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HomeEquityAre We Cultural and Linguistic Surrogates?

Are We Cultural and Linguistic Surrogates?

Tasha Austin reflects on her own experience as a language-teacher educator and poses a question all language teachers should ask themselves

I have been a language teacher educator since 2017, which means I have had the privilege of preparing teachers who will become K-12 world language, bilingual/bicultural, and English as a second or additional language educators. One of my most salient memories from serving in this capacity is that of providing what I thought was a powerful metaphor for the way cultural and linguistic ‘capital’ changes depending on context. I drew on an economic analogy and likened the changing ‘capitals’ to the way the value of the U.S. dollar fluctuates depending on where one travels. I relied on the tried and true “four corners” activity to model for these teacher candidates a means of eliciting linguistic output from students. “Four corners” calls for posing a provocative statement to the class, then labeling each corner of the room with “agree,” “disagree,” “strongly agree” and “strongly disagree” so that students can gather in the area of the room that most represents their opinions. One fall semester, in working with soon-to-be elementary educators to plan and instruct emerging bilingual communities, I asked that they go to the corner of the room that most represented their beliefs based on this provocative statement: 

Some students have more linguistic and cultural capital than others. 

As the teacher candidates gathered in various areas of the room, one student triumphantly shared her takeaways providing a math example:

“Right! So, some students won’t understand a skiing word problem, because they can’t afford to ski!”

Because I find my primary role to be ensuring an appreciation of languages and cultures for educators and students alike, you can imagine how deflated I was. Not only did this student interpret my currency metaphor as one in which a cultural act would retain its interpreted value across contexts, they also resolved that the act would be equally desirable irrespective of distinct communities partaking in it. That is to say, they concluded that an emerging bilingual student who did not follow a skiing word problem in math class was likely too economically deprived to understand the problem, rather than considering that they perhaps did not have a cultural interest in exploring such a sport. This assumption represented both my failed metaphor, and the tendency for middle-class teacher candidates who subscribe to dominant white norms to expect that everyone would do what they do if they only had the means to do it, regardless of their cultural backgrounds. 

At this juncture I knew that something about my representing emerging bilinguals in US public schools through my own limited experience as one was negatively impacting my instruction. I asked myself, “How can I help them see that truly valuing the language of marginalized communities, represents so much more than importing dominant preferences into less familiar contexts via alternate linguistic codes? How can I model linguistic and cultural surrogacy?”

Language is culture codified (Carr, 2021). Recognizing this in the face of my unsuccessful attempt to clarify the way both are valued in teacher preparation, inspired my dissertation work. My research dissects the intricacies among class, culture, and race particularly as it relates to the preparation of language teachers. To execute this work, I had to first establish a definition for culture that was sensitive enough to an evolving world that it resisted fossilization or tokenization. Senegalese cultural theorist Léopald Sédar Senghor argued that culture is how humans orient towards and respond to their environments. In taking up this definition, we as language educators must pause before teaching culture and acknowledge the importance of context in our efforts. Said contexts are both sociopolitical and historical, and we cannot detach ourselves as educators from either consideration. We could not, for example, effectively instruct even seemingly straightforward language forms (like the subjunctive in Spanish through the use of ojalá,) without providing the context (of, for example, how the Arabic language and Muslim culture fundamentally shaped Castilian Spanish as we know it today). It may happen that we translate ojalá as hopefully, but that is a reductive and not a fully accurate portrayal of Spanish language(s) and culture(s) as influenced by an 800 year North African presence in the Iberian Peninsula. As an U.S.-born English-using Black person, I have to position myself as having learned all of this through institutional instruction that may obscure or center parts of these truths and insist on partaking in the labor of excavating what has not been readily taught to me by contextualizing language forms in their historical and sociopolitical contexts.

In all of recorded history, and probably prior, one would be hard-pressed to identify a time at which communities and cultural groups did not contact and impact one another. This pattern of linguistic contact and change has resulted in both the assimilation and evolution of language practices and cultural norms locally and globally. Whereas through a critical lens, we are often pushing back against the notion that students, especially minoritized ones, should assimilate their ways of being, we often lack historical contexts which reveal that not all assimilation has been a historical consequence of overt violence. Trade and the spread of pre-modern empires have caused the practices of some populations to accommodate changing landscapes of power and access. Well-documented among these linguistic products are the appearance of ‘trader’ tongues like Swahili across southeastern African nations and the adaptation of Egyptian mythologies into Greek societies (e.g. Isis and Osiris in the order of Artemis and Apollo). Assimilation becomes problematic when it is wielded as a tool of subjugation to inflate cultural difference as a means for justifying inequitable treatment, particularly in schools. In other words, cultural contact and exchanges are what we make them, and as language teachers, we have an inordinate amount of power and responsibility to make those moments of revelation both respectful and humanizing.

Currently, the oft-cited cultural mismatch between US public school students and their teachers has been identified as a major contributor to minoritized students’ lack of connection with school and their ability to thrive in classrooms. While we know a superficial ‘match’ of cultures between students and teachers would not magically resolve these issues, the recognition of how content is enveloped and taught through cultural and linguistic media cannot be understated. In the case of world language teachers, where the content is language, the duty to relay the products, practices. and perspectives of target cultures with fidelity is even more acutely felt by students. We further find ourselves in a field where the majority of teachers are instructing about ways of being and knowing within which they were not personally raised. The access to teacher preparation through funding and systemic privilege has resulted in most world language teachers coming from white, middle-class, and presumably monolingual backgrounds. Facing this openly calls for us to center the role of power in how our pedagogies center the expertise of the places and people from and in whom we hope to generate interest and appreciation without appropriation, tokenization, or in my case, misrepresentation.

