Language standarisation processes (Work in progress)
Over the last couple of decades, I make this promise to myself: that this is the last winter holiday I spend working. Maybe, one day, I’ll manage to keep it. But for the time being, here I am, working on a book chapter for an edited collection, and I was wondering if anyone would like to share some feedback. So here goes…
The chapter & the book
This chapter is for a book, in Greek, entitled Ideologies, Linguistic Communication, and Education (Ιδεολογίες, Γλωσσική Επικοινωνία και Εκπαίδευση), so its scope is self-explanatory, I guess. The main strands of the volume aim to tease out how language encodes ideology (e.g., do the linguistic choices of Snow White and Mulan tell us something about the perceived role of women then and now?), what ideological beliefs exist about language (e.g., why are some people sceptical about regional accents?), and what the role of education is in shaping and sustaining this language-ideology nexus.
In my own chapter, I take a focused look at the language of ELT textbooks in Greek secondary education. To provide some context, Greek education is highly centralised, so there is only one set of textbooks authorised for use across the country. Moreover, teachers tend to lack the authority, expertise, and motivation to teach outside the textbook. This, to me, suggests that the representations of language in the textbooks are very important in shaping the teachers’ and learners’ beliefs about language in this setting. Some of the points I am especially keen on include: (a) how the books represent linguistic diversity, (b) where the norms come from, and (c) what kind of linguistic knowledge is valourised. Taken together, I think that these three points generate a set of ideological beliefs that is not limited to just language learning.
Standardising the language, one classroom at a time
The main conceptual contribution of the chapter is a model I am working on, which attempts to capture the relationship between the standard language, the language varieties taught and learnt at school, and the wide range of varieties used in actual communication.
My two theoretical starting points are Robert Phillipson’s argument that the ‘centre’ of the Anglophone world ‘exports’ language to the ‘periphery’, and Braj Kachru’s ‘three-circle‘ model, with the ‘norm-providing’ varieties of the US and the UK in the inner circle, and an increasingly more ‘norm-dependent’ range of varieties in the ‘outer’ and ‘expanding’ circles (post-colonial and other polities, respectively). Both these models seem to capture one aspect of my data very well; namely, the way the textbooks almost exclusively present high-prestige linguistic and cultural content from Southeast England. However, one thing that I wanted to make more salient was the processes through which this biased representation of language flowed from the centre outwards.
A model for language contact
Early in my PhD, someone told me that if I can’t find what I need in the literature, then I should write it myself, so here’s what I did. My somewhat ambitiously-named Language Contact Model consists of three circles, just like Kachru’s, but differs in the following ways. Firstly, I did away with the distinction he makes between a (postcolonial) Inner Circle and an (EFL) Expanding Circle, since it doesn’t seem quite as relevant today as it was when he put his model forward. Secondly, I inserted a ‘languaging in education’ circle between the norm-providing and norm-receiving varieties: this is a space of interaction between local and standard varieties. Thirdly, I used vocabulary from Critical Applied Linguistics to name my categories, because this better highlights the kind of relations I want to showcase.
The most important modification, however, is the four arrows flowing from the standard language outwards. I call these ideological processes of standardisation (or at least that’s what their Greek name translates to, and I am happy to consider alternatives). These are assemblages of beliefs, values, and practices through which the standard language dominates communication. For example, they could involve an English teacher correcting a double negative (I don’t know nothing) which a learner might have picked up from a rap video, and in the process reinforcing her view on what counts as ‘proper’ English.
Ideological processes of standardisation
In my chapter, I identify four such processes which are ‘sedimented’ in the EFL textbooks. These are:
- the aims of the textbook (e.g., “to introduce the form of the Present Perfect“) suggest that language is a rule-based system, which learners are to master. This means that the highly-codified standard enjoys an advantage, whereas other instances of communication (e.g., uncodified dialects, Engish as a Lingua Franca) are marginalised by definition.
- the teaching methodology involves presenting and practicing aspects of the standard language, often using fabricated text. This means that authentic language, from sphere of the the ‘locally relevant’, is pushed outside of the ‘school languageing’ space.
- the ‘centre’ of the Anglohpone world is overrepresented in the cultural and linguistic input. For example, learners engage with texts about Bonfire night, the geogpraphy of the British Isles or Australian fauna (curiously, there are no representations of the US, though), and fictional, upper-middle class, characters are located in prototypically ‘English’ locations, such as Cambridge. This invisibilises the ‘locally relevant’ and –in its stead– promotes the kind of knowledge that sets the teachers apart from their learners.
- Assessment focuses exclusively on accuracy, i.e., the degree to which learners are able to correctly repoduce the standard forms which they were taught.
Why is this important?
I think that what all of this shows us is that there is more to language teaching than ‘just’ acquiring the ability to communicate in a different language (or to conjugate irregular verbs, or to transform active sentences into passive ones). It is also a process of shaping how people think about language and society. Some education theorists have called this a ‘hidden curriculum’, because it refers to knowledge and values that are effectively imparted by schooling, without being explicilty taught.
In other words, what the learners are being taught is that language (not just English) is hierarchical; that some varieties are ‘better’ than others; that all the markers which linguistically encode their identity have no value unless this is legitimised by a textbook writer and a teacher; and that there is no space for diversity in the world that the school shapes.
And this is where you come in…
I am actually quite pleased with this model and with the way it seems to fit the data from the school book. But there is one potential problem… When trying to make sense of the world, the explanations that I come up with are by necessit products of my encouter with the world. It is perhaps important to note that, as a student, I was never happy at school, and that this did not change much when I worked as a teacher. I am therefore very much aware that this experience has made me somewhat more sensitive to what I perceive as power imbalances and unjust orders, and more likely to pick up instances of oppression.
So what I am asking really is, does this make sense to you too? To what extent does it resonate with your own experiencs of language education, as students or teachers? How useful is it in thinking about your own professional practice – or how can it be made more useful? Looking forward to any feedback you’d like to share! 🙂