From “Foreign Languages” to “World Languages” within U.S. Institutions: Abandoning misleading terminologies

by Dr. Roger Anderson – Assistant Professor of International Languages & Cultures, Central State University

In the U.S., the social unrest and pandemic-induced hardships of 2020-21 implore Americans to critically examine our relationship to society’s most vulnerable or marginalized members. We must be honest in our assessments about how our identities and positions impact them. Educators who seek to internationalize their learners are not exempt from such self-reflection. 

“Foreign language” learning is a crucial component of an internationalizing education, yet the term itself is highly problematic, particularly for people living in a multilingual country like the United States. Dictionary definitions never fully capture the range of societal values embedded within a word. A general meaning of “foreign” is that something is not of that place; it somehow does not belong there, not wholly, or legitimately. 

Turning then to “foreign” language, it becomes clear that “foreign” is reflective of and reinforces an epistemological hierarchy in which English is positioned as native and all other languages are positioned as foreign. Not only does this hierarchy marginalize the millions of citizens and residents of the U.S. who use languages other than English alongside it, but it constitutes a historical inaccuracy. Modern English is not native to North America; it developed out of Old English, which developed out of Germanic languages in Europe. Moreover, the United States has never been a monolingual country, not before or after removing Indigenous peoples from their land or importing enslaved humans to work these lands. To imply the (non-English) languages of Indigenous peoples were—and remain—foreign seems self-contradictory.

The U.S. has no official language, despite the actions of individual states. As some states have adopted measures that officialize English, others have taken steps to repeal such measures (Kaur, 2020). Officializing a language, of course, does not render all other languages foreign, only non-official. Neither is a language native by virtue of it being spoken by the majority of a given country’s citizens. Were this the case, French would be non-native, i.e. foreign, to Canada, and Mayan dialects would be foreign to Mexico, given that these languages are spoken by a minority of these countries’ respective populations – both laughable propositions in those countries.

Positioning non-English languages as foreign within the U.S. context also implies that monolingualism is normative for membership in this nationality. Any second language – other than English in this case—is non-native, and thus positioned as alien and extraneous to the national identity. In other words, in this configuration, monolingualism is native and natural, and bilingualism is un-native and unnatural. Bilingualism then becomes something foreign rather than a legitimate identity of millions of Americans. It also communicates to learners of a “foreign language” that languages other than English have no application inside the U.S. This implication assaults reality and would mislead our learners.

“Foreign” languages are spoken abroad, but not exclusively abroad. Most glaringly, the United States may move up from its second-place ranking to become the county with the world’s largest Spanish-speaking population within the near future (Grajales-Hall, 2011). According to the 2010 U.S. census data, 350 different languages were spoken in homes across the U.S. (U.S. Census Bureau, 2015). In this view, the constructs of “foreign” and its companion “native” need to be problematized as more political constructs than ones reflecting a historical or cultural reality. Otherwise, it would seem the only non-foreign (native) languages of the United States would be Cherokee, Ojibwe, Sioux, etc.

Thinking critically about “foreign” languages within the United States connects with global issues of nationalism, cultural diversity, and initiatives to impose homogeneity on societies. The same nativist impulse behind efforts to position English as the sole native language of the U.S. can be found elsewhere, of which learners should be aware. Locally, unpacking these terms reveals their harmful implications on bilingual individuals living in the United States and on English Language Learners (ELLs). If, for example, a language that an Arab-American speaks and the identity enveloping it, Arabic, is “foreign”, then either the speaker is also somehow foreign or they perform a foreign action every time an Arabic word leaves their lips. Rather than discouraging bilingualism, governments and institutions need to recognize multilingual individuals and ELLs as sources of rich skill sets and knowledge, and find ways to involve their contributions into the development of their and their peers’ intercultural competence (Deardorff, 2006). Hopefully, more respectful relationships will result in a more inclusive society.

Educators promoting internationalization should take great pride in the service they provide their communities. Yet we must continue to grow and to become better versions of ourselves. Institutions in the U.S. that offer the study of “foreign” languages should critically reevaluate the terminologies used throughout their institutions. Those that choose to continue using the terminology of “foreign languages” will continue to ignore complex linguistic realities and become complicit in the promulgation of inaccurate and damaging perspectives. More inclusive terms could be adopted, like “world language”, a term defined by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL, 2017). Institutions should seize this historic moment and rethink inherited epistemologies that had previously escaped critical evaluation. 


ACTFL. (2017). What is a World Language? Retrieved from

Deardorff, D. K. (2006). Identification and Assessment of Intercultural Competence as a Student Outcome of Internationalization. Journal of Studies in International Education, 10(3), 241-266. 

