injustices in the world.


  4. Dear Andrea, thank you so much for providing the link to your article. I love it! Love this quote:

    “Critical Literacy is about enabling young people to read both the word and the world in relation to power, identity, difference and access to knowledge, skills, tools and resources. It is also
    about writing and rewriting the world” […] (p. 227).


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