ideology

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?


Bringing emotions and ideology into the MSA/dialects debate

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Meme found here

The meme above seems to be making the rounds for everything these days, and the image above popped up in my Facebook feed the other day.  I smiled, because it my experience it captures a common conundrum in Arabic teaching—we usually focus on Modern Standard Arabic, MSA, الفصحى in the classroom, much to the dismay of many Arabic students, especially those who go abroad.  In my own research on Arabic study abroad students, many of them complain about the “uselessness” of fus7a, and support studying Arabic dialects prior to study abroad, so they don’t lose time learning 3ammiyya (although my research also shows they pick up major dialect features quite quickly, sometimes within a few weeks of going abroad).  Students and teachers that oppose dialect teaching typically point to the regional variations in dialects, and that students travel to different locations and teachers in the same program may be familiar with varying regional dialects.  In this perspective, MSA is seen as being a “neutral” variety because it is used across geographical regions (although research also shows that there is geographical variation in MSA, and speakers of different regional varieties do not necessarily switch into MSA to speak to each other).  Thus, whether to teach dialects or not is a seemingly never-ending debate with strong feelings (and not much research) on both sides.  

However, the reason this image captured my attention is that it points to some things I think are often overlooked in this debate, namely ideology and emotion and how these intersect.  I wrote before about how the language classroom tends to ignore the social to focus on academic or transactional language, and I think this is actually at the heart of the فصحى\عامية debate in Arabic language teaching.  In this image “طلاب العربية” clearly wants a relationship with “العامية” much to the dismay of ““الفصحى”.  Similarly, although we tend to argue that طلاب العربية need to learn العامية to engage in basic everyday transactions during study abroad, the real reason I think they care so much is that العامية is (usually) the language of establishing relationships, and this much more important to many study abroad students than using Arabic in academic contexts. So while they may not be after the type of romantic relationship pictured in this image (although research on study abroad does note that this is an important, though overlooked, component of study abroad), they almost certainly desire relationships with Arabic speakers, and it is clear to them from the beginning of their experience that 3ammiyya is the language of these social relationships*.  Thus, the ability to access social relationships is at the heart of Arabic students’ desire to learn 3ammiyya, much more than the ability to order food or take a taxi or do any other basic service encounter that could probably be done with gestures and/or English.  In this way, not teaching 3ammiyya can be interpreted as preventing students from accessing these social relationships.   Although I don’t think this is ever the intention of those who promote only teaching MSA, I think it is the source of the emotionally-laden frustration students express in response to this policy.

The next reason this meme is particularly compelling is the look of disappointment on الفصحى’s face.  Language ideology usually comes up in the 3ammiyya/fus7a debate in terms of fus7a being perceived as the “correct” version of Arabic.  However, I think the ideological issue is actually less about what is the “correct” version for non-Arab learners to learn, and more about how those who grow up speaking Arabic (especially in an Arabic school system) perceive the relationship between 3ammiyya and fus7a.  While the word “Arabic” could conceivably include both MSA and dialects, اللغة العربية tends to only refer to الفصحى.  I have met countless Arabs who tell me (in Arabic) how bad their Arabic is and how they failed all their Arabic classes—they mean fus7a, without even considering what they are doing as speaking اللغة العربية.  In contrast, those who speak fus7a well are understandably proud of the years of effort they have put into developing their abilities, and want to convey this knowledge to Arabic learners . . . who promptly ignore it to go after 3ammiyya for social relationships! So here, there is also an underlying emotional response, as students (again unintentionally) devalue the knowledge speakers of fus7a have worked so hard to become experts in. 

This tendency to focus on academic and transactional language, and ignore the social and emotional is of course not limited to Arabic, it just happens to map well onto the ideology of Arabic diglossia and be the case I am most familiar with.  Yet what would happen if we recognized the value we should place on social language and emotions in academic language learning settings?  

*Yes, there are people who form social relationships in الفصحى.  However, in my experience people who do this also remark upon it, as in “my friend and I always speak فصحى together” or “I like hanging out with study abroad students because I can speak فصحى”.  

