Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Politics of Language Learning

To be sure, in our lower-level language courses there is lots of communication and interaction going on, but how good are we, at these levels, at providing students with rich and multimodal contexts of language use? How good are we at creating communities of practice, the kinds of "temporarily shared social worlds" that create mutuality as well as provide affordances for learning? How good are we at engaging students' ongoing negotiations of their social identities? (Walther, Ingebord. "Ecological Perspectives on Language Learning." ADFL Bulletin, Vol 38.3 and Vol. 39.1, Spring-Fall 2007.)
I've been struggling with this a lot and wondering, as does Walther, about our textbooks, our language curricula, and, more generally, the notion of global education in the liberal arts. I highly recommend the article for its consideration of communities of practice in language classrooms and within the larger social context, including the politics (academic and national) that shape perceptions of languages.

I believe wholeheartedly that the skills one acquires while learning a language must go beyond communication, a fairly a-political notion of human interaction, and quickly introduce students to higher-level processes for organizing their experiences and the world. Certainly the communicative model allows for the introduction of individual experiences and multiple perspectives, but his alone is not enough. Textbooks and our general methods of teaching should allow space for addressing the larger questions raised by linguistic and social diversity. Class, race, gender and power rarely make it into our 100-level or 200-level courses, and this is a shame, for it contributes to the notion that language is a secondary tool and that language courses are merely grammar and multi-cultural tourism. (Of course, we are imperfect, and some of what we do fits this superficial stereotype.)

In a primarily mono-lingual culture such as we have in the U.S., students already realize, however faintly, that the very act of learning another (an Other's) language is political. Such an act, especially when it comes from personal agency rather than as a curricular requirement to be fulfilled, questions monolithic constructions of identity, family and nation. By acknowledging the inherent politics of our profession we can begin to construct a more solid framework of theories to share with out students, and by doing this we can capture the energy of inquiry and participation embedded in socially constructed knowledge. It dawns on me, though, that many of my colleagues would resist such a politics of language learning even as they would acknowledge its presence. The reason for this, I think, is such paradigm changes bring risk to departments institutionally as language departments begin to function more like a social science or as an engaged member of the humanities. Also, such paradigms will no doubt bring teachers to question their own assumptions about themselves, about their social class and the meaning of what they do.

We should do better, and we should start by asking more of our textbooks and ourselves.

[more to come]