Teachers Act Up!

Thoughts on Teaching, Language, and Social Change from Melisa "Misha" Cahnmann-Taylor


In an effort to inform bilingual or emerging bilingual students across campus about my fall 2012 course, I used the shortened University system title, Spanish Children’s Literature rather than writing the complete course title: Teaching Literature in Spanish for the K-12 Foreign Language Classroom.

Soon after, I received the email message below.  For humor and anonymity’s sake, I signed the email as from “The Language Vigilante”:

Hello Melisa,

Suggestion for a title change:

Unless you are aiming to have your students read only children’s
literature that is published in Spain, the title of your course should
read “Literature for Children in Spanish.” Your course description also
needs to be revised to show your intention for the course.

I actually find it interesting that although you teach teachers and
future teachers, your command of the English language and that of the
Spanish language needs improvement. This is not the first time that I
send you a correction for a message you send out. The previous time my
suggestion improved the error in Spanish.

–The Language Vigilante (pseudonym used)

Dear Language Vigilante,

My first instinct upon receiving this email (indeed, your second—you’d caught an earlier error on my blog when I wrote “feliz” instead of the plural “felices”), was defensiveness—

I used a version of the shortened university title [SPANISH CHILD LIT];

I know my Spanish (and English) can be improved—but aren’t we all, always, language learners (L1, L2, L3, L4…)?

Isn’t the point of emails and blogs vs. a piece of published prose to imply shorthand, thoughts in draft, to risk small errors in an effort at more immediate communication?

Isn’t there a more cordial, more humane way to identify mistakes in language that are less punitive?

Are you a mean, unhappy person?

Thankfully, just after reading this email missive, I received a link to “What We Nurture with Sylvia Boorstein,” aired on the NPR program “On Being with Krista Tippett”.  Boorstein, a celebrated Jewish-Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist, shared what the GPS might teach about “recalculating” in terms of our inner peace, what she called “equanimity”:

It [The GPS] never gets annoyed at me.  If I make a mistake, it says, “Recalculating.” And then it tells me to make the soonest left turn and go back….If something happens, it challenges us and the challenge is, OK, so do you want to get mad now? You could get mad, you could go home, you could make some phone calls, you could tell a few people you can’t believe what this person said or that person said. Indignation is tremendously seductive, you know, and to share with other people on the telephone and all that. So to not do it and to say, wait a minute, apropos of what you said before, “wise effort” to say to yourself, wait a minute, this is not the right road. Literally, this is not the right road. There’s a fork in the road here. I could become indignant, I could flame up this flame of negativity or I could say, “Recalculating.” I’ll just go back here.

I regret I am not more spiritually enlightened and I did indeed “phone a friend” (email actually) for support.  Indeed this moniker, “The Language Vigilante,” itself reflects how far I probably am from my own equanimity and enlightenment.  But I did make a wrong turn and while I have not yet spiritually arrived, the experience reminds me of a message I wish to send to other second language learners—indeed to anyone who still considers him or herself to be learning one’s first language in addition and/or through the medium of a second:

You will make language mistakes.

You will be misunderstood.

You will be judged.

You will need to find your own inner GPS system to “recalculate” and move forward.

One of the reasons most cited for the challenges of second language learning, especially for adults, is anxiety about not getting it right.  Indeed, the anxiety is often about getting it all wrong—so wrong you will feel misunderstood, falsely accused, infantilized and/or berated.  This is why children are often perceived as having a second language learning advantage—we are much more patient and nurturing (not always) when children make language mistakes.  We expect a three year old to make overgeneralizations and to have trouble with subject verb agreement (e.g. “he goed to the store” or “They goes to town”). Often, we see these productions as cute and developmental—inevitably children will acquire more standard language abilities.  But past a certain age—four, fourteen, forty— and beyond spoken dialect-friendly contexts—we expect more.

Language Vigilantes are everywhere-in the classroom, at the post office, lurking in soccer field corners and online chat rooms.  They are ubiquitous, they are punitive, and they are taking enforcement of grammar rules into their own hands.  We must prepare ourselves to hear these external (and sometimes internal voices), and say to them, “recalculating.”  In other words, when we are misunderstood or wrongly understood, we must teach and be taught numerous strategies to negotiate meaning and to know when being misunderstood is a language or grammar issue versus an issue regarding degrees of status and power.

In summer of 2001 I took a job teaching a visiting group of English foreign language (EFL) students from a women’s university in Japan.  Part English instruction, part tourism, the program included guided visits to historic sites in Philadephia and New York City. The young women were eager to practice English in real contexts and during our visit to Old City Philadelphia they decided to try to send postcards back home without my help.  The group of ten young women lined up at the clerk’s historic counter—circled really, helping one another navigate change purses full of new American coins and bilingual Japanese-English pocket dictionaries.  I stood outside waiting until one of the girls beckoned me to where an unhappy clerk demanded, “Either you do it for them or come back when they’ve learned more English!”

The young women were embarrassed—they knew they had aroused the clerk’s anger and they called for a lifeline in their English language teacher.  I was angry at the impression this postal worker conveyed—despite statues and bells in the name of liberty, “real” Americans were impatient and intolerant of difference.

Yet, the B. Free Franklin Post Office was the perfect place to experience the ironies of our democratic, yet intolerant, foundations.  It was Ben Franklin, who founded the printing press and safeguarded the development of American English, who published these racially and linguistically charged accusations against Germans:

Why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion. http://www.historycarper.com/resources/twobf2/increase.htm

In a country that has always demanded expediency, that took revolution into its own hands, that is as steeped in democracy as it is racism, it is no surprise there are Language Vigilantes, trigger happy with language errors. Excoriating language users, like myself, who fall short of perfection, Language Vigilantes exist in nations and languages around the world and believe they are doing the right thing—upholding standards, excellence, laws of decency and decorum.

When we language learners and language users encounter one of you (especially those “cops in our own heads” [Augusto Boal, 1979), we must stop, take a deep breath, acknowledge the sting of being judged and/or misunderstood, and say to ourselves: recalculating.  Wrong turn.  Pull over, phone a friend, find a new teacher, persist.  Insist on your right to use language and to make mistakes, to become your own best teacher, and to continue down the path of communication with dignity, humility, and love.

This is not to argue against correction and the art of revision–surely this post is badly in need of another major edit.  We must simply greet the Vigilante, Critic, Editor, Censor, and say to them: Hello! Good to be reminded you are there.   Thank you for the directions? Turn left when I made a right? Okay, I’m already moving forward, finding my own way, recalculating.


  1. Melanie Hennings April 24, 2012 at 1:13 am

    Love it! Especially the last lines…I need to do a lot more recalculating myself.


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