Language, race and social change

Hot button issues surface when 12,000  education researchers get together

In 2011, Vancouver school-age students began to enroll in a new bilingual Mandarin English program. As the details for this program were being sorted out, debate and controversy erupted over whether students who already speak Mandarin should be allowed to enroll.

For Ryuko Kubota, this debate was the perfect case study of second language education and issues of race in multicultural Canada. Along with PhD candidate Ai Mizuta, Kubota will be presenting a paper on the controversy at the upcoming 2012 American Educational Research Association (AERA) conference.

AERA is one of the largest professional organizations for education researchers; its annual education conference attracts more than 12,000 participants from around the world. Running from April 13 to 17, and for the first time in Vancouver, the AERA annual conference has drawn over 220 UBC scholars.

Kubota, a professor in the Department of Language and Literacy Education in UBC’s Faculty of Education, has organized a session on race and language learning in multicultural Canada.

“Issues of race have long been part of the discussion on education,” says Kubota. “But it hasn’t been an issue in second language education.”

“We, as second language professionals, assume that by trying to promote diversity in teaching new languages, we are inherently more aware of culture differences and inequalities. This isn’t always the case.”

Kubota began paying attention to the issue in the late 1990s when language researchers often discussed the differences between native English-speaking students and English as a Second Language (ESL) students.

“Many ESL students were from Asia so we ended up creating a conversation that separated students into two groups—Asians and North Americans,” says Kubota. “I argued that creating this type of division was a legacy of colonialism and that we were perpetuating racial stereotypes. I was critiqued for regarding ESL teachers as racist.”

Kubota learned from this experience that racism is a difficult idea for people to understand–it can often be embedded in social structures. Her goal is to get educators to think about how education works and be more critical about issues of race, culture and diversity in our systems.

“The AERA meeting is an opportunity for me to have a dialogue with my colleagues who study this topic. But it is also an opportunity to disseminate these ideas to people who aren’t interested or not aware.”

For Kubota’s colleague Bonny Norton, the conference is not just about research. She will be inducted as an AERA Fellow— one of the highest awards bestowed on members of the organization. In 2011, AERA presented Norton with the inaugural Senior Researcher Award for the study of language and learning across diverse sites.

At this year’s conference, Norton, a professor in the Department of Language and Literacy Education, will present findings from a program that began in east Africa in 2003. UBC researchers and graduate students and African scholars have been investigating ways in which digital innovations and hybrid technologies, such as  digital libraries, digital recorders, and digital cameras, might help to address educational challenges in the region, particularly with learning English – an official language in most sub-Sahara African countries.

Norton’s interest in language and social change includes Canadian communities. She has also organized an AERA panel on literacy and language revitalization in an aboriginal community in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

For more information about the Faculty of Education’s involvment in AERA, visit:

Related topics:

UBC Reports | Vol. 58 | No. 4 | Apr. 4, 2012

Education Prof. Ryuko Kubota is one of 220 UBC students and researchers presenting at the 2012 American Educational Research Asssociation conference. Martin Dee Photograph

Education Prof. Ryuko Kubota is one of 220 UBC students and researchers presenting at the 2012 American Educational Research Asssociation conference. Martin Dee Photograph

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