What do we tell the teachers? Part 2: About language(ing)

I remember the optimism and straightforwardness with which I envisioned my doctoral trajectory when I first started my PhD. I planned to study bilingual education across national contexts, comparing the policies, populations, languages, and program models, hoping to delve deeper into why some societies thrive in their multilingualism while others wrestle with monolingual paradigms and why some bilingual communities excel while others are marginalized.

To be sure, these are worthwhile inquiries, and a great deal of thought has already been devoted to these matters of multilingualism, power, and language planning (that’s the field that considers how policies attempt to shape and influence language use within a nation). Nevertheless, it wasn’t my time to travel that path, because in a six month stretch between 2009 and 2010, I read three books that completely changed the way I thought about language and its role in schooling: Disinventing and Reconstituting Languages, Bilingual Education in the 21st Century, and Bilingualism: A Social Approach. Maybe some other day I’ll post reviews of these works, but for now it suffices to say that these books made me stop thinking of language as a fixed object of study – a variable in an analysis – and see it instead as a social process, with tremendous implications for how language and language learning can be conceptualized in curriculum, policy, and pedagogy.

So what does it mean for language to be a social process? What are the implications of thinking about languaging instead of language? Aída Walqui of WestEd and Stanford University’s Understanding Language initiative offers us some useful insights with regard to conceptualizing language as an action to support teachers and students working with the Common Core State Standards.

Plenty of other scholars have thought about the issue, too, in the contexts of second language acquisition, language and identity research, multilingualism, and transnationalism. Along with the books I mentioned above, these and other scholars in this vein argue that our thinking about language as a rule-based assemblage of features and functions emerges from the impulses of elites and rulers in the nascent days of nation-states, who sought to impose their language practices as the standard in order to consolidate power and make governing broad, disparate constituencies more tenable (definitely see the work of Benedict Anderson, Pierre Bourdieu, and James Scott if this interests you). What follows from this, of course, is that there is one proper form of any given language and that those failing to master it are excluded from full political, economic, or social participation (think about the stigma attached to African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in the US, for example).

Thinking of language as a social process, meanwhile, means we have to recognize that it is much more dynamic, variable, and unpredictable than purists (or standardized tests or language curricula) would have us believe. Here’s an activity I tried with my students the other day that helped get the point across. Make a list of every step in your daily routine. Most likely, your list looks something like “Wake up,” “brush teeth,” “eat breakfast,” and so on. Now, deconstruct every task on that list to consider all the taken-for-granted details that you assume others will understand when you say you “brush teeth,” for example. Did you use commercially available toothpaste? A disposable brush? Water from the tap? Did you floss? Use mouthwash? Start with your molars? Odds are, you don’t have to think about these decisions (and they are decisions) because they seem normal to you; and they seem normal to you because you’ve been doing things this way for a long time, probably having learned it from others who did it this way. Now imagine how brushing teeth might look different if you were raised by dentists, or in a place where tap water was either not readily available or not particularly safe to ingest. Suddenly your normal isn’t so normal anymore. Language operates in similar ways; we learn to speak through socialization within speech communities, and thus our linguistic repertoires are constantly being shaped, reshaped, and negotiated by our communicative needs and by the different speech communities in which we participate.

Thinking of language as a social process not only changed my doctoral studies trajectory, it also opened my eyes to some pressing questions if my ultimate goal was to better support bilingual students. Seeing language as a social process forces us to recognize how inextricable students’ familiar language practices are from their identities and local histories and how easily devaluing those practices in turn devalues their humanity. It alerts us as to how social hierarchies attached to race, class, gender, region, ethnicity, and so on, map onto the language practices associated with certain groups. And it presses us to think about ways to apprentice students into a wider range of language practices through authentic interactions if we want to broaden their repertoires. Of course, this brings us to a whole other discussion of how these new perspectives inform our thinking about bilingualism and second language acquisition.