What is language? Folklinguistic theories

Last week, I described the nation state ideology of language, and its implications for language teaching.  This week, I’m discussing folklinguistic theories of language, and their implications for language learning and teaching.  Generally, “folklinguistic” theories, or the general population’s beliefs about language, are contrasted with “linguistic” theories developed via the scientific study of language, or linguists beliefs about language.  Frequently, these are in conflict.  There are, of course, multiple linguistic theories, indicating that linguists don’t necessarily agree on what language  is either, and I’ll discuss some of those as they relate to learning and teaching languages in upcoming posts.  However, for the moment I’ll focus on folk linguistic beliefs I come across in the field of language teaching that to the best of my knowledge are not supported by scientific theories of language.  

 

1) We learn words, then we learn grammar, then we can put them together to talk/read/listen/write. This seems to be the way a lot of textbooks in particular are set up, with a vocabulary list, then some grammar description and exercises, then some reading or listening texts or speaking or writing activities, and probably a culture blurb thrown in somewhere.  So in a sense, if language learning is viewed as doing well in class with this type of textbook, it does make sense to take this approach.  The issue is that this approach doesn’t transfer well to language learning outside of this particular textbook/classroom context, and this conflicts with the belief of most teachers (I think) that they are preparing students to eventually do things outside of the classroom.  The basic problem is the lack of context—words, and words in grammatical sentences or phrases are always connected to something larger in the real world, and this is how linguistic theories would argue that we learn them.  

 

2) I taught these words in chapter two but the students don’t remember them, so we must need more vocabulary quizzes/activities. Related to the above, “chapter two” is not a meaningful context for vocabulary acquisition, although it could arguably gain some meaning in a classroom where there is a “chapter two unit” or “chapter two test”.  However, remembering that a word was in a list in this chapter isn’t that likely to transfer to other meaningful contexts, like the writing assignment in chapter six.  

 

3) We learned the past tense a year ago, but students are still making mistakes, so we need more grammar activities. Variations on this are things I hear A LOT.  Essentially, I think this comes down to a belief that learning how to describe a grammatical feature should be sufficient for using it in the future.  However, describing grammatical features, by for example filling out a chart of verb conjugations, is really more of a skill relevant to linguistics than actually using these features to do things with language, especially when it happens quickly.  Although linguistic theories differ in their views of what it takes to acquire grammatical features in a way that they can be used spontaneously in speech, they seem to be united in the fact that it takes a lot of exposure to these features and a lot of time.  One way I see this play out with the past tense in my classroom is that students seem to acquire the first person “ana” past tense form a lot more quickly than they do the other forms: probably because they are always talking about themselves, and most of the beginning videos in our textbook are characters talking about themselves! To remedy this (we’re working on it!) we need more videos and activities that aren’t just talking about oneself.  

 

4) It’s best to start with a neutral, standard variety because too much variation will confuse students.  In Arabic, this is a never-ending argument, but of course all languages have what linguistics call sociolinguistic variation, or ways that people use linguistic elements to make social meaning, such as creating the formality of a situation, or indexing belong to a particular social group.  Here, the problem is that the social meaning of this “neutral, standard” variety is rarely addressed.  As I explained last week, it generally stems from the origin of the nation state, and was viewed as key to making speakers of other varieties come together into one nation.  It also typically represents the language of the most powerful social group in a society, and marking the linguistic choices of this social group as “standard” or “correct” and the linguistic choices of other social groups as “non-standard” or “incorrect” allows for discrimination theoretically based on language that is in fact based on social categories such as race or class.  There is also the case of diglossic languages like Arabic, where the “standard” variety is rarely used in many of the everyday situations targeted in beginning languages.  So, yes, it would be overwhelming to teach every variant documented in a language, but this does not absolve us from addressing the social meaning of the variants we teach.  In terms of confusion, we don’t avoid teaching verb conjugations and other grammatical features (which as per point three above can certainly be confusing!) so student confusion should not be an excuse for avoiding teaching the social meanings of language.  While I admit that I haven’t figured out a fully satisfactory way to do this yet, my hope in the end is that if we become aware of the social meanings of language in those we learn, we can also become more aware of them in our own, and do our part to end pervasive linguistic discrimination.

 

There are certainly more folklinguistic theories of language that effect the way we learn and teach language, but these four are some of the ones I commonly hear from students, teachers, and people that learn I teach Arabic.  In the upcoming weeks, I’ll delve into what to types of linguistic theories, formal and functional, tell us about language and the implications of that for learning and teaching languages.    

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.