Saturday 17 September 2016

Language learners and linguistic resourcefulness

Learning new languages can be a source of unexpected pleasure. I don’t just mean the perhaps more familiar prospects that making sense of the languages will make sense of people and cultures that up to then had struck us as ‘odd’, or allow us to acquire, first-hand, knowledge and wisdom that we had no idea existed because we had no idea how to access the code that gives them voice. I also mean making sense of the languages as objects of discovery themselves, which goes well beyond the utilitarian purposes we’re commonly told we should learn languages for.

I mean the fun of cracking, bit by bit, on our own, the puzzles that languages are, as when we start asking ourselves questions like Can we say things this way? or How come there are words for this? Eventually, such ‘this’ questions lead to their ‘that’ counterparts – How about that way? Can there be words for that, too? Asking ‘that’ questions means that we’re ready to take ownership of our new languages, prompting us to attempt to answer these questions ourselves.

Exploring possibilities in this way is what learning is all about. Children do it – which may well explain why they are said to be expert language learners. Encouraging similar exploration among older learners, including of the mistakes that inevitably follow and that provide evidence of learning, would thus appear to assist language learning. H. G. Widdowson thought so, when he argued that “proficiency only comes with nonconformity” in The ownership of English, and so did Guy Cook in Language Play, Language Learning.

Yet learners’ attempts at putting their linguistic resourcefulness to good use in their learning are deemed inappropriate, as Nelson Flores and Jonathan Rosa discuss in Undoing appropriateness: Raciolinguistic ideologies and language diversity in education. Curtailing learner inventiveness in judgemental terms draws on two paradoxes. First, the framing of learners’ “linguistic practices as deficient regardless of how closely they follow supposed rules of appropriateness”, in Flores and Rosa’s words, that is, of how closely they follow ‘native speaker’ standards. And second, the predication of creativity on multilingualism while condemning multilingual creativity for not being monolingual.

We seem to want to find fault with features of language because finding fault with features of language users is not politically correct, as a previous post makes clear. Or not traditionally correct: a recent discussion at ResearchGate, on How advanced must L2 speakers be before native speakers accept their neologisms as acceptable rather than inaccurate?, highlights the focus of traditional language teaching on the languages and their mythical homogeneity, rather than on the learners. We keep confusing languages with textbook samples of them, on the conviction that what matters for language teaching and learning isn’t what matters to the learners, here and now, but what mattered to textbook creators, there and then.

Wanting to be taught language that matters to us, wondering about ‘this’ and ‘that’ questions in our new languages, and wanting to be allowed to find answers to them are signs of linguistic competence. Nancy Bell and Anne Pomerantz have researched these issues for the past two decades, pointing out the fictional nature of traditional language learning materials and encouraging the expansion of learner repertoires through active engagement with the languages. In their new book, Humor in the Classroom. A Guide for Language Teachers and Educational Researchers, they argue that understanding and producing language play is a good indicator of proficiency, too. They reject the contention that “humor and play have no place in the serious business of scholarship, let alone language education”, by revisiting misconceptions about “unconventional talk, particularly as they relate to how we understand language use, language learning, and language teaching in educational spaces.”

Addressing language learners’ linguistic resourcefulness in teaching materials, teaching methods and classroom practices might mean unlearning the modes and contents of what we’ve come to expect of traditional language teaching, for both instructors and learners. But I suspect there may well be unexpected sources of teaching and learning pleasure in starting to ask ‘that’ questions about our current language teaching philosophies, and looking for answers to them.

Flores, N., & Rosa, J. (2015). Undoing Appropriateness: Raciolinguistic Ideologies and Language Diversity in Education. Harvard Educational Review, 85 (2), 149-171. DOI: 10.17763/0017-8055.85.2.149

Widdowson, H. (1994). The Ownership of English. TESOL Quarterly, 28 (2). DOI: 10.2307/3587438

© MCF 2016

This will be my last regular post on this blog.
There are 160 posts for you to enjoy, on the blog’s core topics of
myths and misconceptions about being multilingual
in the home, in school and in clinic.
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