Beauty and Power of Multilingualism

Shyam Sharma

Shyam Sharma

During the past year, I came across a lot of news items (including some based on scientific studies) about the benefits of multilingualism. There was so much on this issue that I sometimes wondered if the scientific and sociological studies were essentially a part of rather political responses to the ongoing redistribution of economic and geopolitical power around the world (especially in relation to the global status of the US vis-a-vis other countries like China, India, and the rest of BRICK nations). Perhaps immigration, increased global connections (virtually and otherwise), and development in other areas are contributing to it. In any case, the range of research, arguments, and perspectives on the subject was quite rich and diverse, with some reports going as far as saying that multilingualism may delay severe mental disorders in old age to others indicating that it is simply business-smart for companies to make their websites more multilingual. Living in the US, a society where monolingual policies and assumptions are (understandably) prevalent in most walks of life, I was pleased to see the emerging appreciation of multilingualism because I think this will only have positive outcomes on local and global levels.

However, every time I read the news about this issue, I was sad. I was sad that, back home in Nepal, where learning and using multiple languages is a fundamental reality of life and society, formal education is increasingly adopting the mind-boggling “subtractive” approach in relation to multilingualism (excluding/destroying some languages to improve others), in the name of education, economic opportunity, and globalization. Instead of focusing on the real challenges of education, schools and parents and experts alike are buying into the idea that simply switching to English-Only medium of instruction for all subjects and at all levels will magically improve education — when, in our special context, the opposite is far more true. Let me return to this concern after sharing a quick summary of the new studies and reports mentioned above. I will conclude by sharing some fun activities for the classroom, just so I don’t spread too many sadness bugs to you as a reader.

If you have the time and can browse through the annotated bibliography linked to this page on the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, this site provides the most exhaustive list of studies documenting the benefits of being multilingual. Since even the annotations are rather overwhelming in amount, here is a brief list if you don’t have too much time. The studies show that proficiency in multiple languages:

  • supports academic success by helping individuals use critical language awareness and sensitivity to nuances of meaning, read and understand texts better for any purpose, perform better in standardized tests/exams, reinforce the learning of new languages required in school especially through two-way immersion, fine-tune the ability to hear and pay attention, better hypothesize in learning science, bolsters success in higher education in general;
  • enhances cognitive ability by helping individuals use more divergent thinking, go higher on the level of critical thinking, draw on different perspectives and think outside the box, employ greater cognitive flexibility, think better non-verbally, acquire greater metalinguistic awareness and creativity, utilize an improved working memory, deploy “more advanced processing of verbal material, more discriminating perceptual distinctions, more propensity to search for structure in perceptual situations, and more capacity to reorganize their perceptions in response to feedback,” offset age-related loss of memory and even diseases, use an apparently increased IQ;
  • improves interpersonal, social, economic, and professional opportunities for individuals by helping them boost their social skills and confidence, connect them to more people and increasing their opportunities to learn and grow, strengthen emotional and personal relationships with others who may feel strongly about linguistic and cultural bonds, give them unique skills and abilities, allow them to travel and work more successfully.

For anyone interested to learn even more about the benefits of multilingualism, here is another compilation of news, issues, and debates on a university website. Some of the sources include an article titled “Bilinguals are Smarter” on New York Times, a Wired Magazine article about bilinguals making more rational and less biased decisions, and a Ted talk by Patricia Ryan, a long time English teacher in the Middle East, who points out a number of problems, including the problem of gatekeeping in the name of educational quality. A fun-to-read article in The Huffington Post includes these benefits: better understanding cultural references, better navigate the social and professional worlds, better notice things that are lost in translation, feel better connected to one’s heritage/family and history, have deeper conversations with people across borders, make self-expression multidimensional as if one can use multiple personalities as needed.

As I indicated above, the more I read news and reports about the benefits of multilingualism, the more I wondered if, back home, educators and policy makers, schools and parents will begin to change the increasingly dominating discourse and practice of English-Only instruction. Where are we on the issue of multilingualism and what, if anything, will make us change direction? Are well-informed educators doomed to passively watch the simplemindedness of those who create and implement wrong-headed language policy (or rather don’t do anything, because they seem to have no clue) forever? What can we do if we are teachers in English-only medium schools? Should those of us who have started discussing multilingualism be worried about offending our colleagues in private schools who have a stake in English medium education, fellow parents who may misunderstand what we mean, and the people whose business depends on the mythology of “English medium = quality education”? What about those of us who are studying or working abroad (especially in an English speaking country)? Frankly, I think it is intellectually and socially irresponsible to be silent on this subject. But I could be unrealistic. The facts in favor of promoting multilingualism through education are crystal clear, but power and politics much more complicated.

Of course, English is everything its proponents say it is, and it does most of what they say. The problem is with “only” English in a society where most teachers and learners do not use it outside school, where few teachers speak it fluently and few students can master nuance even after being forced to use it for ten or fifteen years, and where there is insufficient resource to implement what schools have doggedly tried and most of them have miserably failed for decades. Contradictory as it may sound, except in a handful of good private schools in a handful of cities, English education itself will dramatically improve if teachers and students are first allowed to teach fluently and learn effectively — not to mention education in all other subjects. Now, why are Nepali-medium schools not “automatically” better? The answer is: they would be much worse (as they are going to be) by replacing Nepali and local language as the medium of all instruction. When English is imposed on teachers who can’t speak well and students who don’t have the opportunity to develop the competence needed, anyone can predict the results. English proficiency as an educational objective is absolutely necessary and we must do whatever we can to improve it; we owe it to our children to teach this “global” language. English language as an “only” medium for all subjects in our particular context at this time is a “snake oil.” What we need is freedom to use what works best at different levels of education, types of schools, subjects and teachers and students and so on. What we need is a general recognition that proficiency in English and quality education are two completely different things and we should expose the myths and lies on which the monolingual moves are based.

I am reminded of a book titled Buying into English in which the author, Catherine Prendergast, illustrates the failed promise of English in Slovakia. What made a positive difference for those who could benefit from English was not the language itself but instead their privilege or achievement in economic, social, political, and other forms. Nepal’s case may be unique in some ways, but the same dynamics apply. If students coming out of our private schools are more successful in higher education and the professions, it is because they had the privilege of schools with better resources, better teachers, richer and/or more educated parents, homes and communities with more favorable environments, networks of educated and resourceful family members, etc, etc, etc. For these reasons, I find it absurd when our educators ignore the big picture, disregard shocking numbers of failure (including failures due to English medium), and continue to sell or support the logically broken idea that English medium in itself will improve education. One should be ashamed to promote an educational situation based on and perpetuating shocking inequalities in education. English medium is a “false cause” of success before it starts becoming a real one for the minority; for the rest of the nation, when this medium is made mandatory, it makes teaching less fluent and learning less effective, and it undermines success and opportunity instead of enhancing them. Thus, for educators themselves to use the “success stories” of a minority when the majority does not have all the other privileges that go along with English medium is disingenuous, if not dishonest.

Yes, if all the other conditions of education described above are better, English can add to the ultimate outcome. But even then—and let me go one step further than I have before—students will benefit if they are taught in more languages than one, if they are fluent in more languages than one, if they can access knowledge and connect to people and think by using and . . . . Just think about adding all of the benefits of multilingualism that I summarized above to the previous sentence! That is the power of multilingualism when compared to monolingual education. That is what would happen if our private schools (and public ones that are adopting the same mythology) were to let teachers use multiple languages in the classroom. Future generations of students would be able to communicate complex and diverse ideas in more than one language, improving their learning and increasing opportunities in different walks of life and for a lifetime!

Now, as I promised at the outset, just to move away from the shock and disgust about our systematic destruction of multilingualism (because too many of us have somehow bought into, help advance, or tolerate this amazing, grand lie that using “English Only” improves education), let me share a few fun activities and conversations you can use in your classroom.

