The dynamic tension that is a primary characteristic of Borderlands, “physically present wherever two or more cultures edge each other” (Anzaldúa, Borderlands: La Frontera), is in intense flux in and around the issues of la lengua en la Frontera. Locally, the languages seem to be Spanish and English, but include Chinese, a variety of Middle Eastern languages, and increasingly, the language of technology. In a paper presented at the National Academy of Sciences’ Workshop on the Role of Language in School Learning – Deficits and differences: Perspectives on language and education – Valdéz, MacSwan and Alvarez reviewed the “different worlds” of Second Language Acquisition. Since the workshop focused on what might be done to “close the Achievement Gap,” the underlying framework has an expectation that teaching approaches might be developed to cure the problems. This is in spite of the authors’ free admission that too little is known about how language is acquired and used.
The language learner needs to master vocabularies, pronunciation, grammar, and syntax. They must learn to hear the individual words in a conversation. They need to understand the words, and put them together into ideas. Many second language learners can understand the individual words in sentences and paragraphs, but find themselves totally unable to grasp the big picture.
Work on language acquisition focuses on the differences between learners’ primary and secondary languages. In the U.S. Borderlands, Spanish and Indian languages are frequently characterized as deficit or “less than.” Little research has been focused on how people learn the languages of different disciplines that are frequently and unfortunately called “jargon.” Seen this way, the language of Law is not useful in Chemistry. In the past 20 years, technology has deeply penetrated all levels of society. The problems of creating access – of learning – the technology are particularly extreme in second language acquisition classes. This is because most of the things that the language of technology refers to are “abstract,” not easily represented in concepts common across spoken languages. Thus the important and frequently used tool of language teachers – pointing to things that exist in both languages – is denied them.
An emerging challenge is that Millennial students – those born after 1982 – have a grasp of technology that greatly exceeds that of many of their teachers, resulting in a power configuration that is unfamiliar and frequently discomforting for non-Millennial teachers.