Grajales-Hall, M. (2011). U.S. will be the country with the most Spanish-speakers in 2050. Latino News Briefs, 

Kaur, H. (2020). FYI:  English isn’t the official language of the United States. Retrieved from

U.S. Census Bureau. (2015). Census Bureau reports at least 350 languages spoken in U.S. homes. ( No. CB15-185). Retrieved from,-November%2003%2C%202015&text=U.S.%20Census%20Bureau%20released%20a,available%20for%20only%2039%20languages.

RADARS for problematic patterns of curriculum internationalization

by Sharon Stein

Internationalization efforts are characterized by common problematic patterns that tend to reproduce systemic inequities, especially between dominant and marginalized communities. This tool offers one way of identifying these patterns in our theories and practices of internationalization – including those of us working with a critical lens. Indeed, critical internationalization studies is not immune from reproducing these patterns, in spite our ‘good intentions.’ This tool is not intended to point fingers or elicit guilt, but rather to support the development of deeper discernment to notice when these patterns are at work in ourselves and others, and to learn how we might interrupt and even avoid these patterns in generative ways that can move us in more accountable directions.

Redemption-seeking – Acting from a place of wanting to look, feel, and be seen as good (having one’s innocence or benevolence affirmed), rather than from a place of responsibility for complicity in epistemicide, and respect for the gifts of marginalized ways of knowing and being.

  • Disposition to develop: Complicity – Accepting that responsibility for individual and structural implication in system violence does not go away once one takes a critical stance.
  • Questions for self-/institutional-inquiry: What is motivating the effort to internationalize my curriculum?How might I be making this about me, rather than about addressing the impacts of historical and ongoing epistemicide, and engaging the gifts (and limits) of all ways of knowing and being? How might my own assumptions about my ‘good intentions’ be part of the problem I am trying to address? What do I do when I make a mistake in relation to my efforts to engage and incorporate non-Western knowledges? How am I accounting for possible resistance, and creating scaffolding for respectful student engagements with these knowledges, rather than simply including them as a means to signal my criticality?

Appropriative – Claiming mastery and expertise over a knowledge system that one has not been socialized into, particularly when that knowledge system and its knowledge keepers have been systemically marginalized and oppressed by one’s own knowledge system.

  • Disposition to develop: Respect – Recognizing the depth, complexity, and internal integrity of all knowledges, and the violence of claiming ownership over others knowledge systems.
  • Questions for self-/institutional-inquiry: Am I engaging other knowledge systems from a place of respect, reciprocity, and humility, and inviting my students to do the same? How might members of marginalized knowledge communities view these engagements?  How might my engagements play a part in the further colonization and commodification of these knowledges? How can I support the continued production and transmission of marginalized knowledges by members of those knowledge communities, especially their elders, both materially and in other ways, both within higher education and beyond?

Depoliticizing/dehistoricizing – Ignoring or minimizing the ways that different knowledge systems hold unequal institutional power in systemic, historical, and ongoing ways

  • Disposition to develop: Contextualization – Attending to and attempting to interrupt the colonial dynamics that shape how knowledges are differentially received and valued
  • Questions for self-/institutional-inquiry: How has my field/discipline participated in/benefited from colonial violence (material and epistemic)? How has my institution participated in/benefited from colonial violence? How are non-western knowledges generally received and valued in my field and institution? How can I interrupt the systemic, historical, and ongoing unequal epistemic power of different communities in my courses, my department, my field, and my institution? How am I responding to the fact that my racialized and Indigenous colleagues receive pushback from white colleagues and white students for teaching from their own knowledge traditions?

Additive – Including a few elements of non-western content in in a tokenistic fashion, often as an afterthought, in order to ‘tick’ the box of internationalization

  • Disposition to develop: Integration – Thoughtfully integrating different knowledges and ways of knowing throughout the entirety of a course, project, or program in intentional ways that significantly impact its overall direction, intention, and outcomes.
  • Questions for self-/institutional-inquiry: How can we attend to the need for deeper transformation across our programs, rather than it being confined to a single course or reading or program? What are the risks involved in these efforts? What kinds of policy and practice changes do we need at the departmental and institutional levels in order for more substantive and equitable integration to be possible? What might have to be decentered/de-emphasized to create space for other knowledges and perspectives? How are we preparing for or pre-empting possible backlash against these efforts, particularly in ways that shield the most vulnerable who are often the targets of this backlash?

