Why awareness of language ideologies is important

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Photo by Tim Huyghe on Unsplash

“Ideology” can be a dismissive turn people use to critique or undermine certain ideas or practices by contrasting this “ideology” with facts, or science, or reality.  On the one hand, the dismissers are right—these are “just ideologies.”  On the other hand, it’s also not the case that there is  a reality free of ideologies.  Ideologies may simply be a collection of beliefs, but these beliefs shape our perceptions and experiences of what we call “reality.”  Thus, the problem is not the existence of ideologies, but rather our lack of awareness of how ideologies are always shaping our world.  Below, I’ll address some reasons I think it’s critical to be aware of language ideologies in the language classroom.  

Ideologies inform our expectations

A key reason to be aware of our language ideologies is that they inform our expectations for what should be taught in the language classroom, what is “good” language, and what proficiency in a language means.  For example, if our expectations are informed by nation-state ideologies of language, we will seek to make an environment of monolingual immersion in the classroom and expect students to produce “standard” language that gets as close as possible to the linguistic behavior of a monolingual native speaker.  If our expectations are informed by folk linguistic theories of language, we will expect lots of vocabulary and grammar exercises, followed by texts or interactions applying this vocabulary and grammar points.  In contrast, if our expectations are informed by formal theories of language, we will expect little or no grammar lessons, and extensive input and use of the language in activities.  If our expectations are informed by functional theories of language, we will expect a strong connection between classroom activities and social functions.  If our expectations are informed by translanguaging theory, we will also expect a connection between language and social function, and instead of worrying about target language immersion as how our linguistic choices contribute to our language learning.  Clearly, there are lots of potential expectations for a language classroom depending on what types of ideologies are contributing to our expectations for this setting.  

Real life consequences

Thus, while ideologies are imagined, they are certainly very real in the way they shape our expectations for the language classroom.  In a program where the curriculum, teacher, and students all subscribe to differing language ideologies, but these ideologies are not explicitly recognized, there can be frustration and even conflict—why is the teacher speaking so much Arabic? Or why is she speaking so much English? Why does she mix language? Why are there so many grammar activities? We need more grammar activities! Why won’t the students use the target language? Why don’t they study the vocabulary? Why can’t they conjugate verbs, we learned this two years ago! Why does the textbook teach such pointless vocabulary? Why does the textbook teach non-standard language? Why does the textbook only teach the language of the most powerful speakers of this language? 

If you’ve taught a language class, I’m sure you’ve experienced this conflict of expectations in designing curricula, using textbooks, reading student evaluations, talking with students, and discussing teaching with peers.  Yet in all of these discussions, some of which seem never-ending (e.g. the great fus7a-3aamiyya debate), I find there is rarely an explicit discussion of our language ideologies and how they impact our expectations, even though these ideologies are the root of the conflict.  Being aware of our ideologies means we can explain why we have certain expectations.

Open to reimagination

It can certainly be disconcerting to discover that beliefs and practices you assume are natural are actually imagined.  However, this realization is also quite powerful, because it means that there is the potential for reimagining a better world (or language classroom).   For example, if we are aware that an expectation of learning vocabulary, then grammar, and then putting it together comes from a particular ideology of language, we can consider what other options there are, and whether these are more appealing for our language learning (or not!).  If we’re aware that our desire to achieve a certain “native-like” pronunciation has it’s roots in nationalism, perhaps we’ll question this goal, or even stop judging and categorizing accents generally.  

Language learning for real social change

Language learning (especially during study abroad!) is frequently viewed as a way to reduce social conflict (or even promote world peace!) by promoting intercultural dialogue and tolerance.  Now, intercultural dialogue and tolerance are certainly crucial elements of social change, but they are not automatic results of language learning nor are they enough on their own.  As with study abroad, reflection upon this contact is also essential.  Taking this reflection a step further, to critically examine how our language ideologies shape our expectations and evaluations of intercultural conversations can let us question whether these are the ideologies we want to be shaping our world.  If they’re not, how can we reimagine them?  What would you like to reimagine?