Ask students to translate the word “beauty” into Nepali (and/or other languages they speak). In the case of Nepali, hoping the English-only madness hasn’t completely destroyed this language among all students in class, someone will say “sundar.” Ask students if that word is associated with females or males in Nepali. The answer, in Nepali, is male, right? In English, it is typically used to describe females, with the adjective “beautiful.” What is “beautiful” in Nepali? “Sundari?” Probably not! Well, yeah, some students will say. Then ask the class to translate the word “sundari” back into English, or imagine what image“beautiful” conjures up in their minds. Again, if at least some of them have a good sense of the connotations in Nepali, they might say things like “nakkali” or someone “who tries hard to look pretty.” In any case, the connotations in Nepali are not positive—unlike in English, generally speaking. Guess what, if any of your students are good in Nepali, they will also tell you that “sundari” means a female monkey. And so the conversation will continue, just using one key word and two languages, showing you the beauty and power of multilingualism. Good luck with the rest of the conversation, whichever way you want to wrap it up.

Let us take another case of hard-to-translate words in different languages. Here is one of the many websites that provide lists of such words from languages spoken around the world. Take any number of these words to class (or pull them up and show the accompanying images on the screen if that is possible), and then ask students to write words from their home or other languages that they don’t think have accurate translation in English. This activity will also help your students refine their translingual skills, taking one more step in the direction of achieving many of the benefits of multilingualism described above. What does a word and especially its connotations say about the society (context, culture, lifestyle), about changes over time, about worldviews, etc? What are the personal, social, and professional benefits of continuously developing vocabulary, range of syntax and idiom, and sociolinguistic competency in more than one language?

To keep this post short, let me sign off with a link to a blog post that I wrote for a professional group named Transnational Writing here in the US. In this two-part essay, I have discussed some of the practical/classroom strategies and activities for engaging students in translingual communication (a hot button topic here in the US these days).

I look forward to reading your thoughts and ideas in the comments.

The author:  Dr. Sharma is currently working in the capacity of an assistant professor of writing and rhetoric at Stony Brook University, New York in the USA

‘The photography project’: Pictures in EFL teaching

The Choutari team has initiated a new ‘photography project’. The aim of the project is to promote the use of photography/pictures in EFL teaching. In this project, the Choutari team members share with the larger ELT community a variety of photos they take in different times and places. We do not create our own stories out of these pictures, rather we leave it open for multiple uses (e.g., essay writing, story writing/telling, critical pedagogy, group work, participatory research)as per the need of EFL teachers . In acknowledging the importance of photos/pictures in EFL teaching, this project is influenced by the “Critical Photography Theory” (Wells, 2015) and the “Critical Art Pedagogy” (Cary, 2011). We encourage our fellow colleagues all over the world to use these pictures (of course, acknowledgement is appreciated) for the classroom purposes and participate in the discussion on various issues concerning the use of photography in EFL teaching.

To begin, we share the photos taken by Prem Phyak, our past editor, in different locations and times in Nepal.

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Diversity in English Language Classroom

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BALRAM ADHIKARI

Diversity implies the state of being diverse in forms. It is the state in which multiformity exists because of co-existence of multiple, yet interconnected forms of the phenomenon.  Diversity is a reality in the English language classroom, particularly in the contexts like ours, where the classroom houses teachers and learners both from diverse linguistic, cultural, geographical, economic, and social backgrounds. Second language learning and teaching theories regard diversity as the reality of the classroom. Without delving into theories and research works that abound the field of teaching English as a foreign or second language, I would  like to  present different dimensions of diversity, most of which I have noticed in my own classroom.   I interpret diversity along the dimensions of language and culture, and cognition and creation of students.  

I teach a large class.  The classroom where I teach the master’s level course English Grammar for Teachers is cramped with the students. The number of students often exceeds ninety.  These are the prospective English teachers specializing in English education.  The size of the class has a lot to do with diversity. The larger the class it is more likely to be diverse in terms of learner differences, their educational backgrounds, geographical, cultural, linguistic experiences, and their expectations from teaching.   Continue reading »

Need of Evolution: Continuing the Discourse-to-Practice for Local ELT Practices in Nepal

Pramod Kumar Sah

In countries where English is used as a second or a foreign language, teachers have already started grounding their ELT practices on their locally available resources as well as locally viable methods and approaches of teaching English as a lingua franca language. In Nepal, where English is used as a foreign language, it is evidently urgent that we develop our own ELT practices. In a post written last month’s issue In their highly thought-provoking essay, “Shifting Focus: Building ELT Practices and Scholarship from the Ground Up”  Prem Phyak, Bal Krishna Sharma and Shyam Sharma have presented a broad and powerful proposal for a reinvention of Nepalese ELT from the ground up. This blog entry takes Phyak, Sharma, and Sharma’s ideas one step further by situating them in the context of classroom, textbooks, and such other specifics of ELT practice in Nepal today.

Methodology: Prescription or Formation?

Allow me to first briefly describe my stance on ELT/EFL/ TESOL methodology in Nepalese context today. As Phyak, Sharma and Sharma have indicated in their recent article, I strongly believe that there is an urgent need of realizing own potential in language teaching, rather than seeking for solutions to the different classroom problems from in the ideas and experiences from contexts unlike our own. In this post, I intend to add that the “formation” of ELT methods and resources from the ground up may never happen unless our teachers, as the ultimate practitioners, do not see how they can practically do so. I would like to add some more specifics ways to achieve the goal to the many concrete examples and practical suggestions that the authors have provided in their post.

Since the advent of language learning as an academic discipline, there have been gradual shifts in language teaching methodology from Grammar Translation, to Audiolingualism, and those applied in more recent and well known Communicative Language Teaching. However, ELT practitioners have put forward an array of opinions, arguments and concerns over the issue that which of the suggested methodologies works best in language teaching. But, a variety of factors, such as official language policies, the role of L2 in a distinct speech community, learners’ need and their linguistic background, cultural and economical state of the institutions, teachers’ background, students’ previous linguistic competence, etc. affect the selection of methodology – this is why a single methodology was not effective enough to quench the thirst of language learning of all the time and circumstances.

For me, the most relevant experience is that a method should no longer be a prescription made from a linguist; rather it should be a pattern of activities made by a distinct language teacher accounting for his/her classroom scenario. Moreover, all the methods are best for their corresponding situations, as Prabhu (1990, p.161) states ‘…..different methods are best for different teaching contexts; that all methods are partially true or valid; and that the notion of good and bad methods is itself misguided’. In the meantime, it is very significant for a language teacher to remain aware  of scientific principles of language learning or acquisition, they are more importantly free to make their own personal methodology based on their distinct context, which Prabhu (1990) calls as teachers’ ‘sense of plausibility’. It is also worth suggesting that a language teacher needs to choose various activities or techniques from a certain method, not because of the faith in the underlying method but because that is suitable in their own unique contexts.

Thus, I assume, it’s high time we should start framing our own method that can best fit in our unique classroom rather than following sets of prescriptions.

Need of Teachers’ Authority for Syllabus Design

The reason I focus on teacher-driven syllabus is again based on so-called ‘teacher sense of plausibility’. I have been motivated to develop my own personal teaching methodology for my unique class, that requires me to set my own syllabus rather than following syllabus set somewhere else. Put it other way, considering learners’ need, cultural background, age group, etc., teaches should be authorized to frame his syllabus against marketed textbooks. Furthermore, prescription of a methodology, syllabus, course, materials, activities, techniques, and an assessment procedure does not support the views, such as every class is unique. The teachers should be authorized to make decision on aforementioned aspects of teaching.

A Dark Practice and Ways out

There are a few dark practices in Nepalese ELT that seem to be in high need of evolution, out of which  Teaching a subject vs. language skills is one.