Reductive – Reproducing and renaturalizing narratives and representations that homogenize and objectify whole communities, peoples, and knowledge systems (whether in negative, pathologizing ways, or in “positive,” romanticizing/idealizing ways).

  • Disposition to develop: Complexity – Holding space for the internal complexities, nuances, contradictions, heterogeneities, and tensions that are present in all communities, peoples, and knowledge systems, including marginalized ones.
  • Questions for self-/institutional-inquiry: How might my own narratives, and the representations that I chose to include in the course, about non-western communities, people, and knowledge be reproducing uni-dimensional and stereotypical representations? What are the different dangers of pathologizing narratives and romanticizing narratives? How can I acknowledge and engage the complexities, nuances, contradictions, heterogeneities, and tensions that are present within all communities and the individuals within them? How am I attending to the ways that these the complexities, nuances, contradictions, heterogeneities, and tensions of non-western communities can be weaponized to rationalize continued western epistemic hegemony and other violences, and therefore being cautious about when and how they are introduced and addressed?

Selective engagement – Extracting and decontextualizing non-Western knowledges (epistemologies) from their ontologies, in order to fit them into Western frames/narratives

  • Disposition to develop: Humility – Understanding that one cannot become an ‘expert’ in a knowledge system one was socialized outside of, and recognizing the risks of reading other knowledges through one’s own frames in an ethnocentric way. 
  • Questions for self-/institutional-inquiry: How am I encouraging students to hold space for what they might not understand or might be missing when engaging other knowledge systems? How am I encouraging students to attend to how unequal epistemic power, as well as Western epistemic arrogance, can shape how other knowledges are received? How can I encourage students to encounter knowledges from a place of humility about their ability to comprehend them, as well as a willingness to be surprised or confused by them, rather than a will to ‘understand’? How am I encouraging students to consider what is lost, but also what harmful patterns might be reproduced, when we presume that we can understand?

International Students and Hostage Taking

by Gerardo L. Blanco

One of my intellectual projects during the techno-dystopian summer of 2020 involves exploring the concept of hostage taking, conceptualized as a social institution, and its potential applications for understanding higher education in the larger context of contemporary geopolitics. When I began that project, I didn’t know that reality would soon catch up to my theorization: At the end of June, the US government issued restrictions limiting H-1B and J -1 visas. In early July, restrictions were imposed on international students at U.S. institutions that selected online-only as their mode of instruction.

My original question about hostages was motivated by my work with Chinese international students in the U.S., before the COVID-19 outbreak. Rather than the common notion of hostage taking as—exclusively—a violent activity, I was thinking about the medieval social institution of hostage exchange, which served us away to maintain peace between two hostile powers. Accordingly, hostages establish a social relation distinct from, but connected to, fosterage and godparenting. The basic idea is that despite hostile rhetoric and the ongoing trade war, China and the U.S. won’t attack each other if vast numbers of their citizens are in the other country. While this may seem a morbid concept to explore, I remain interested in the ethical obligations of a hostage-taking power toward its hostages, which even for a violent institution as hostage-taking have to be higher than the current rules the U.S. government is living by. The growing antagonism between China and the United States, the large proportion of international students from China on my campus, and the mistreatment they are often subject to, converged as the main ideas for the project.

That was a few months ago, and now, over the course of two weeks, the Trump administration has taken steps to limit H-1B and some J-1 visas, that I have argued elsewhere are fundamental for the operation of U.S. colleges and universities. The recent guidance preventing international students to enroll in safer online courses and remain in the United States has resulted in protest and voices speaking up for international students. Recent perspectives have equated international students to hostages, but in the traditional sense, usually connected to late-20th and early-21st Century and terrorism that is not State-sponsored. In contrast, the United States, as the sole hegemonic power in contemporary geopolitics, has developed sophisticated tools for technologic violence. These include drone warfare and cyber war. So, it stands to reason that the U.S. has also developed sophisticated mechanisms for the recruitment and management of hostages that mask its violence.


A few months ago, before the COVID- 19 pandemic took place, a respected colleague shared with me his concerns that the calls to abolish ICE among prominent politicians and intellectuals would result in the elect reelection of Donald Trump. At that time, these calls reflected the outrage about the family separation program within ICE detention facilities and a sting operation aimed at luring international students misusing their visas at a fake university. I am sympathetic to that argument, however, the recent decisions by the White House and by ICE amount, in my analysis, to a direct assault on higher education and on internationalization. While the members of this Critical Internationalization Studies Network seek to re-imagine internationalization and higher education more broadly, the US government has taken actions that can seriously destabilize the system. Of course, their motivations are very different than ours.

