What do we tell the teachers?

It’s a pretty exciting time to be in the field of educational linguistics. Scholarship around language, multilingualism, and language learning is evolving in some interesting and sometimes challenging ways, depending on people’s starting points. A lot of fundamental concepts are being reimagined – from what language is to how additional languages are learned to what it means to be bilingual – and the application of these new ideas holds promise for students in light of decades of rather fruitlessly adhering to previous understandings. But there are a few caveats.

First of all, a lot of the new thinking around language and language learning implicates popular societal opinions about race, class, and nationhood in the marginalization of particular language varieties and their users, meaning that even more than before there is reason to look beyond the classroom and a requirement to wrestle with uncomfortable topics such as legacies of slavery, imperialism, and white supremacy in order to effect change. Second, while a lot of these new schools of thought emerged specifically from research in schools and have students in mind, uptake has been pretty slow on the educational policy and programming side. In part, this falls on us academics for not doing enough to reach beyond the ivory tower, and to be sure part of the challenge is also getting through to institutions and individuals heavily invested in the status quo (such as the Testing Industrial Complex), but even among receptive audiences such as teachers and administrators who have seen traditional ways fail their students year after year, it can be really hard to put into practice theories that challenge a lot of what was taken for granted before. So the question at hand for all of us in critical applied linguistics or bilingual education who muck around in this new liminal space, is what do we tell the teachers?

Before getting to the heart of things, a quick acknowledgement is in order. When I say “new” theories, I should qualify that by saying that these are just starting to gain traction outside the academy in the last decade or so. In fact, people like Vivian Cook, Fran├žois Grosjean, Yamuna Kachru, Alan Firth, and Johannes Wagner have been advancing these ideas for well over 20 years, arguing to move bi/multilingual perspectives into a more normative forefront and to recognize social experiences as mediators of language learning. Like I said, though, it’s been a pretty recent development that these perspectives have made their way into conversations about curriculum design and language proficiency frameworks, which is why we still find ourselves struggling to explain this all and make it actionable.

So what does it mean, especially for teachers under the surveilling gaze of the American accountability regime, to design curriculum around students’ languaging, rather than their language? To recognize the idea of individual languages as a social construction and vestige of the formation of modern nation-states? To situate language learning in social processes and interactions rather than in students’ individual minds? To see the intersections of race, class, nationhood, gender, and all their accompanying privileges or stigmas in a person or group’s languaging? In my upcoming posts I’ll hazard some ideas based on my own research and that of people much smarter than me in terms of what these new (“new”) ideas of language and SLA actually mean and how they could improve education, but in the meantime, welcome to Language & Equity, and thank you for taking the time to read this.