Teaching English is merely a subject to pass in the examination in our concern, rather than developing our students’ language skills. It might be my overgeneralization but this as a consequence of my teaching experience and observation in some leading educational establishments in Nepal. We rely on ‘a’ textbook and we teach them page-by-page and finally, test them if they have comprehended what mentioned in the textbook. But, in fact it works for no good. Using textbooks is necessary, but what seems irrelevant is just to interpret what are printed on textbook pages. The situation not only exists in school teaching but has been the same in university level; for example, the General English for B. Ed. under Tribhuvan University has recommended three textbooks; (a) New Generation in English, that is a collection of exciting and helpful reading texts including some literary pieces written in Nepali contexts- but, what we do is to render the meaning of the texts in Nepali with near comprehension (that helps for nothing) rather than getting out students to read them extensively to develop reading skills and intensively to do the tasks set; (b) Exploring Grammar in context, indeed a good textbook that is based on Hallidayan approach and contains grammar for written and spoken discourse – in this concern as well, we just try to teach them rules of grammar, practice only the exercises and prepare them for examination instead of having them explore meaning of the grammatical items for natural communication; and (c) Academic vocabulary, at this point, we just teach them the meaning of words in isolation and the students hardly keep those in their head – the best thing we can do is to teach them ‘lexical chunks’ in contexts with the help of ‘corpus’ grounding our teaching on Michel Lewis ‘Lexical Approach’, so the students will be able to make use of those vocabulary in their real academic writing. Additionally, this gap is the consequence of our examination system, especially question pattern that contains questions from the textbook exercises itself without a word alteration, normally.  The textbooks are to be used as reference, rather than a subject to have students’ mastery over. Teaching English means teaching language skills that help students expose themselves in English speech community. Moreover, as Phyak, Sharma and Sharma show, there is an urgent need to realize our own potential and bring our local resources to support our students develop their language skills rather than grounding our teaching on mere textbooks.

Making Our Own Ground

Firstly, as Phyak, Sharma and Sharma emphasize, our focus has to be on practice instead of discussing the problems; teaches should build confidence in themselves and use approaches and resources that are readily available to them.

Secondly, where there are potential teachers equipped with the knowledge of different paradigms in our society, we should no longer be reading literature and theory developed in different contexts somewhere else in the world with an aim of implementing those theories and methods in our classrooms—even though ideas from anywhere are good for expanding our knowledge. Instead, we must frame a plot of our own stories, to shape our own educational future.

Thirdly, to develop and implement any approaches, methods, and syllabus, we need to figure out what we can do even within the material and technological limitations in our classroom. Thus, instead of being demotivated, we can attempt to let the things go with what available to us in a best way. In Phyak, Sharma and Sharma’s words, we have to shift our belief from what we do not have to what we can do well and with what we do have.

Conclusion

To say in a nutshell, since English is no longer the only language of English, we have freedom to teach and learn it in ways that fit our needs and interests, and it is high time we stopped searching for methods originated in some other situations. It is time that we explore and understand our own teaching scenarios in order to form whatever methods and whatever blends of methods we find good for us. For this to happen, it is necessary to authorize our teachers and allow them to develop their own syllabi and their own materials, however impossible or difficult it may seem at first. Without more independence for our teachers, it may never be easier for teachers to teach language skills, instead of textbooks. And if we are to move beyond complaining about what we do not have and what we cannot do, we must start using readily available resources as well as use available opportunities for teaching language as it is used in life and work, instead of just whatever the textbooks includes. 

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Pramod Kumar Sah is an M. Ed. in English from Tribhuvan University, Nepal. He is currently pursuing his MA in TESOL with Applied Linguistics at University of Central Lancashire, UK. 

Translanguaging to teach English in Nepal

Ofelia García*

 

Introduction

            English language teaching throughout the world has suffered from a monoglossic bias; that is, the view that English could only be taught in isolation and separated from the languages spoken by students. This was, of course, the pedagogical tradition that emerged from the West, and especially from North American and British scholars in particular, who saw the teaching of the English language as a monolingual imperialist enterprise. But in the 21st century, English teaching has gone global, no longer in the hands of colonial masters, but taught throughout the world by many who share language and culture with students. And yet, our pedagogies have remained as monolingual as ever, robbing students of opportunities to use their home languages to make sense of the complex use of English that is demanded in the world today.

            I argue here that we need to adopt a translanguaging lens, a lens which allows us to think about language, bilingualism and learning from the perspective of emergent bilingual students themselves. I start by considering the concept of translanguaging.  Using the translanguaging lens, I then provide counterarguments to some of the constructions about English language speakers, English language acquisition and learning, bilingualism, and language education that have been responsible for much failure in the teaching of English to students throughout the world.

Translanguaging

The term translanguaging was coined in Welsh (trawsieithu) by Cen Williams. In its original use, it referred to a pedagogical practice where students are asked to alternate languages for receptive or productive use; for example, students might be asked to read in English and write in Welsh and vice-versa. Since then, the term has been extended by many scholars (e.g. Blackledge & Creese 2010, Canagarajah 2011, García 2009; García & Sylvan 2011, Hornberger & Link 2012). I have used the term to refer to the flexible use of linguistic resources by bilinguals in order to make sense of their worlds, and I have applied it mostly to classrooms because of its potential in liberating the voices of language minoritized students.

I use translanguaging here to refer not to the use of two separate languages or even the shift of one language or code to the other (for simple Questions and Answers on translanguaging for educators see my introduction to Celic and Seltzer, 2012). Rather, translanguaging is rooted on the principle that emergent bilingual students select language features from a repertoire and “soft assemble” their language practices in ways that fit their communicative situations. Translanguaging in education can be defined as a process by which students and teachers engage in complex discursive practices that include ALL the language practices of students in order to develop new language practices and sustain old ones, communicate and appropriate knowledge, and give voice to new sociopolitical realities by interrogating linguistic inequality. In today’s globalized world what is needed is the ability to engage in fluid language practices and to soft-assemble features that can “travel” across geographic spaces so as to enable us to participate fully as global citizens.

Counter-narratives about English, its speakers, learning English, bilingualism, and teaching English

            The education of emergent bilinguals suffers from five major misconstructions about English, its speakers, the learning of English, bilingualism, and the teaching of English that can be counter-narrated through a translanguaging lens as follows:

  1. English is not a system of structures.
  2. “Native” English speakers are neither the norm nor objective fact.
  3. Learning English is not linear.
  4. Bilinguals are not simply speakers of a first and a second language.
  5. The teaching of English cannot be enacted in total separation from other language practices.

I will develop these counter-narratives to deconstruct some of the myths with which we have been operating in educating emergent bilinguals.

English is not a system of structures

English forms and meaning are not auto-sufficient, but arise in and through social practice, as linguistic practices get used repeatedly in local contexts for meaning-making. Language is a series of social practices and actions that are embedded in a web of social relations and that orient and manipulate social domains of interactions.  Pennycook (2010: 9) explains:

A focus on language practices moves the focus from language as an autonomous system that preexists its use, and competence as an internal capacity that accounts for language production, towards an understanding of language as a product of the embodied social practices that bring it about (my italics).

English is not a system of language structures; rather, languaging through what is called English is practicing a new way of being in the world.  This understanding of what English is and is not has enormous implications for our conceptualization of English speakers, the next counter-narrative that I propose.

“Native” English speakers are neither the norm nor objective fact

It is important to recognize that monolinguals are not the norm in the world. Although estimates are difficult to make, well over half of the world’s population is bilingual or monolingual. In the second language acquisition literature, the “native” speaker is always held as the ideal. But the notion of who is a “native” speaker has been questioned in the fluidity of today’s global world. Often “native” has become indexical of being white. The ideology of the existence of a monolithic “native” English creates an order of indexicality (Blommaert, 2010) that favors the language practices of white prestigious monolingual speakers. Thus, the other “native” practices are reduced to being “corrupted,” “stigmatized,” “deficient,” “needing remediation.” As many have argued, there is no “native English standard.” Being a “native English speaker” is not simply being monolingual or speaking a certain way. At the same time, learning English does not happen in a vacuum, and is not linear. This is the misconstruction addressed by the counter-narrative in the next section.

Learning English does not proceed from scratch, is not linear

The learning of English has often focused on an end point, the ultimate attainment of a “native English standard.”  When students haven’t achieved this, they are said to have a “fossilized interlanguage”; that is, their language system is said to be permanently deficient. Rarely has the learning of English paid attention to the resources students bring and to the dynamic process through which language practices emerge. But students are much more than just blank slates that are subsequently filled with English structures. They bring to classrooms knowledge, imagination, and sophisticated language practices. In addition, they do not forget what they know in order to take up English. These students are emergent bilinguals with full capacities. Their new language practices do not surface from scratch, but emerge in interrelationship with old language practices.

