Decolonizing language learning, decolonizing research (by Colette Despagne)

Born in France and partly raised in Germany and France, today’s guest blogger, Colette Despagne, earned her MA in French as a Foreign Language from the Université du Mans in France and her PhD at Western University in Canada. Since 2015, she has been an Assistant Professor at the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla in Mexico. Colette is very interested in the connection between language, power and identity in postcolonial contexts like Mexico where she has lived for 27 years. Her current research interests focus on plurilingual education for return migrants from the United States to Mexico and on intercultural education in Latin America. She has published in several international journals and recently published a book with Routledge entitled Decolonizing language, decolonizing research.        

My book is the result of a long journey between Mexico and Canada which began in 2003 when I first entered to work at a private university in Puebla, Mexico as the head of the language department. Together with a new team of language teachers of several so called “international” languages, we rebuilt the whole department by following the Common European Reference Framework (CEFR) guidelines for language teaching and learning. It was an inspiring and challenging work for all of us during several years and seemed to give good results for most of the students at that time.

However, one group of students came to see me several times and told me that the English as a Foreign Language (EFL) class was the most difficult subject for them. They were afraid to not obtain the 500 TOEFL points they were required to so they could graduate. These students were all offered scholarship at the university because they all came from very impoverished rural communities in the Sierra Norte de Puebla, a central state in Mexico.

Some of them identified as Indigenous people, some spoke only Spanish and others spoke Spanish and Náhuatl and/or Totonaco, and others self-identified as just mestizos – Mexico’s mixed-blood population. Hence, they were not a homogeneous group, just as none of the Indigenous people worldwide are, even though we, from the West, always tend “to collectivize many distinct populations whose experiences have been very different” (Tuhiwai Smith, 1999, p.6).

I immediately identified with them because their cultural values were different to the dominant ones in the urban monolingual context of Puebla, and many of them had different native languages which they mostly spoke at home. We were all multicultural and plurilingual. However, it was also clear to me that this research would be highly political because of the postcolonial sociolinguistic context in which we lived, and because I was, and still am, a Westerner. I am half French, half German, grew up in Germany, but mostly in France, and spoke German at home. The French educational system marked me for life and I learned English and Italian at school without too many problems. I migrated to Mexico when I was 25. 27 years later, I still live there. In Mexico, I first spoke Italian to everybody which then slowly shifted to Spanish, again without too much effort. Learning languages always seemed somehow easy to me, which was the reason why I could not understand why the students in this book were so afraid to learn English.

Once I began to learn Náhuatl, I understood their difficulties a little bit better. It was hard for me to remember the words; my cultural reference system was totally different to the logic used in Náhuatl and by the teacher, even though I could understand the grammar by somehow contrasting it with the German one. When I told this experience to one of the students, she answered: “ya ve, eso es lo que vivimos también cuando aprendemos inglés, no entendemos sus referencias” (you see, this is what we are also experiencing when we learn English, we do not understand the references you make). This became my PhD research topic which I further developed when I came to Canada in 2009, and now, with updated information, it has given birth to this book. I am therefore half insider, half outsider at the same time, but was clearly aware that I had to decolonize my own Western research gaze by letting students speak and analyze their own language learning process.

Hence, in this monograph, I explore the sociopolitical dynamics, historical forces and unequal power relationships which mediate language ideologies in Mexican higher education settings, shedding light on the processes by which the participants in this critical ethnography learn English in post-colonial contexts like Mexico. The data I used is drawn from the ethnographic field work I did with the above-mentioned students over several years ,which allowed me to turn a critical lens on language learning autonomy and the use of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) in postcolonial higher education settings. I advocate for an approach to the language learning and teaching process which takes into account minority language learners’ cultural heritage and localized knowledges, which in turn will allow them to become agents of their own language learning.

I aimed to let students’ voices to be heard by integrating new participatory methods such as Interpretative Focus Groups, in an attempt to decolonize research by engaging and involving them in the analysis of their own data. Finally, critical approaches are highlighted in encouraging the equitable treatment of diverse cultures and languages and the development of agency in minority language learners.

I hope those interested in the book will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it, during that long journey!


Despagne, C. (2021). Decolonizing language learning, decolonizing research: A Critical Ethnography Study in a Mexican University. Routledge Critical Studies in Multilingualism (Ed. by Marilyn Martin-Jones and Joan Pujolar). London & New York: Routledge.

Tuhiwai Smith, L. (1999). Decolonizing methodologies. Research and Indigenous peoples. London & New York, NY: Zed Books.

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