Teaching Linguistic Anthropology using Inclusive Pedagogy and Disney’s Coco


BY: JESSICA CHANDRAS, visiting Assistant Professor, Kenyon College

I have found that inclusive pedagogical practices have been exceptionally effective teaching linguistic anthropological themes and concepts. I want to share reflections on teaching linguistic anthropology to undergraduate students at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio through inclusive pedagogy using contemporary media as a resource, specifically Disney’s 2017 movie, Coco. 

By teaching through student perspectives, inclusive pedagogical practices foster inclusivity by drawing upon students’ diverse perspectives and backgrounds as teaching and learning resources (Lawrie et al 2017, Lintott and Skitolsky 2016, Spratt and Florian 2015). In short, inclusive pedagogical practices create an atmosphere that fosters learning through diversity where the differences among students are a pedagogical strength for the class or lesson as a whole (Florian and Black-Hawkins 2011). To begin the lesson, I summarizied that the movie follows a young protagonist, Miguel, into The Land of the Dead via the distinctly Latin American holiday, Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. The holiday celebrates the memories of deceased loved ones and Miguel, as a central figure, heals a familial dispute over one’s responsibilities to family over career ambition as he treads through the lands of the living and the dead to follow his passion to become a musician. The film draws upon distinctly Latin American, specifically Mexican, iconography and language, yet is intended for an international audience. Most interesting and relevant to the discussion of the movie in connection to concepts from my class was the mix of English and Mexican Spanish in Coco. 

Student responses to the movie illuminated multilingual language use and media representations of cultural practices in ways that drove a productive discussion. Students noted that code switches were often accents, familial names, and tag endings, where a switch is “tagged” onto the end of a sentence. For tag endings, characters would speak a sentence in English and then at the end, use a phrase or word in Spanish, which could emphasize the message or intended audience of the statement but would not affect how viewers understand the meaning of the sentence or phrase, such as the tag “chamaco,” or boy, when speaking to Miguel. Similarly, family names included markers of their relationships such as uncles with “tío” before their names, or the word for uncle in Spanish. Multiple characters also spoke English with Mexican Spanish accents, implying that they are Spanish-speaking characters but again, accessible for an English-speaking audience. Students recalled some specific jokes in the movie that used a Spanish word which may have been specific for Spanish-speaking audiences, but were not consequential to the plot to alienate non-Spanish speakers. Similarly, more complicated Mexican Spanish words, like Alebrijes, the brightly painted wooden animal icons famous to southern Mexico, were granted explicit translations as part of the plot. Looking closely at the way language and culture were intertwined in the film, each student reflected on their own backgrounds and understanding of language use through code switching and its connection to identity as a means to make conclusions about language use in the movie.

            A student from China noted that the familial values in the film resonated with her and Chinese traditions of honoring deceased family members. She shared that in China, there were two versions of the movie: one where all the dialogue and songs were dubbed into Mandarin, and another where the songs remained in English with Chinese subtitles. She did not recall or notice the code switches she noted in the English version when watching the movie in China. The connection of Day of the Dead to Qingming, the Chinese holiday to respect and honor the dead, resonated with her and explain how the movie became so popular in China. 

            Similarly, a student who grew up speaking a mix of Spanish and English at the southern American border in Texas, reflected that the use of language in the film reminded her of how she spoke with her family. She, among other students, described the use of English and Spanish, even if specifically contrived to allow for non-Spanish speaking intelligibility, as providing an authentic and relatable representation of Mexican cultural practices. In the end, the inclusive pedagogical practice of drawing upon how students use and think about language in relation to their distinct backgrounds with language and identity, successfully explored common sociolinguistic themes through the movie Coco in a college level introduction to linguistic anthropology course. 

Jessica Chandras is an anthropologist trained in ethnographic methods with a focus on linguistic and sociocultural anthropology. Her current research focuses on language, education, and identity in India.

Sources cited:

Florian, Lani, and Kristine Black-Hawkins. 2011. “Exploring Inclusive Pedagogy.” British Educational Research Journal 37 (5): 813–28.

Lawrie, Gwen, Elizabeth Marquis, Eddie Fuller, Tara Newman, Mei Qiu, Milton Nomikoudis, Frits Roelofs, and Lianne van Dam. 2017. “Moving Towards Inclusive Learning and Teaching: A Synthesis of Recent Literature.” Teaching & Learning Inquiry: The ISSOTL Journal 5 (1). https://doi.org/10.20343/teachlearninqu.5.1.3.

Lintott, Sheila, and Lissa Skitolsky. 2016. “Inclusive Pedagogy: Beyond Simple Content.” Hypatia 31 (2): 447–59. https://doi.org/10.1111/hypa.12247.

Spratt, Jennifer, and Lani Florian. 2015. “Inclusive Pedagogy: From Learning to Action. Supporting Each Individual in the Context of ‘Everybody.’” Teaching and Teacher Education 49 (July): 89–96. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2015.03.006.

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