If the English language is not, as we have seen, simply a system of structures, then it follows that it is not possible just to add up structures in linear fashion in order to learn. Instead, English learning emerges as a flexible continuum, as students take up practices in interrelationship with others. The result is never an end point at which students “have” English. Rather, emergent bilinguals “do” language, languaging in ways that include practices identified as “English” in order to negotiate communicative situations and meet academic expectations. Emergent bilinguals are not simply in a stage of “incomplete acquisition.” The next section questions the misconstructions about bilingualism held by schools that have served to alienate the complex language practices of emergent bilingual students from English learning and provides an alternative narrative.

Bilinguals are not simply speakers of a first and a second language

Bilingualism in schools is often understood as being additive. Additive bilingualism refers to the idea that a “second language” can be added to a “first language,” resulting in a person who is a balanced bilingual. The views about languaging that I have been developing here lead us to reject the idea of “first” and “second” language, as well as balanced bilingualism.

Although most bilinguals may be able to identify which language they learned “first” and which language they learned “second,” the assignment of a “first” and “second” language to bilinguals is as much a theoretical impossibility as is the concept of being a balanced bilingual.  New language practices emerge in interrelationship with old ones, and these language practices are always dynamically enacted.

I have argued that bilingualism can be better seen as dynamic.  In contrasting dynamic bilingualism to an additive perspective, I go beyond simply the perspective of language systems and refer to the multiple and complex way in which the language practices of bilinguals interact and form a complex language repertoire. I have used the image of a banyan tree to suggest that language practices emerge and develop in intertwined ways.

As bilingualism emerges, the identification of language practices belonging to one or another “language” has to be questioned. Bilinguals translanguage, disrupting conventional ideas of what languages are or of the languages that bilinguals have. Bilinguals are clearly not two monolinguals in one. They use their complex language repertoire to fulfill the communicative needs that emerge from the different landscapes and speakers through which they shuttle back and forth. I have used the image of the All Terrain Vehicle to suggest that bilinguals use their complex language practices selectively as they adapt to the ridges and craters of communication in different languagescapes.

Traditionally, bilingual use has been understood as following a diglossic compartmentalization, with one language spoken at home, another one in school. But the translanguaging lens we have adopted makes clear that the language practices of bilinguals are transglossic, and that their full repertoire of practices is used in homes, and often “invisibly” in schools. The structures of language and education programs and their pedagogies have to respond to greater fluidity. This is the misconstruction addressed in the next counter-narrative.

The teaching of English cannot be enacted in total separation from other language practices

Traditionally, the teaching of English has taken place in English only. But as the complex translanguaging practices of bilinguals are made more evident, structures and pedagogies that separate languages artificially have to be abandoned. The language separation approach that is often used has to be abandoned.

All teachers must adopt translanguaging strategies in teaching.  It would be important for English teachers to leverage the children’s entire language repertoire in making meaning and to develop the children’s metacognition and sense of self-regulation as they translanguage.

Oral discussions that include all students’ language practices enable their class participation, deep and reflexive thinking, and rigorous cognitive engagement with texts. The reading of difficult text is facilitated when students can access background material about the content of the text in other languages. Engagement with writing English texts is also facilitated when students can discuss, read and write first drafts that may include other language practices besides those that are in English.  Translanguaging is an important tool.

A translanguaging lens enables us to understand the teaching of English to emergent bilinguals in new ways. Focusing on translanguaging practices enables us to shed notions of system structures that can be linearly taught, of the proper usage of natives, of the value of monolingualism, of bilingualism as simply double monolingualism, of the teaching of English without considering the entire language and semiotic repertoire of students.

References

Blackledge, A. and Creese, A. (2010) .Multilingualism. London: Continuum.

Blommaert, J. (2010). The Sociolinguistics of globalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Canagarajah, A.S. (2011). Codemeshing in academic writing: Identifying teachable strategies of translanguaging. The Modern Language Journal 95(iii), 401-417.

Celic, C. and Seltzer, K. (2012). Translanguaging: A CUNY-NYSIEB Guide for Educators. New York: CUNY-NYSIEB. Online document: http://www.nysieb.ws.gc.cuny.edu/publicationsresources/

García, O. (2009). Bilingual education in the 21st Century: A Global perspective. Malden, MA and Oxford: Wiley/Blackwell.

García, O. and Sylvan, C. (2011). Pedagogies and practices in multilingual classrooms: Singularities in Pluralities. Modern Language Journal 95(iii), 385-400.

Hornberger, N. and H. Link. (2012). Translanguaging and transnational literacies in multilingual classrooms: A bilingual lens. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism 15(3): 261-278.

Pennycook, A. (2010). Language as a local practice. London and New York: Routledge.

*Ofelia García is Professor in the Ph.D. program of Urban Education and of Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Literatures and Languages at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.   She has published many book chapters, articles, and books. She is the Associate General Editor of the International Journal of the Sociology of Language.

What should one do in a language classroom?

Rama Kant Agnihotri*

What students and teachers should do in a language classroom is best left to them. Language teaching is so complex and so contextually rooted that except for very general guidelines, nothing may really help in the actual task. What language professionals can at best do is to make available in as accessible a manner as possible content, form and format (oral, printed, digital etc.) material about the potential of the learner, aspects of nature, structure, acquisition and change of language, features of language variation, nature of learning processes, materials, methods and evaluation procedures. In this short article, I focus only on one issue that may be of some use to language teachers: How languages of learners in a given classroom is not an obstacle in the trajectory of language learning; it is in fact a resource not only in language teaching but also in enhancing cognitive growth and social tolerance.

Most teachers and several language professionals believe that languages of students are an obstacle in the process of learning another language. Many actually believe that they cause major interference and therefore students should not even be allowed to use their languages in the class and the school. The typical paradigm in which they work could be defined as ‘a class, a teacher, a text and a language’. Nothing if you reflect for a moment could be further from the truth. All classes are by default multilingual. Examine your own and examine your own language profile and that of your friends. Secondly, languages student bring with them are and can be used as a resource rather than dismissed as an obstacle. Languages always flourish in each other’s company; they suffocate in prisons of isolation and purity. English today is rich because it keeps its doors open; so were Sanskrit and Hindi till they started closing their doors. Thirdly, it is not at all difficult for all teachers and students to appreciate that all languages are equally rule governed and rich. This is something which is so effortlessly achieved if the strengths of a multilingual class are recognized. For example, all languages will have some technique to indicate the relationship between the subject and the verbal elements. That some languages may look more powerful than others is NOT a linguistic matter but one of history, sociology and politics and these aspects can also be easily demonstrated if the teachers are open to such a discourse. Languages like Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Persian etc. were once very powerful; the power of English is only a few decades old and there is no reason to believe that it would stay like that. If you leave out china, Russia, Africa, India etc., the English speaking world is actually very small.

In any case, we do need to think why theories of interference hold such power and what’s wrong with them. These theories hold power because they are the most convenient answers to what is going on and they stop any deeper inquiry into the issues involved. It is a cosy corner that looks very attractive to a teacher who breathes some relief in saying: They will never learn; their languages always come in the way. What teachers don’t realize is that errors are necessary stages in the process of learning and what is being dismissed as interference may actually be a part of the UG driven way of acquiring a language or a milestone in the process of learning. Let’s consider some typical examples.

Let’s start with syntax. The fact of the matter is that there is actually no major difference between the basic syntactic structure of say Indian English and British or American English. All children, including those from the so-called native English communities, will make such errors as ‘he go to school’; the structural pressure of English syntax dictates that it should be so. Imagine everybody including ‘I, we, you, you plural, they’ ‘go’, why should poor ‘he, she, it’ ‘goes’!!! But if we stop comparing the behaviour of school or undergraduate learners with fluent speakers of ‘standard’ English, we will realize that all speakers of English, whether they acquire it as L 1 or L 2, learn to say ‘goes’ in due course. Take another oft quoted example of the invariant tag-question. When many speakers of the Asian subcontinent use ‘isn’t it’ with all kinds of statements, it is often pointed out as a major interference from say Hindi ‘hai na’ etc. Nobody takes the trouble of finding out how many ‘native’ varieties of English do the same. Some varieties of Canadian English certainly do it with a different invariant tag. Two points may be noted here. It may be a part of the standard commonly used Indian English and there is nothing wrong with this fairly understandable overgeneralization. In fact, in the speech of the teachers and the community, there may be no exposure to the variable tag question. Secondly, in the case of fluent users of Indian English, there may be many who actually use the variable tag question. What you eventually accept as a standard ‘correct’ usage is a matter that is located in a spatial, temporal, historical and sociological space.

