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Critical Linguistic Consciousness in the Last American Colony: Educational Therapy for a Doubly Marginalized Population

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As most readers probably recognize, my title is an allusion to Paulo Freire's monumental work, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Freire 1970/2005), which is also the source of the above quote. However, while I owe much to Freire in terms of my explanation for the peculiar, part subservient, part rebellious attitude toward education in general, and English in particular, that I observe in Puerto Rico, I want to immediately dispel any direct comparisons between my work and Freire's. First of all, the situation of my students is not at all like that of the desperate Brazilian peasants Freire was concerned with. My students are adequately fed and housed, and enjoy considerable freedom, including access to free press, assembly, and participation in government (though the latter two are currently under threat at my university), and have plenty of opportunities to improve their lot in life.

Therefore, my scope is much more modest than Freire's. He hoped to transform the entire political landscape through critical consciousness; I hope merely to reorient my students’ perspective on language, from the nearly ubiquitous, unconsciously received, prescriptive view, to a consciously held, scientific perspective. In particular, I seek to disrupt the common notion that languages are cultural artifacts that exist in perfect form in dictionaries and grammar books and which are merely used, albeit imperfectly, by ordinary people—while simultaneously urging the modern, generative claim that, to the contrary, languages are rule systems instantiated in individuals’ minds that generate speech that is compatible with other native speakers’ rule systems. I believe such reorientation offers a transformative entryway to personal and intellectual awareness for many people, and is a particularly salient path for Puerto Ricans, because they live in a society that overtly equates language proficiency—particularly proficiency in English—with all kinds of success (Barreto 2001a; Collins et al. 2006; López Hernández 2007). It is in this sense that my perspective is Freirean: Just as he sought to use critical analysis of oppression, both as a means to free people from that oppression and as a gateway to literacy and consciousness of the self, political realities, and the world in general, so I seek to use critical analysis of prescriptive attitudes toward language, first to free my students from those attitudes, and second as a gateway to academic praxis, including the discourse styles of academe, of course, but much more importantly, the research methods, and scientific perspective that, in my view, are the real gifts of the academy. This stance is fraught with paradox of course, since the academy is itself permeated with prescriptivism, nor is the practice of science magically free of bias. In my view, however, the antidote to this is not to abandon the academy, but, rather, to understand that it is inevitably “situated” within a cultural context, and, therefore inherently biased in myriad ways. With respect to academic discourse there is also the practical need for detailed conventions in order to ensure comprehension of complex texts among disparate interlocutors, who may be widely dispersed geographically and temporally. Given this, prescriptivism is probably necessary within the academy, but generativists would urge a benign prescriptivism that recognizes the arbitrariness of most discourse conventions. The trick is to get students to understand all this and to learn to use the conventions of academe consciously, rather than slavishly.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2010

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