If forced to choose between dismantling the higher education system or ICE, I would certainly choose ICE. The recent actions against international students have made me reflect about the ways in which I have taken for granted institutionalized violence as part of the management of international students and scholars in the US. The healthy amount of disagreement expressed toward the government’s measures made me aware of how normalized compliance with ICE and SEVP has become. And yet, it is important to remember that these institutions began in the context of the “War on Terror” that George W. Bush identified as his legacy during the last months of his declining presidency. What is evident is that the management of international students and scholars does not naturally belong in the Department of Homeland Security, that that the U.S. structure is an outlier—when placed in a comparative context, and that there has never been a time when SEVIS, SEVP, or ICE have not been Instruments of techno- institutionalized terror, legitimized by power asymmetry.

Re-imagining resistance

 I am skeptical that the current calls to abolish ICE will succeed. That is fine, because I am generally skeptical about direct forms of resistance. My two main theoretical orientations, Postcolonial Theory and Poststructuralism, seem to converge here. Postcolonial Theory teaches us about passive, indirect resistance and about the radicality of survival. Poststructuralism warns us against a system that incorporates everything, even resistance, in a process of total annexation. Jean Baudrillard argued that we are witnessing World War IV. The first world wars are the ones we already know; the third world war was the Cold War, and the fourth is the war that the hegemonic system wages against itself. The U.S. government actions of the last 2 weeks, while it claims wanting to have a rapid post-COVID recovery, while also dealing two significant blows to the mechanisms that could make that recovery possible, if not easy, make Baudrillard’s argument evermore compelling.

It is doubtful that a successful social movement will result in abolishing ICE. However, by merely thinking this alternative, the idea (unthinkable before) already succeeded. I don’t believe that, despite the sheer incompetence displayed in recent weeks (read years), the federal government will self-destruct or will succeed at cutting off the lifeline that international students represent for U.S. universities. I don’t hope for either of these outcomes, either. Where I find comfort is in the inspiring mobilization of our petty bureaucracies, arcane jargon, and time-tested ways to circumvent and undermine the agendas of those who hold more power than we do, without ruffling too many feathers. I am inspired by the faculty members willing to put themselves at risk to offer independent study courses so that international students on their campus can register for a face-to-face course in the fall and remain in SEVP compliance. To a lesser extent, I am heartened by my colleagues who have decided to use the protections of tenure and citizenship in, arguably, an open society to speak up for students. Above all, I am inspired by international students (as I was from 2005 to 2013) who despite the current uncertainty go on with their research and other activities. I see you; you inspire me.

 Gerardo L. Blanco is an Associate Professor of Higher Education at the Lynch School of Education and Human Development and Associate Director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.

You can watch his 2019 presentation to the Critical Internationalization Studies Network, “Can We Critically Approach Work That Has Been Framed Uncritically? Doing Internationalization as Collective Account-Giving”, as well as his recent presentation with Amy Scott Metcalfe, “Internationalization as Fatal Strategy.”

Open letter regarding adoption of the SDG framework for sustainability

by Sharon Stein, Vanessa Andreotti, and Cash Ahenakew

Recently, we wrote an open letter in response to our institution’s plan to adopt the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as its primary framework for sustainability. We are sharing the letter here, in case it is useful for others facing similar institutional proposals. You can read the full letter here:

Excerpt here:

While we strongly support the university’s overall direction toward greater allocation of attention and resources to issues of sustainability and societal impact, we also urge caution about the uncritical adoption of the SDGs and advocate for the importance of ongoing critical and reflexive engagements with the complexities, paradoxes, and nuances of the SDGs and indeed all sustainability efforts. It is only in this way that we might ensure more socially and ecologically accountable responses to inequalities and climate change that keep in view both the inherent unsustainability of our current socio-economic system, as well as the systemic, historical, and ongoing colonial violence that underwrites that system.

If we do not preserve space for these engagements then even well-intentioned sustainability efforts will likely reproduce all-too-common colonial practices including unequal, paternalistic and extractive relationships between dominant and marginalized communities, simplistic solutions to complex problems, and ethnocentric imaginaries of justice, responsibility, and change.

We are concerned about the framing of this proposal, which emphasizes UBC’s global leadership in sustainability, and in particular its high placement in the Times Higher Education rankings based on the SDGs. While there is nothing wrong with celebrating UBC’s accomplishments, it becomes worrisome when these accomplishments are framed as the primary rationale for adopting a particular framework – as is indeed the case with the report, which names this as the primary benefit of this proposal. Too narrow of a focus on rankings, leadership, and UBC’s “brand and reputation” may compromise our ability to maintain a university environment in which critically-informed, rigorous scholarly deliberations about social and institutional sustainability efforts can occur. This should also include deliberate engagements with divergent perspectives. How can we ensure that, with the adoption of the SDG framework, alternative visions of sustainability, and of development, will be welcomed and actively encouraged at UBC?