Consider morphology. It is well attested that all children irrespective of whether they learn English as L 1 or L 2, go through a stage of using first ‘go, went, gone’ (as unrelated items) and then ‘go, goed, goed’ (as morphologically demanded items) and finally acquiring the exception ‘go, went, gone’. Imagine that all learners go through this stage and the set of irregular English verbs is rather large including such commonly used verbs as ‘come, cut, dig, do, eat, get, give, make…’ etc. Word formation strategies have nothing to do with interference. Yes, languages frequently borrow from each other, particularly cultural items. There is nothing you can do about it. English simply adds an additional appendix to its dictionary every year; speakers of course always move ahead of the dictionary.

Take phonology. Do all the so-called native speakers of English speak the same way? Will any one of you, unless she belongs to north of England, claim to understand a word of Yorkshire English? Or do you all understand rural Texan English? I don’t. I don’t even understand my grand-daughter studying in Malone in New York State. She finds it equally difficult to understand my Indian accent. Phonology is a marker of group identity and if you are really interested it will not come into your way after a while. But if you are already beyond 15-16 years of age, you will notice that your jaw is set and you may not get the ‘English English’ inter-dental fricatives, or the aspirated alveolar stops or the distinction between /v/ and /w/, which is really nothing to write home about unless you want a job at the BBC etc. Every variety has a right to its distinct identity.

So if languages of learners are not in our way, why do we make such a miserable mess of language teaching? At most places I know of, most learners don’t even manage to master the basic skills of reading comprehension and writing coherently. We do need to examine the language profile of our class. Every child brings a different linguistic and cultural resource to the class and these can indeed be sensitively assimilated into the teaching-learning process. The first requirement is of course that the teacher needs to walk out of the position of being the fountainhead of all knowledge and have faith in the ability of children to use their resources creatively. In actual classroom transactions it implies that the time taken by individual learners and their interactions in peer group would be much more than normally consumed by the teacher.

We today know that multilinguality is a default human situation and is constitutive of being human. Every classroom by default is inherently multilingual. Further, in a variety of ways, recent research has established how this multilinguality can be used not only as a resource but also as a teaching strategy and a goal. It correlates positively with language proficiency, cognitive growth, scholastic achievement, divergent thinking and social tolerance. It is also now well-established that levels of language proficiency enhance significantly with metalinguistic awareness which would tend to grow if we allow children to reflect on their languages.

What kind of strategies would be most useful in such situations? In fact, there is no limit and also no defining ‘models’. Freedom from the bondage of script is the first step. With very small effort on the part of learners and teachers, it becomes evident that all languages can be written in the same script, with some modifications. What we do need to understand is that all children and all their languages need to  be involved and the teachers need to create situations in which children can work in groups collecting data from their languages, classifying it into different categories, examine the relationships among different parts and arrive at conclusions and hypotheses that would account for their data. Consider for example, the making of nouns from adjectives in English. Adjectives like ‘dark, lazy, rough, kind, small, rich, soft etc’ can be turned into nouns by adding ‘-ness’. However, this is not where teachers would start; they would instead start by talking informally about adjectives and nouns for a few minutes. Then leave it to groups of children who share some languages to make list of adjectives and related nouns in different languages available in the class. Hindi may not have any such strategy; but it may have some others. Or take the case of making plurals. With very limited guidance children will themselves work out the problems of saying that the plural in English is made not by adding ‘-s, -es or –ies’; once it is explained to them that they should focus on the sounds with which a plural ends, they work out that significance of ‘-s, -z and –iz’ in making plural, themselves pointing that the plural of say ‘dog and baby’ is made by adding the same sound. Another group will come up with a strategy for making plurals in Hindi which has not one but 3 plurals for each noun e.g. in the case of laRkaa ‘boy’, we have ‘laRke, laRkoN and laRko’, being the nominative, oblique and vocative plurals respectively. Consider the case of making ‘negatives’ in different languages. It is possible that children would themselves (and so would the teacher) discover that negatives in all languages are made by putting the negative element close to the verb of the main clause and if a rule is discovered in this way, it is rather unlikely that children would make mistakes in speaking or writing negative sentences. Take the case of translation. Nothing enhances language proficiency more than peer-group attempts at translation, not the traditional type of ‘literally and accurately translating from language X to language Y’. A small poem for example could be taken from any language. Notice that the power structures in the classroom at once start getting democratised; teacher is at the back of the classroom listening like others to a poem in an unknown language which is then written and explained by children in the script they are already using. The poem is then translated into several languages in small groups. Stories, plays, cultural events, social issues etc. could also be treated in a similar way. The kind of phonological, syntactic, semantic and semiotic issues such an exercise raises is overwhelming. The idea is to go through the process, not to arrive at a final, perfect translation.

*Rama Kant Agnihotri, D.Phil. (York), retired as Professor and Head, Department of Linguistics, University of Delhi. He is interested in and has taught and written extensively about Applied Linguistics, Morphology, Sociolinguistics and Research Methods for several years. He has lectured in Germany, UK, USA, Canada, Yemen, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan, among other countries. He has also been working with several NGOs across India in the area of elementary school education. He co-edits, with A. L. Khanna, the Sage series on Applied Linguistics. He was Chair of the NCERT Focus Group on The Teaching of Indian Languages during NCF 2005.

Creative Writing for Students and Teachers

Alan Maley

U.K.

Why is it that most institutional systems of education develop such narrow and unadventurous teaching procedures?  How is it that joyful learning somehow gets overwhelmed by institutional rituals: the worship of the syllabus, the obsession with ‘covering’ the textbook, the manic preoccupation with the exam, the compulsion to conform?  It seems that only in rare cases, through the determination of individual teachers, is joyful learning achieved.  In most other cases, the language is reduced to drumming in material as if it were a set of mathematical formulae in preparation for the exam, after which it can safely be discarded.  Small wonder that many students simply switch off  and develop a lifelong aversion to the language in question.  What they learn is neither enjoyable nor perceived as useful in the ‘real’ world outside the classroom.

This applies to much English language teaching too: all too often, it lacks a creative spark.  John McRae goes so far as to say,

“In future years, the absence of imaginative content in language teaching will be considered to have marked a primitive stage of the discipline: the use of purely referential materials limits the learner’s imaginative involvement with the target language, and leads to a one-dimensional learning achievement.  Representational materials make an appeal to the learner’s imagination…”  (McRae 1991:vii)

In this article I shall be arguing for the need to develop more creative approaches to writing as a way of enriching the learning experiences of both teachers and learners.

 

What is Creative Writing?

Creative writing is often contrasted with Expository writing.  I have summarized the principle differences between them in the following table:

   Expository Writing   Creative Writing

 

     Instrumental

 

     Facts

 

     External control

 

     Conventions

 

     Logical

 

     Analytical

 

     Impersonal

 

     Thinking mode

 

    Appeal to the intellect

 

    Avoidance of ambiguity

 

    Aesthetic

 

    Imagination

 

    Internal discipline

 

    Stretching rules

 

    Intuitive

 

    Associative

 

    Personal

 

    Feeling mode (plus thinking!)

 

    Appeal to the senses

 

    Creation of multiple meanings

When writing an expository text we are essentially instrumentally motivated. We have a quantum of facts, ideas and opinions to put across.  Expository writing rests on a framework of externally imposed rules and conventions.  These range from grammatical and lexical accuracy and appropriacy to specific genre constraints.  The aim of expository writing is to be logical, consistent and impersonal and to convey the content as unambiguously as possible to the reader.

Creative writing, by contrast, is aesthetically motivated.  It deals less in facts than in the imaginative representation of emotions, events, characters and experience.  Contrary to what many believe, creative writing is not about license.  It is a highly disciplined activity.  But the discipline is self-imposed: ‘the fascination of what’s difficult’ (Yeats).  In this it stands in contrast to expository writing, which imposes constraints from without.  It often proceeds by stretching the rules of the language to breaking point, testing how far it can go before the language breaks down under the strain of innovation.  Creative writing is a personal activity, involving feeling. This is not to say that thought is absent – far from it.  The ingenuity of a plot, or the intricate structure of a poem are not the products of an unthinking mind: they require a unique combination of thought and feeling – part of what Donald Davie (1994) calls ‘articulate energy.’  An important quality of creative writing however is the way it can evoke sensations.  And, unlike expository writing, it can be read on many different levels and is open to multiple interpretations.

