Monday, April 7, 2008

English-language Imperialism: Thoughts from the Trenches

This is my response to Tove Skutnabb-Kangas' presentation as part of the session called "Imagining Multilingual TESOL", presented on Friday, April 4 at the 42nd Annual TESOL Convention and Exhibit in New York City.

To summarize Tove's presentation, he basically criticized the concept of English as a lingua franca, pointing out that it has other roles, such as propagating English-speaking pop culture, representing the economic power of English-speaking countries, and replacing other languages (namely Spanish and German) as the language of scholarship. He pointed out that all articles in TESOL Quarterly are printed in English, etc. etc.

This is a good issue for us TESOL professionals to remember. There is no doubt that English is becoming very popular and gaining and maintaining power in the world, leading to so-called imperialism of the English language. In that sense, those who teach English are part of the machine that promotes the power of this language. And, after all, if you consider that no language is better than any other (which is one of the principal tenets of linguistics) then there is no reason that English should be privileged in this way and that other languages should decline, their richness with them.

As a teacher of pronunciation I often lamented that I got to teach the pronunciation class where I helped ESL students to learn to be more comprehensible, but I never got to teach the listening class where I taught native speakers how to understand non-native speakers better. It often felt one-sided to me that non-native speakers should be expected to do all the work. Of all languages, it's pretty clear that native speakers of English do not have the language in their back pocket; that is, it would be hard to argue that non-native speakers have less of a right to use the language than they do. So why should the non-native speakers be the ones who have to do all the work, instead of their interlocutors meeting them halfway?

And yet there is the other side of the argument: why should we refuse to help people have access to the language of power? Since English is a language of the economic, political and cultural movers and shakers in this world, wouldn't it be doing a disadvantage to our students if we refused to teach it to them? Wouldn't that just be a way to keep people who didn't happen to be native speakers down? That would certainly seem unjust as well. (And quite futile, actually, since enterprising people everywhere have a way to do what they want...)

I suppose it doesn't bother me too much that English is used as the lingua franca of the TESOL community -- after all, we are a group of people who define ourselves by our alignment to the teaching of that particular language. It would only make sense that it would be the best language in which to conduct TESOL's business because it is the one language that we know everyone in the profession can use. To Tove I would also point out that his own presentation (and many others at TESOL) was being simultaneously interpreted in ASL. To me this undermines the argument that English is so privileged in our profession.

On the campus where I work, it is pretty clear that professors and administrators expect the ESL program to help students prepare to do academic work in English and be able to communicate in a way that won't hinder them while doing that work. And why shouldn't they? After all, universities are institutions that are set up to judge people on their ability to do work of a certain level. It's just that it doesn't occur to them to define ahead of time, I guess, what level of English constitutes acceptable work to them. It seems to me that a big part of studying at the university level is learning how to use language in an academically acceptable way. Why otherwise would we require students to take writing classes and do so many assignments and essays in their classes? It seems to me that a strong part of university education is continuing language acquisition, and that the successful student will acquire the language skills and patterns that help to identify him/her as a member of a certain discipline (i.e. psychology students will write and speak like psychologists, engineering students will write and speak like engineers, etc.) In a very real sense, learning to use language in a way that a certain group does makes you part of the group.

So I guess, in my perfect world, education would come from both sides. While continuing to teach students English and help them have access to the language of scholarship and power, I would also hope that we could spread the message to those who happen to already be native speakers of the language. People outside the discipline of linguistics are generally unaware of basic principles of sociolinguistics and language acquisition as they apply to non-native speakers who are attempting to learn and use academic English. It seems to me that as we continue to educate academia on these points, the expectations of the academic world will become more reasonable. And we will finally meet in the middle.

1 comment:

i i eee said...

I'm so glad I stumbled upon your blog. Very enlightening.