My good fortune to prepare teachers, language or otherwise, extends to providing insights on how all hierarchies in language and culture are socially and often racially constructed. In pivoting from the elementary education cohort, I committed to clarifying this understanding with a group of dance educators the following year. It was during that subsequent fall that I found the News Public Radio episode featuring dancer and dance educator, Latasha Barnes, and her concept of cultural surrogacy. In defining surrogacy, the episode transcript reads:

Once you’ve been a surrogate for something, a part of you has affected this thing as much as it has affected you, so you never get to leave it. You carry the weight of being responsible to and for that thing in everything you do.

In short, Barnes, a Black Harlemite, found herself traveling around the world to learn a dance that was culturally in her family and from her community – the Lindy Hop. The practice had faded and those who ended up with the funding and access to continue the art were now located in Sweden, where she would, as a result, travel to study. To her despair, the center providing instruction partook in blackface and other antiBlack reconstitutions of a dance her own grandmother and other Black Harlemites created decades prior. She insisted that her partner reject the discriminatory takes on her culture and instead, approach the Lindy Hop as ‘cultural surrogates.’ She contended that recognizing one’s position as a guest in a cultural practice would humble them enough to partake with a sense of responsibility. She further argued that engaging in cultural practices as surrogates forces us to acknowledge that the impact between instructors and the target cultures should be recognizably mutual. The Lindy Hop at its inception, for example, thrived amidst the US Jim Crow system of apartheid among the Black masses as a popular means of dancing away the day’s troubles, but its survival was curricularized (Vargas, 2016) in the 1980s through a large investment and cult following in the small town of Herrang, Sweden. Consequently, the roots of the Lindy Hop are undeniably Black American, but its survival and transformation cannot be understood without the Swedish influence.

In the context of language education, centering the origins and contexts of linguistic and cultural practices while acknowledging the impact of contact and change, only enhances instruction and makes space for the evolving forms of being which result from these dynamics. Barnes, too, felt the ability to stretch out within the framing of cultural surrogacy as she herself was removed from the Lindy hop, not by culture, but by time. Barnes’ travel to Sweden represented the generational gap between where the dance originated, and what she would have to do to recover its memory. In this way, the applicability and potential for heritage and 1.5 generation language learners through a lens of cultural surrogacy are limitless. They too can sojourn the expanse of time and space wherein languages and cultures evolve with confidence and humility. Whether instructing math, dance, or world languages, how much more opportunity exists for language instruction when we assume context and history as foundational?

Reflective Considerations for Linguistic & Cultural Surrogacy   Mutual Impact: Where and how are these cultural and linguistic practices spreading in ways they may not have due to my involvement? How can I encourage this spread to be humanizing?   Added Responsibility: Having entered the cultural community through, study, choice or both, we must recognize our ambassador status particularly when the space and time of our enactment privileges our home culture above that of the target culture’(s’) community    Space Making: As cultural guests, we should be taking every opportunity to de-center ourselves and invite target culture representatives to articulate their own perspectives

The current limits to exploring the ways global histories and sociopolitical contexts have shaped our understanding of whose culture has capital (Yosso, 2002) reflects the ways that disproportionate access to language study (Anya & Randolph, 2019) can result in language instruction as enacted largely by guests rather than direct community members. In working with the elementary education cohort, having not been an emerging bilingual myself reduced my ability to personally convey their complex cultural worth despite my earnest efforts. This ‘mismatch’ should push us all to teaching language across modalities particularly through world language frameworks which call for communities, connections, and culture as central to the work. 

If I had it to do again, I would reach for first-person resources through media and current events so that in decentering myself, the target cultures could self-articulate via their own expertise. Intent, however, does not always reflect impact, and I argue that until K-12 education prepares us all better with a sense of historically contextualized linguistic and cultural contact and change, it is commendable to deem ourselves cultural and linguistic surrogates in language teaching. In recasting all who take up the additional charge of not only participating in, but teaching language and culture, becoming cultural and linguistic surrogates enlarges the space we and our students have to inhabit new ways of being that require recognizing:

1) we impact the understanding of target cultures as much as those communities impact us;

2) we have an added responsibility of being ambassadors (of a sort) to a world which our students may not otherwise come to know;

and 3) we must make space and de-center ourselves so that the communities can speak for themselves. 

In short, cultural and linguistic surrogates lead with care and reflection. After all, expanding horizons through a recognition of our need to connect and elevate our shared global humanity is our collective work—and it is as much of a challenge as it is a joy.


Carr, G. (2021). Personal communication. 

Richter, D. S. (2001). Plutarch on Isis and Osiris: Text, cult, and cultural appropriation. Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-), 131, 191-216.

Valdés, G. (2016). Curricularizing language. Innovative strategies for heritage language teaching: A practical guide for the classroom, 255-269.

Warner, G. (Host). (2022-present). Rough translation [Audio podcast]. National Public Radio.

Tasha Austin, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of teacher education, language education, and multilingualism for the University at Buffalo, Graduate School of Education. She is the 2023 Outstanding Dissertation award winner for the American Education Research Association both in Division K – Teaching and Teacher Education, and for the Critical Educators for Social Justice special interest group. Austin’s work is situated in critical race and Black feminist epistemologies through a raciolinguistic perspective to qualitatively examine language, identity, and power, and the ways in which anti-Blackness emerges in language education and (language) teacher preparation. Her work has been published in the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, the Journal for Multicultural Education, the International Journal of Literacy, Culture and Language Education among others

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