The Case for Creative Writing.

 

It is reasonable to ask however, how we can justify the inclusion of creative writing, in addition to aesthetic reading, in our language teaching practices.  A recent small-scale survey (unpublished data) I conducted among some 50 leading ELT professionals, especially teachers of writing, yielded the following reasons:

1.  Creative writing aids language development at all levels: grammar, vocabulary, phonology and discourse. As learners manipulate the language in interesting and demanding ways, attempting to express uniquely personal meanings (as they do in creative writing), they necessarily engage with the language at a deeper level of processing than with expository texts (Craik and Lockhart 1972).  The gains in grammatical accuracy,  appropriacy and originality of lexical choice, and sensitivity to rhythm, rhyme, stress and intonation are significant.

2. Creative writing also fosters ‘playfulness’.  In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in the role of play in language acquisition. (Cook 2000, Crystal 1998)  In some ways the ‘communicative movement’ has done a disservice to language teaching by its insistence on the exclusively communicative role played by language.  The proponents of play point out, rightly, that in L1 acquisition, much of the language used by children is almost exclusively concerned with play: rhythmical chants and rhymes, word games, jokes and the like.  Furthermore, such playfulness survives into adulthood, so that many social encounters are characterized by language play (puns, jokes, ‘funny voices’, metathesis, and so on) rather than by the direct communication of messages. In creative writing, learners are encouraged to do precisely this: to play creatively with the language in a guilt-free environment.  As Crystal states, ‘Reading and writing do not have to be a prison house.  Release is possible.  And maybe language play can provide the key.’ (Crystal 1998:217)

3. This playful element encourages learners to take risks with the language, to explore it without fear of reproof.  By manipulating the language in this way, they also begin to discover things not only about the language but about themselves.  They effectively begin to develop a ‘second language personality’.

4.  Much of the teaching we do draws and focuses on the left side of the brain, where our logical faculties are said to reside.  Creative writing puts the emphasis on the right side of the brain, with a focus on feelings, physical sensations, intuition, and the like.  This is a healthy restoration of balance between the logical and the intuitive faculties.  It also allows scope for learners whose hemisphere preference or dominance may not be left-brain, and who, in the usual course of teaching, are therefore at a disadvantage.

5.  The dramatic increase in self-confidence and self-esteem which creative writing tends to develop among learners leads to a corresponding increase in motivation.  Dornyei (2001), among others, has pointed to evidence that suggests that among the key  conditions for promoting motivation are:

‘5. Create a pleasant and supportive atmosphere in the classroom

6.  Promote the development of group cohesiveness.

13. Increase the students’ expectancy of success in particular tasks and in learning in

general.

17. Make learning more stimulating and enjoyable by breaking the monotony of

classroom events.

18. Make learning stimulating and enjoyable for the learner by increasing the

attractiveness of tasks.

19. Make learning stimulating and enjoyable for the learners by enlisting them as active

task participants.

20. Present and administer tasks in a motivating way.

23. Provide students with regular experiences of success.

24. Build your learners’ confidence by providing regular encouragement.

28. Increase student motivation by promoting cooperation among the learners.

29. Increase student motivation by actively promoting learner autonomy.

33. Increase learner satisfaction.

34. Offer rewards in a motivational manner.’(Dornyei 2001: 138-144)

All these conditions are met in a well-run creative writing class.  This increase in motivation is certainly supported by my own experience in teaching creative writing.  Learners suddenly realize that they can write something in the foreign language which no one else has ever written before.  And they experience not only a pride in their own products but a joy in the process.

6. Creative writing also feeds into more creative reading.  It is as if, by getting inside the process of creating the text, learners come to intuitively understand how such texts work, and this makes them easier to read.  Likewise, the development of aesthetic reading skills provides the learner with a better understanding of textual construction, and this feeds into their writing.  There is only one thing better than reading a lot for developing writing ~ and that is writing a lot too!

7. Finally, the respondents to the questionnaire survey were almost unanimous in agreeing that creative writing helps to improve expository writing too. In fact, by helping learners to develop an individual voice, it makes their factual writing more genuinely expressive.

All of the above factors were mentioned by the respondents to the questionnaire.  Respondents noted that students who become engaged in CW tasks demonstrate a robust sense of self-esteem and are consequently better motivated (Dornyei 2001).  They also become more aware both of the language and of themselves as learners. The virtuous cycle of success breeding more success is evident with such students.  As they become more self-confident, so they are prepared to invest more of themselves in these creative writing tasks.  Above all, students derive not just ‘fun’ but a deeper sense of enjoyment from their writing.

References

Arnold, Jane.  (1999).  Affect in Language Learning.  Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press.

Boden, Margaret.  (1998)  The Creative Mind.  London: Abacus.

Carter, Ronald.  (2004)  Language and Creativity: the art of common talk.  London: Routledge.

Cook, Guy.  (2000)  Language Play: Language Learning.  Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press.

Craik, F.I.M. and R.S. Lockhart (1972)  ‘Levels of processing: a framework for memory research.’  Journal for verbal learning and Verbal Behaviour II: 617-84.

Crystal, David. (1998)  Language Play.  London: Penguin.

Davie, Donald (1994)  Purity of Diction in English Verse and Articulate Energy.  London: Carcanet.

Day, Richard and Julian Bamford.  (1998)  Extensive Reading in the Second Language Classroom.  Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press

Dornyei ,Zoltan  (2001) Motivational Strategies in the Language Classroom.  Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press.

Gardner,  Howard. (1985)  Frames of Mind.  London: Paladin Books

Gleick, James. (1988)  Chaos.  London: Sphere Books

Koch, Kenneth. (1990) Rose, where did you get that red?  New York: Vintage Books.

Krashen, Stephen  (2004 second edition) The Power of Reading.  PortsmouthNH: Heinemann

Maley, Alan (ed) (2007 a)) Asian Short Stories for Young Readers.  Vol. 4.  Petaling Jaya: Pearson/Longman Malaysia

Maley, Alan (ed)  (2007 b))  Asian Poems for Young Readers. Vol.5. Petaling Jaya:Pearson/Longman Malaysia.

Maley, Alan and Jayakaran Mukundan.  (eds) (2005 a))  Asian Stories for Young Readers, Vol 1   Petaling Jaya: Pearson/Longman Malaysia.

Maley, Alan and Jayakaran Mukundan  (eds)  (2005 b))  Asian Stories for Young Learners. Vol. 2  Petaling Jaya: Pearson Malaysia

Maley, Alan and Jayakaran Mukundan (eds) (2005 c) Asian Poems for Young Readers.Vol. 3.   Petaling Jaya: Pearson/Longman.

Maley, Alan and Jayakaran Mukundan (eds) (2011a)) Asian Short Stories for Young Readers.  Petaling Jaya: Pearson Malaysia

Maley, Alan and Jayakaran Mukundan (eds)  (2011 b)) Asian Poems for Young Readers. Petaling Jaya: Pearson Malaysia.

Maley, Alan and Jayakaran Mukundan (2011 c))  Writing Poems: a resource book for teachers of English.  Petaling Jaya: Pearson Malaysia

Maley, Alan and Jayakaran Mukundan (2011 d))  Writing Stories; a resource book for teachers of English.  Petaling Jaya: Pearson Mal.aysia

McRae, John  (1991) Literature with a Small ‘l’.  Oxford.: Macmillan.

Matthews, Paul. 1994. Sing Me the Creation.  Stroud:Hawthorn Press.

Mukundan, Jayakaran.  (ed)  (2006) Creative Writing in EFL/ESL Classrooms II.  Petaling Jaya: Pearson Longman Malaysia

Rubdy, Rani and Mario Saraceni (eds) (2006) English in the World: Global Rules, Global Roles.  London/New York: Continuum.

Schmidt, Richard (1990).  ‘The role of  consciousness in second language learning’.  Applied Linguistics. Vol. 11, No. 2 129-158.  Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press.

Schumacher, E.F.  (1974).  Small is Beautiful.  London: Abacus/Sphere Books

Spiro, Jane  (2004)  Creative Poetry Writing.  Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press.