Happier, healthier, wealthier?

By Sharon Stein and Vanessa Andreotti

The image that leads this post, which we describe as a kind of cartography, was inspired by an international education conference that we recently attended. When we first learned that the conference theme was entitled,  “Things we should be talking about in international education,” we were excited about possible openings for the kinds of reflexive, complex, and difficult conversations that we had been advocating for in the context of international education. The conference invitation noted about the international education sector:

“Our sector casts a long shadow and there may be other things we should be talking about: climate change and the culpability of our sector with its large carbon footprint; how globalization and its well-intentioned offspring internationalization have spawned the populism and nativism we are so offended by; fake news and the abhorrent lack of inculcation of critical thinking; how cosmopolitanism, inter-culturalization and indigenization have on the streets already overtaken internationalization as prima facie rationale for what we do; housing, mental health, campus suicides, student support and stewardship; culture, sexual assault and predatory behaviour; nature vs. nurture and male violence, the great majority of which is directed towards other males; regional growth and rural engagement; our addiction to unsustainable growth; reconciliation and residential schools; fentanyl, opioids and binge drinking; our complicity in the brain drain, the scourge of globalization; our culling of the top economic strata from the global South’s burgeoning middle classes (our emerging markets) to fill our classrooms, quotas and coffers; our wilful ignorance of the demography and elitism of study abroad, building programs and pedestals for the 1% to springboard their careers.”

While this text and the tone of the conference’s opening session gestured toward pressing ecological, economic, and political challenges, and the potential for international education to either mitigate or worsen these challenges, by midday the orientation of the conference turned sharply toward emphasizing unprecedented levels of wealth and well being, with the only perceived challenges being the possible interruption of the continued spread of this good news gospel and its accompanying material gifts. This tone continued with the keynote presentation of a prominent Canadian politician.

The tone of the keynote sounded eerily like the “Everything is awesome” song from the Lego movie, also echoing a refrain that has also been recently articulated by those seeking to reframe a seemingly endless stream of bad news and concerned assessments about the many challenges of the present.

Perhaps the most well known of these recent texts is Stephen Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, which Bill Gates has declared as his “new favorite book of all time.” From the book publisher’s description, in this book, “Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise, not just in the West, but worldwide. This progress is not the result of some cosmic force. It is a gift of the Enlightenment: the conviction that reason and science can enhance human flourishing.”

While for some this text is a welcome intervention, it has also been met with a series of critical responses. With this image, we offer a pedagogical cartography of responses to the assertion that “everything is awesome”, through which we seek to invite active engagement with the blindspots of this assertion in ways that might supplement the more point by point accountings of its inaccuracies and oversights. To illustrate the possible uses of this cartography, in addition to the image itself, we offer a series of possible guiding questions for educational engagement around the issues it addresses.

The image shows a speaker on a podium making declarations about the overwhelmingly positive state of the world, while  voices below him raise various concerns that contest his depiction of reality. This is not meant to be a comprehensive representation of all possible responses, but rather a selection of replies that would likely be most legible, if perhaps disagreeable, to the speaker. Indeed, there are many more voices that would likely be unintelligible to the speaker. One way to engage people around this image in a way that extends and complexifies what is already represented, might be to ask:

  • For those who agree with the speaker, what does his perspective offer?
  • Which/whose dissenting voices are likely to be intelligible to the speaker, and why;
  • Which/whose dissenting voices are unintelligible, why, and what might they be saying;
  • What are the effects of this selective hearing?

Similarly, the list of disavowed issues that surround the speaker is hardly comprehensive, so it can be generative to ask which issues are missing, and which are the most important in their own context.

By creating an opportunity to ask where different positions come from, what they presume, where they lead, what they enable, what they foreclose, and which positions remain absent or invisibilized, social cartographies can challenge presumptive authorities without either seeking to replace them with a different authority or advocating an absolute relativity of positions. Further, by challenging learned desires for consensus, coherence, and quick resolution, cartographies can help build the stamina that is necessary to sit with the contradictions, complexity, uncertainty, and ambivalence that are involved in learning and unlearning ways of knowing, being, and relating with and in the world. Ultimately, rather than prescribe solutions, this supports people to make their own (better informed) decisions about how to respond to complex global challenges within their own situated contexts.

Download image here.