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What applied linguists can learn from Texas

Patrick H. Smith

As a Texas transplant (via New England in the U.S. and Puebla, Mexico), I’m often asked what it’s like to live and work in Texas. At the 2011 World Congress of Applied Linguistics (AILA) in Beijing, where Mapping Applied Linguistics co-authors Chris Hall, Rachel Wicaksono, and I presented papers on mapping applied linguistics from the bottom up, I was surprised by audience interest in Texas and the U.S.-Mexico border. Hence, the topic of this blog: What can applied linguists learn from Texas?

For starters, Texas has a long history of language diversity, befitting the second largest state in the United States in terms of territory (after Alaska) and population (after California). The name "Texas" reportedly comes from the Caddoan Indian word, Taysha, which means "friend." Following the Spanish invasion, Texas was part of New Spain and then Mexico (1810) before becoming an independent Republic (1836). 

By the time Texas became a U.S. state (1845), the indigenous residents and their languages and their languages were pretty much wiped out. By this time, English-speaking settlers were bringing large numbers of slaves of African origin into Texas to grow cotton. You can hear examples of different Texas dialects of English from the documentary film Do You Speak American?, along with a linguistic history of the state developed at the University of Texas at San Antonio.


Texas remains a fascinating place by anybody’s standards. The state has gotten a lot of bad linguistic publicity as the home of former U.S. President George W. Bush, whose public speaking misadventures are legendary. In Mapping Applied Linguistics: A Guide for Students and Practitioners, we poked fun at Bush’s claims about language and education:

You teach a child to read and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test.

Former Texas Governor and U.S. President George Bush measuring literacy

Of course, we weren’t the only ones to notice Bush’s gaffes. Ann Richards, his predecessor as Governor of Texas, claimed that Bush was "born with a silver foot in his mouth." Although Texas politicians are often accused of misspeaking, especially by those from other dialect regions, as applied linguists know, dumb ideas can be expressed in any dialect.

With current Texas Governor Rick Perry seeking to be the next U.S. President, here are a few things applied linguists from around the world can appreciate about Texas:

  • It shares a 1200-mile border with one of the 3 nations in the world where writing was invented             (Mexico/Mesoamerica). It also borders the U.S. state with the greatest number of French speakers          (Louisiana).
  • Spanish was spoken here for at least a hundred years before English, and the Rio Grande Valley, from El Paso to Brownsville, remains one of the most bilingual regions of the U.S.
  • Un chingo (a lot) of different ways of speaking English, Spanish, and other languages, thanks to growing numbers of residents who are Mexicans and Mexican Americans, African Americans, Vietnamese Americans, Chinese Americans, as well as speakers of Hindi, Korean, and groups that have been in Texas longer including German, Czech, and Polish.
  • Texas has no official state language, unlike the 29 U.S. states that have officially mandated English as their official state language. 
  • Bilingual education has essentially been outlawed in California, Arizona, and Massachusetts, but it’s still   legal in Texas (though not always practiced). Spanish-speaking teachers are in big demand in Dallas, Austin, Houston, and other Texas cities.     
  • State education policy allows immigrant children who lack legal documents to pay the same tuition at public colleges and universities as Texas residents born in the U.S. Some U.S. states don’t allow undocumented students to attend public colleges at all, and others charge much higher “international” tuition for undocumented students.


After reading this, if you still feel like messing linguistically with Texas, the writings of two knowledgeable native Texans are highly recommended:

Gloria Anzaldúa, author of Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. If you read only one book about language and Texas, this should be the one. A prose/poetry exploration of gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity, and language, written in English, Spanish, Tex-Mex, and Nahuatl. Here's a fragment from Chapter 5, How to Tame a Wild Tongue, a code-switcher’s manifesto: 

But Chicano Spanish is a border tongue which developed naturally. Change, evolución, enriquicimiento de palabras nuevas por invención o adopción have created variants of Chicano Spanish, un nuevo, lenguaje. Un lenguaje que corresponde a un modo de vivir. Chicano Spanish is not incorrect, it is a living language.




Molly Ivins, columnist for the Texas Observer and New York Times, author of Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush, and defender of linguistic human rights, Texas Style:Republicans in the Senate have constructively declared English the national language. That'll fix everything. Every foreigner at our borders will stop and say: ‘Gosh, ma foi! English is the national language here. Good thing to know. I'll begin speaking it immediately.’"

If you feel inspired to look at applied linguistics from the perspective of the city, province, or country where you are practicing or studying applied linguistics, we’d love to see what you come up with. We look forward to reading your place-based contributions at And don't forget to add yourself to our interactive map.

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