Ideologies of Language and the Beginning Language Class: Part 2


Photo by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash

Last week, I discussed several popular methods of organizing beginning language classes under the overarching critique of focusing on either decontextualized sets of language or prioritizing transactions over social relationships.  This week, I’m focusing on what I am interested in implementing in my classroom, drawing from both functional theories of language and translanguaging pedagogy.  Language teaching contexts and preferred ideologies vary, so I want to be clear that I don't think there is a one size fits all for the beginning language classroom.  However, I do think that too often we don’t even think about what ideologies are informing our practice, and if these are ideologies we even agree with!  So, here are some things that my colleagues and I are working on or plan to implement in our classes:

1) Sequencing according to Can-Do Tasks: This is something we have been working on this year in our second year class, choosing a particular language function and topic, such as expressing an opinion by writing a letter explaining the importance of language education, or by participating in a discussion of appropriate use of social media for different age groups.  While this is certainly an improvement over following the textbook, it does present challenges, particularly in terms of finding example texts to analyze for what students need to be able to do.  

2) Choosing topics according to student interest: So far, our topics have more or less followed the text book, which we basically just use as a source for texts now.  However, some of these texts (like describing the history of an Egyptian newspaper) are just not that interesting to our students.  If the language function is explaining your opinion, what is it our students want to explain their opinions on? This year, we asked them for examples at the end of the semester that hopefully we can incorporate into our tasks next year.  Asking them for topics also reveals interesting information about their own language ideologies, which brings me to my next point. 

3) Meta-linguistic activities: Just as teachers need to think about how their language ideologies inform classroom practices, so do students! In fact, I would argue that many of the topics I’ve been discussing on this blog (social practices, native speaker norms, folk linguistic theories) are also relevant for students, who come to language classes with their own ideologies of how languages work and their implications for learning.  These are rarely explicitly addressed in the classroom (in my experience) but if we want students to make intentional sociolinguistic choices, or even understand why these choices are important, addressing what we think language is and the relationships between social and linguistic practices is important. 

Note: By meta-linguistic activities, I don’t mean vocabulary and grammar drills, but rather a focus on sociolinguistics, pragmatics, and language ideologies.  This is something I hope to work on this summer, to try implementing in the fall.  Wish me luck! (or give me ideas . . . )

4) Intercultural Reflection: As I mention in my post on nation-state ideologies of language, I think there is too often a focus in language classes on cultural products and practices of a “target culture” that is then imagined as distinct from the “home culture”.  Following on translanguaging pedagogy’s notion of performative competence, I would rather focus on how culture is performed and negotiated in intercultural encounters rather than what is “authentic” in an imagined “target culture”.  While it is necessary to be aware of different cultural practices, it is also the case that cultures change over time, learners are not necessarily expected to follow certain cultural practices, and members of a particular culture may also be interested in intercultural interactions to try new practices.  Furthermore, developing a greater understanding of how culture is negotiated can help students in new intercultural situations, give them new insights on intercultural situations within national borders, and also help them see the potential to change cultural practices in their own culture that they dislike.  So far, we have focused on culture assignments that help students see diversity in “Arab culture” rather than imagine it as monolithic and separate from U.S. culture, and start with a “What is culture?” assignment.  However, it is clear that like language, students come to class with ideologies of what culture is, and I think we could be more explicit in our development of their critical intercultural reflection abilities.  Another summer project, ideas for implementation welcome! 

But what language? With regards to points three and four, a common concern in beginning classes is the time “taken away” from the target language if these are done in English, or the impossibility of doing these in the target language.  Yet I would argue that following translanguaging pedagogy, this is not a binary choice—there can be examples in the target language and reflection in English, or in mixed language, and this mix can change over time and according to context and student identities.  So the question is not what language we're doing these activities in, but how we're using all of our linguistic resources to develop new language and intercultural skills.      

Overall the challenge is of course in the details of implementing these practices, but I think that is also what makes it interesting.  If you’re a language teacher, have you implemented any of these practices? How or what advice do you have?