Saturday, 11 July 2015

Textbook languages


Wanting to learn a language doesn’t always result in learning the language that we want. This is so even when the language that we want to learn and the one that we end up learning go by the same name – let’s call it X. One reason for this is that most language teaching proceeds through what we’ve come to identify as the language’s holy writ, namely, the X textbook.

A textbook is a book. Like all books, it uses printed modes of language, with two consequences: first, that textbooks can’t serve those of us who wish to learn to speak X, because spellings do *not* represent actual speech. The printed nature of textbook languages is what explains, among other things, the proverbial failure of X learners to acquire X-like accents – for which the learners are conveniently blamed, by the way. Is it any wonder that accents learned through print remain print-like?? The second consequence is that only those of us who are literate can access textbooks. This includes e-books and other e-novelties in written form, in that technological innovations seem to have had no noticeable effect on pedagogical innovation.

Lärobok i tyska språket (1858)
Image source: Wikimedia Commons


A textbook is also a grammar of X. Rather than real-life X, it offers boring, trite, irrelevant, at worst embarrassing, at best infantile examples of dialogues (sentences, situations, narratives, descriptions) for learners to memorise and/or enact, which are tailor-made for the sole purpose of introducing points of X grammar. The etymological relationship of the word grammar to printed modes of language is the likely reason behind this strange pedagogy. The facts are that we’ve been teaching languages in this way since the Ancient Greeks.

A textbook is, further, a preview of things to come, namely, its twin sidekicks tests and exams, also holy writ. Textbooks contain the correct answers that we learners will need to provide to printed assessment questions, in order to have our learning of X certified, also in print. The teaching-to-the-test nature of language textbooks is what explains that certified X learners can’t use X. On my first visit to an English-speaking country, Britain, I brought along nine solid years of enviable marks in my school English. As soon as I landed, I realised that I could both describe the past perfect continuous and declaim perfectly grammatical sentences like ‘My sister’s bookcase is taller than mine’ to anyone who would listen (no one would), but that I couldn’t order a snack or communicate with bus drivers, receptionists, or anyone else in sight. I had no idea what language they were speaking over there, I’d never heard it before. Or seen it, for that matter: brochures, placards, newspaper articles, were as unintelligible to me. And I won’t bore you with what happened in my later encounters with this ‘same’ X in places like India, Hong Kong, Australia or Singapore, for example.

A textbook is, finally, a publication. Like all publications, textbooks have editions, copyrights, publishers, distributors, marketers, advertisers, sellers, prices, and they are dated, in both senses of this word. They also have authors who, in the case of language textbooks, are often monolingual. What language textbooks seem to lack is a specific readership. Since the ideal publication must appeal to ‘any’ consumers, they’re invariably geared to “anyone seeking to improve their X”, or “X learners from any language background”. The problem is that one-size-fits-all language products fail to serve any consumers, for the simple reason that real life is anything but one-size-fits-all: language users, in real-life times and real-life places, are what makes up any X.

Through their equally time- and space-bound makers, textbooks serve the languages that they feature in their titles, rather than the language learners, who are instead brainwashed into believing that they must accept what ‘the market’ has on offer. This is why textbook languages disregard local cultures, as Ross Forman reports in How local teachers respond to the culture and language of a global English as a Foreign Language textbook, or John Gray discusses in The Construction of English. Culture, Consumerism and Promotion in the ELT Global Coursebook. This article from The Economist, The mute leading the mute, shares equally interesting insights on this matter.

This is also why textbook languages allow no room for learners’ engagement with them, to make them theirs by building the common ground that using a language means, not least where accents are concerned. You need to follow the book: questioning (textbook contents, methods or goals) and thinking (about alternative language uses and how they might work), which define healthy learning, are discouraged as a waste of precious time needed to prepare for almighty assessment pieces. 

I see no reason why we should remain in awe of the magic of printed symbols and go on teaching languages the way we were taught. No reason, in fact, to let any one-size-fits-all standard symbology constrain our engagement with people and their languages. This seems to be common practice in clinical settings, for example, and I’ll come back to this specific issue very soon. Meanwhile, the next post, authored by a guest whom I’m delighted to welcome to this blog for the second time, offers broader reasons for ways in which we currently engage with fellow human beings.


ResearchBlogging.org






Forman, R. (2014). How local teachers respond to the culture and language of a global English as a Foreign Language textbook. Language, Culture and Curriculum, 27 (1), 72-88. DOI: 10.1080/07908318.2013.868473


© MCF 2015



Next post: =Guest post= Language, multilingualism and racism, by Jean-Jacques Weber. Saturday 8th August 2015.

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