Spiro, Jane.  (2006)  Creative Story-building.  Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press.

Tan, Bee Tin (ed) (2004). Creative Writing in EFL/ESL Classrooms I  Serdang: UPM Press.

Tomlinson, Brian  (1998). ‘Seeing what they mean: helping L2 learners to visualise.’  In B.Tomlinson (ed). Materials Development in Language Teaching.  Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press.  265-78

Tomlinson, Brian (2001) ‘The inner voice: a critical factor in language learning’  Journal of the Imagination in L2 learning.  VI, 123-154.

Wright, Andrew and David Hill. (2008)  Writing Stories.  Innsbruck: Helbling Languages.

Monolingual Policies in Multilingual States: Implications for Language Teaching

Madhav Kafle

Penn State University, USA

In this brief post, I share my rumination over the concept of ‘a language’ and concept of correctness in language teaching and learning. Historically, neither did human beings claim a language by the virtue of belonging to a place nor did they police communicative endeavors of the learners as we do in many academic and non-academic spaces today. So when did we begin to have the concept of a language from that of the Language? By the Language, I mean the semiotic affordances our predecessors exploited to communicate with each other. We might first be shocked to realize that languages such as English, Nepali, Hindi, Chinese and so forth as we conceptualize them today as bounded entities belonging to a certain group of people were invented at some point in the past. Today, as we know, in most parts of the world, languages are taught as if they always existed as self-contained systems with discrete borders. If we mix words or chunks of so-called language “X” to that of a language “Y” in academic discourse, then we are often seen as a language learner who has yet to master the language fully rather than a member of an elite family. Despite being pervasively prevalent in everyday interactions, mixing is seen as one of the seven sins, if you will, in the academia.

And you might be saying, well you can do that in speaking but not in writing; writing is formal and is set in stone whereas speaking is ephemeral and assisted by multiple channels of meaning including gestures and facial expressions. To speak only of English (as ‘a language’) in Nepalese context, we expect our students at all levels to be able to show the mastery of certain national goals and objectives stipulated by the policy makers. Needless to say, the objectives of the language education are monolingual; therefore, teaching materials and resources all are only in English and the medium of instruction is also assumed to be English only (Let’s not get distracted right now by caring to talk about the reality). The pedagogy in most cases is test-driven. Therefore, instead of assessing the effectiveness of the utterance to the local context, we dwell up on the global binary of right and wrong.

Let’s talk about issue of normativity for a while. Modern society judges all human experiences by putting them through the parameters of ‘normalcy’ whereas this very concept has been shown as a matter of social and historical construction rather than a condition of human nature. According to Lennard J. Davis, as he recounts in his essay “Constructing Normalcy” in The Disability Studies Reader, the word ‘normal’ as ‘constituting, conforming to, not deviating or different from the common type or standard, regular, usual’ only enters the English language around 1840. The boundaries and strictures of normalcy, which we think of as ‘natural’ givens now, were constructed just one and a half century ago, at least in the western intellectual history. Likewise, according to Davis,

the word ‘norm’ in the modern sense, has only been in use since around 1855, and ‘normality’ and ‘normalcy’ appeared in 1849 and 1857, respectively. If the lexicographical information is relevant, it is possible to date the coming into consciousness in English of an idea of ‘the norm’ over the period 1840-1860. (10)

Further, Davis  goes onto say that before the construction of the concept of the norm, there was the concept of ‘ideal’, which also dates only from the seventeenth century. However, since the ideal was linked to the world of the divine, it was simply impossible to be achieved by mortals. Within such a schema of the ‘ideal’ there could be no room for the notion of deviance. Disability, for example, did not mean deviance but a part of the ideal. After the construction of ‘norms’ around the mid-nineteenth century, rules and regulations were created in each and every domains of human experience. This historic account of norms might sound a little simplistic; however, the purpose should be clear: norms are social constructions as are languages. As an aside, let me say this to you, I had to resort to western literature to elucidate this point, I wish I was able to find some relevant sources from our local multilingual archives .

Now, once constructed, do the norms last forever? An example from The New York Times example might be insightful. According to the article, the current association of baby clothes, which are often sorted by gender and color lines, pink for girls and blue for boys, were once just the other way around. Before the World War I, boys were pink and the girls were blue. This indicates that the norms can change according to the needs of the new times (or even for some mysterious reason).

If you permit me to continue this philosophical rambling, to have a historical understanding of the language standards, how about we travel a little back to the pre-colonial times? Would not it be interesting to explore what kinds of language norms were exercised during gurukul education system?  Maybe,  our tendency of seeing ourselves as authorities and our language  policing in  language and literacy teaching, has some kind of legacy to gurukul system as well. Again, unfortunately, the literature covering that time is relatively sparse and we are raised in a culture of looking to the West.

Consciously or unconsciously, we seem to be unable to conceive of other ways besides following the mono-normative pedagogy by default. We take for granted that skills such as reading and writing once learnt are going to be useful for ages while that is in fact not the case. If we talk about professional development, rarely is the case where teacher training programs do capitalize on local (multilingual) pedagogy. Similarly, well-meaning literacy sponsors such as British Council and US Embassy and other funding agencies would not probably commend our proposal of mixing different languages for academic purposes. This is not to say we do not have local conventions, but we often tend to discredit them as incorrect or substandard. We do not often look for hidden legacies we might have. To put it a little differently, we have yet to create the knowledge base that validates our centuries long practices.

On a more positive note, there are some signs that we are going to regain the multilingual history at some point in near future, if not soon. European Union today is a case in point. However, I am aware of the fact that while economic prospect of multilingualism is now visible in developed countries, English is still getting an unjustly superior position in many developing countries like ours. Therefore, to envision a future where we can follow the middle path by striking the balance between the indigenous and dominant languages, whether they be English or Nepali, we need to start acting today. We can’t outright negate the ‘a language’ discourse as it is rather deep, but we can at least start destabilizing the concept. The recent discussion on speaking English (only) in and out of the classrooms in NELTA yahoo group can be taken as one of the examples of possible steps forward.  Through such intellectually engaging discussions, we will be able to reinvigorate and build on our past pedagogies.  Yes, we won’t reach to conclusions easily, but the fire of criticality will keep us guiding to a better future. I hope we soon realize that erasing tribal languages in the name of validating economically advantageous languages in academia is neither fair nor foresighted. So, what kind of pedagogy would be more socially sensitive and culturally appropriate? Let’s keep the discussion going on!

Teach English, Speak English, Why? The Importance of Conversations on Choutari

Dr. Shyam Sharma
Stony Brook University, New York

Choutari is now in the hands of a brilliant new group of NELTA scholars, and I am excited about that. The old and new teams who were working together for a while in order to make this conversation under the shade of this forum even better had to go through a somewhat difficult time during the month of January—it’s a story that may be worth telling someday, perhaps years from now, and it’s a good one—but we also had a wonderful opportunity to further realize the tremendous value of promoting professional conversation in this great community. With the talent and enthusiasm of the new team, I am sure that we are going to see in the years to come great strides in the work of welcoming, encouraging, urging, prodding us to give back in the form of ideas and inspiration to our society. This work of building our scholarship from the ground up is extremely important to us as educators in a struggling nation right now and it will be, for different reasons, for generations to come.

Among the reasons we started this blog, one was to make our professional conversations serve as useful resource by making them open and accessible. And that’s what I want to write about in this reflection today.

Since I promised the editor of this month, my friend Bal Ram Adhikari, that I would contribute an entry for the issue, I’ve been trying to write about something that has kept me professionally “awake,” so to say, since I started teaching in a primary school in Butwal almost 20 years ago, something that I continued to ask for the next 12 years in grade schools and eventually at TU and then when I decided to switch from English to Writing Studies. And that something is a whole range of questions, which used to often discourage me while I taught at home: Why am I teaching what I am teaching? Does teaching grammar help students learn language? Why are we asking students to speak in English only? The teaching of literature seems to contribute to students’ personal development quite a bit, but how far does it contribute to their social and professional lives and the society at large? Why do we do little more than giving lecture in the name of “covering” the content of the course and helping students prepare for the exam—and what if there are better ways to achieve these same goals and also make education more worthwhile? What do we mean by “English education”?

