What is language? The nation state ideology

In my quest to make language and intercultural learning better, I sometimes feel that just when I start to understand one piece of the puzzle, I discover that the puzzle is in fact much larger than I thought.   Recently, I have been researching ideologies of study abroad, which led me to think about ideologies for language learning, and just how much our beliefs about what language is influence how we teach it, and what we expect our students to do or know.  Yet it is my impression that as teachers, we rarely think about what our ideologies of language are, we just take them for granted. 

One ideology that pervades language teaching in the U.S. is that of the nation-state, or the idea that national boundaries are also linguistic and cultural boundaries.  Indeed, the development of a standardized national language was key to the development of nation-states.  Although this link between national boundaries and language clearly falls apart under close examination, its implications are pervasive in language classes.  

How so? Well, the "target language" of the class is often a "neutral" variety or prestige national standard.  In the classroom, this leads to a focus on making sure linguistic elements such as pronunciation or grammar conform to this variety.  Success in language learning is getting as close as possible to the linguistic behavior of an imagined educated monolingual native speaker of the language, with "passing" as native, if only until a misplaced preposition or differently shaped vowel gives you away, leading to a sense of accomplishment.  The nation state ideology of languages also assumes that the ideal language classroom is monolingual, with only the target language used by both teachers and students.  Language pledges, where students pledge to use only the target language, are also part of this ideology. Finally, nation-states are frequently used to make cultural comparisons, equating variation in cultural practice to national boundaries.    

These assumptions should be familiar to most U.S. language teachers, in fact they are generally considered among the "best practices" of language teaching.  However, as we question the role we want nationalism and the nation-state to play in our lives, I think it is worth questioning the extent to which we want to reflect this ideology in our language classrooms.  Prestige national standards are just as imaginary as the nation-state itself, and insisting on the "correctness" of these varieties perpetuates the ideology of the nation-state--is this what we want? This model also condemns language learners to a deficit model, as short of changing their parents or birthplace, they will never be native speakers.  Do we want our vision of success in language learning to be based on the same criteria used to make judgements of citizenship? Furthermore, the language classroom is inherently a bilingual, if not multilingual environment, with the target language only one linguistic resource among many.  Decades of research in sociolinguistics show that in multilingual environments, multilingual utterances are the norm, rather than the exception.  Enforcing monolingualism, if it is even possible, doesn't prepare students to engage in multilingual settings.  Finally, the nation-state vision of culture obscures cultural variation within national boundaries, cultural similarities across these boundaries, and the fact that cultures change over time.  

Personally, I am not sure the nation-state and nationalism are ideologies I want to promote in my classroom, yet the pervasive nature of these ideologies in language teaching means that it is hard to change these practices.  Teaching multiple varieties is seen as confusing to students, society at large will judge them on their "nativelikeness" regardless of what I do, allowing languages other than the target language will take away from time using the target language and at worst devolve into grammar lectures about the target language, and there's hardly time to discuss all the cultural variation among speakers of the target language.  And yet, I am convinced there has to be a better way than our current, nationalistic, best practices.  Applied linguists pursuing a "multilingual turn" have started to address this issue, though primarily in immersion and dual language contexts.  I think the key is intentional thinking about what this re-envisioning looks like, and deliberately addressing these ideologies with our students.  If success isn't "passing as native", what is it? How can we use all the available linguistic resources to learn the language we're studying? What does variation look like? What is culture, if not defined by national boundaries? Thus far, my attempts to resist the nation-state ideology of language in my classroom have been mostly  limited to off-hand remarks about just saying the word in English and moving on when you get stuck, because that way you will use more Arabic in the end, or encouraging students to make cultural comparisons across generations, and not just nations.  However, as we continue to develop our curriculum, I am thinking about including more assignments that deliberately address these issues, so that it is not just me, but my students thinking about the extent to which our ideologies of language influence classroom practice.