The following is taken from Guadalupe Valdés’ educational and linguistic ethnography Learning and Not Learning English (2001), a book that focuses on the lives and experiences—both in and out of class—of four Mexican immigrant children in a California middle school.
Among the myriad data she collected for this study, Dr. Valdés uses samples and analyses of the children’s oral and written language to contextualize the various challenges surrounding the teaching and learning of English. She also spent a great deal of time observing classroom interaction. The following (in italics) is a sample from Valdés’s book, and includes a transcription of observed classroom dialogue between a teacher and her students. Note the sample photo of a jack-o’-lantern, a gutted and carved pumpkin commonly used for Halloween celebrations in the U.S.
In this section, a different teacher attempts to involve her students in a whole-class interaction, mainly focusing on vocabulary. Only a few of the students tended to participate in these sorts of activities, but given the day’s topic of Halloween (which was new and exciting to many of the recently arrived immigrant students), most paid close
attention. Here, the teacher strays from eliciting one-word responses in a discussion on jack-o’-lanterns.
Teacher: OK, Yako.
Yako (Student): Jack-o’-lantern.
Teacher: Jack-o’-lantern, OK. I’ll put that over here. What’s the difference between a pumpkin and a jack-o’-lantern?
Students: (whisper) Teacher: What’s the difference between them. There is a difference between the two. Juan? Juan (Student): The jack-o’-lantern gots both uh eyes and mouth and nose, and the pumpkin doesn’t have nothing. Teacher: Exactly. The pumpkin is the big orange vegetable, all right? That grows in the garden, but the jack-o’-lantern is after you have cut it. So (draws it on the board) there’s the pumpkin, right? After you have—Juan will you stop playing. That noise is irritating… thank you. You take your pumpkin and you carve (draws) out your face. That would be the jack-o’-lantern. ‘Lantern’ means “light,” doesn’t it? So what they are saying is going to happen? What are you going to put inside there?
Answer at least two of the following questions and connect your answers in an original synthesis:
• Examine in detail how both students (Yako and Juan) and teacher navigate (or don’t) multiple meanings in this discussion on jack-o’-lanterns. Consider Whorf’s theory of “cognitive appropriation” (Lucy 1992a:46) to explain how language, thought and culture intersect/clash here. Also consider notions of indexicality, and particular Peirce’s sign framework (icon, index, symbol).
• Juan’s first language is Spanish, a language that uses double negatives in its grammar. In his response, Juan uses the double negative (‘doesn’t have nothing’) and also uses ‘gots’ to describe the jack-o’ lantern. Connect these two utterances to your understandings of language acquisition and language socialization.
• How might debates about bilingualism and language learning—put forth by Daniels, for instance—inform Valdés’s work here?
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