Saturday 11 August 2012

Teaching to the standard

Language courses are routinely identified by the name of the languages that they claim to teach you. Things like Advanced Course in Turkish or Learn Swahili in Three Weeks are common sights on textbook covers and internet sites.

We learners might then be excused for thinking that we are learning a language, when what we are in fact presented with is one particular variety of that language. What we call “languages” are about as invariant as what we call “human beings”, so course creators and sellers might in turn be excused for omitting mention of which variety their creations and products reflect. But we language learners might think it courteous, to say the least, to be informed about what exactly is contained in what we’re consuming, just like we also prefer to know what exactly is contained in that appealing chocolate bar at the convenience shop.

Chocolate bar standards, however, arise from bottom-up preferences dictated by consumer markets, whereas language standards differ in two respects: they are dictated top-down and they serve offer rather than demand. Language course contents do not stem from a belief that everyone will be equally well-served by the standard language varieties on standard offer either: rather, it simply is unprofitable, for writers and publishers, to provide language materials which are tailor-made to learners’ needs or, for schools, to change textbook adoption policies, which routinely involve the use of (read ‘being stuck with’) the same materials for several years, precisely because shorter-term adoption contracts are too expensive.

The limited offer geared to user needs in language teaching matches the limited offer in speech-language diagnostic and assessment tools, for monolinguals and multilinguals alike. Like speech-language therapists, language teachers may find themselves required (read ‘forced’) to work with language varieties which they themselves do not use outside of professional duties, and to assess them against standards which in addition may not serve their clients either.

I can give one example. Many years ago, I attended a French summer course in Pau, in the French Pyrénées-Atlantiques. There I met a few other Portuguese students, who spoke a different Portuguese dialect from mine. In particular, we pronounced our so-called “rolled-r” differently, as in the ‘rr’ spelling of my surname. Mine is a uvular articulation, at the back of the soft palate, theirs was an alveolar one, at the upper gum ridge, and we used our respective r’s in our French too, as we had done ever since we first learned to speak French. We soon found out, however, that by doing so I was being a good student, whereas they weren’t “putting in the required effort”. I wondered what kind of “effort” I was giving evidence of, since all of us were doing exactly the same thing, speaking French as we always had. The issue was that my French ‘r’ happened to match the standard Parisian one which was required as proof of “good” command of the language. The irony of it all was that their ‘r’ matched the mainstream Béarnais French accent, which was the one we heard around us.

Being required to learn a standard variety of a language is not an issue in itself: whatever the variety or varieties of our language(s) that we use outside of official circles, we all need to learn to navigate (some) standard of those languages. But it wouldn’t hurt to also learn that languages come in many standards, and that what people sometimes call “the” standard is just one of them.

I can’t remember whether our teachers at the French course spoke in their own accents or in the “good” one with one another and with us students, outside of the classroom – probably because everyone understood everyone else, when we were using the language to talk rather than to demonstrate classroom-bound linguistic skills, an issue I’ll come back to some other day. But I was constantly reminded of this episode in my later language teaching career, when, as a beginner teacher, I took it as my duty to comply with unwieldy textbooks and assessment materials on offer, and equally unwieldy students who, because they’d been brainwashed about “good” uses of language being “the” language, were persuaded that, say, Standard Lisbonese (or whatever you choose to call it) and Parisian French were in use, or should be, in places like Luanda and Liège, respectively, to where they were relocating after completing their language courses with me. 

The issue has nothing to do with murky concepts like “nativeness”. Béarnais accents are as native as Parisian ones, which makes one wonder what (certain) people might have in mind when they say that “competent” language learning means emulation of “native” proficiency. The issue has nothing to do with linguistic competence or intelligibility either – unless we wish to argue that native Béarnais French speakers should also put in some “effort” in order to sound “good”. The issue is, to me, a non-issue, because it stems, yet again, from an ingrained confusion about what terms like good, standard, competent, native, intelligible, and so on, might mean. The next couple of posts deal with these matters.

© MCF 2012

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