When we started Choutari, I was happy because this platform allowed us to ask questions like the above as part of a broader professional conversation among hundreds of other scholars and teachers who may have similar questions, different perspectives, better answers. In this post, I want to build on a recent conversation that took place (and at the time of this writing is still ongoing) inside NELTA’s Yahoo mailing list that many of us are subscribed to. I responded briefly there, as it fit that medium, and I want to explore the issue further here, from broader educational, professional, and social perspectives. I request you, dear colleagues, to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

A fellow NELTA member, Umesh Shrestha, asked in the mailing list recently whether we, as English teachers, should communicate in English beyond the classroom and school (because, the writer seemed to imply, we don’t practice what we preach). This was a very thought-provoking question (and among other colleagues, Suman Laudari has responded with some great ideas on the list). Let me get into the relaxing mood of choutari and share some thoughts—for the beauty and fresh air of early spring is returning to the hillsides and I am truly excited by the arrival of a whole group of gaunles under the shady tree.

The question of whether we, even teachers of English, should speak English everywhere, as well as require our students to do so in school and encourage to do so outside is not new. And I happen to have strong views not only about whether even our students (forget about us) must be required to speak English at all times in school (if not beyond it!) but also about whether we should use English as a medium of instruction and for what purposes, if at all.

Let me take a step back and ask a more basic question: “Why” is it that English is the increasingly dominant, increasingly popular, increasingly unquestioned medium of instruction in Nepal? Is there a straightforward “ELT” answer to this question? Does the use of English as “the” medium of instruction raise the standard of our education overall? Does it make classroom teaching and classroom learning more effective?

First, if the answer to questions like the above is more of a “no” than “yes,” then should we make it our professional lives’ priority to make the answer “yes”? Or, should we instead pause and think why the answer is “no”? That is, if using English rather than Nepali and/or other languages of instruction—at least in certain subjects, grade levels, regions, etc—does not have an “ELT” answer (which I presume it doesn’t), then why are we insisting that “English Only” must be the medium of instruction? If imposing English as the only medium of instruction does not raise the standard of our students’ education, then how have we come to embrace the delusion (sorry, but that’s what I think it largely is) that English “is” education (as in the phrase “English education”)? Is there, in the world of reality, such a thing as “English” education (one that is of a different order of intellectual significance than education acquired “in”? another language?)– or have we just created a feel good phrase to describe “English language education/learning” by dropping the key word in the middle?

To stay on the yes/no questions above, I would readily say NO, there is absolutely no doubt that IF requiring only English as the medium of instruction, communication, and jus being in school had ZERO SIDE EFFECTS, then the benefits are so many, so significant, so long term, so attractive… that we wouldn’t need to have this conversation. I would whole-heartedly support the use of English as the “only” medium in/throughout school. I’m not joking about this, but IF our students were to come out of high school speaking fluent English while ALSO writing effectively (whether that’s in English or not, please note), demonstrating critical thinking skills at par with their peers in other nations, being able to pursue and generate new ideas on their own, excelling in math and science and technology, etc, and IF the “medium” of English was a significant reason for our students’ elevated standards in all the above areas, then NO we would not have this conversation either. We would just call the adoption of English as the “only” medium of instruction as a straightforward, non-political, purely pedagogical decision. But that’s not the case. We know for fact—and we have been in denial for a few decades now—that the English medium that we have imposed in the name of improving the “quality” of education has VISIBLY affected the effectiveness of just too many teachers’ teaching, thereby their students’ learning, the teaching and learning of math and science and social studies and economics and environmental studies and agriculture and you name it. The English medium is certainly justified for teaching the English language—although even in this case, I have a hard time understanding why we teach it for 12-16 years and our students’ English is not as good as the Nepali proficiency of my Christian missionary friend who has been in Nepal for less than a year. Yes, our students’ English proficiency—and indeed our own as English teachers—may be too low. And it is for us as teachers (plus scholars) to develop solutions by having serious curricular, pedagogical, and educational discussions. But our good intentions to solve a problem don’t justify just “any” means. For instance, it would be terribly absurd for us as English teachers to tell our colleagues teaching social studies and math and physics and chemistry and their students who are solving algebra problems or playing khopi or eating samosa in the canteen that they must use English because— oh, wait, I forgot what I was about to say! English, you know, English, and like English education. Like globalized world. Opportunities. The internet. Facebook…. Okay, I can’t think anymore. Let me do something different. Let me tell you a story.

I have a nonnative English speaking (Chinese) student named Bao in my “intermediate college writing” class (here at the State University of New York). During the first class meeting in a one month long intensive writing workshop, while I was describing one of the assignments, a “rhetorical analysis” of a text that students would choose, Bao raised his hand, with his face looking like he was terrified of something, and said: “Professor, I don’t have the ‘professionalism’ to criticize the author’s writing style….” Bao’s English language “speaking” proficiency was so low that I couldn’t help thinking how many of the international students (15 out of 20, from 6 different countries, with different extents of exposure to “native” English speaking communities) were going to pass. Bao’s case was particularly striking: he not only struggled to express himself in English, as a student who had just come from a sociocultural background that doesn’t value “challenging” or even “analyzing” the ideas and expressions of established writers and scholars, he was saying that he neither could nor would like to “criticize” how a scholarly article was written. I gave a short answer and invited Bao to my office for further discussion. During the first discussion I realized that Bao was “confusing” his low proficiency in English with his lack of “knowledge” about what “rhetorical analysis” means; so I gave him a text (an excerpt from Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech), a sample rhetorical analysis that he and I found online, and a long list of questions with which I broke down the assignment (as supplement to the assignment description). Long story short, the rhetorical analysis that Bao wrote within the first week of class (before the class moved to another project) was in many ways better than the writing of most other students in class, including the native English speaking students (some of whom, by the way, implemented what they had already learned in high school and turned in their papers, and their papers showed little new learning). One of the things that Bao had done was to copy, adapt, and echo the rhetorical analysis “moves” made by other writers in the many samples that he had gone on to find: he deliberately avoided looking at rhetorical analyses of the text he was analyzing so he was not plagiarizing. When he submitted the finalized analysis, I had to start by asking whether and to what extent someone else had helped him write the paper and/or he had copied from another writer’s analysis of the same text. He had not, as I found out that he had done what I just described.

So, it was not because Bao mastered the “medium” (indeed, it was “in spite of” the medium that still lagged significantly) but because he was engaged with ideas (a highly thought-provoking text), because he had an unyielding commitment, because he learned how to learn, because of his commitment and motivation that Bao was able to do what seemed so impossible. Even as he imitated and echoed and adapted and ventriloquized sentence structures and phrases and worlds from the samples that he gathered from all kinds of sources, Bao learned a whole new “discourse,” indeed a new language, in his incredible one-week long learning journey, thereby tremendously improving his overall English language skills (including skills for critical thinking, analytical reading, and composition). When I read Bao’s final draft, I questioned some of the conventional teaching wisdom that only rare situations like this make me ask, only situations like this can so beautifully blow up in the air.

Reading the question about how great it might be if we too were speaking English all the time, I was almost depressed to think about the state of our education—I mean about the learning part, the part where the nature and content of education matters, the part where our students are being prepared (or not) to become intellectually and professional capable of navigating (and indeed competing in) the complex, connected, global world that they live in and need to be even better prepared for.

Let us (of course) develop practical solutions for practical problems. But let us do so without being so naive as to think that we can be more effective at doing so by eschewing the larger context of education–motivation, rationale, fairness, etc–in the name of being practical. Let us not allow the politics of denial (or the claim that one is not being political in order to stay above the discussion when the issue is politically significant) to justify an active forgetting and overlooking of the larger purpose of teaching English, or social studies or science for that matter. It is only within the larger social context that our problem-solving of any ELT issues—the questions we ask, the answers we seek—will make sense.

And to connect that to what I was saying about the importance of joining and promoting such conversations like this in choutaris like this, I have the same old, humble request for you. Dear colleague, after you read a post, or two, maybe all, please do not forget to add a line, or two, or many lines, sharing your idea, experience, feedback… as encouragement to the writers and good example for other readers.

What experienced teachers tend to do with ‘silent’, ‘dominant’ and ‘off-task’ students


Bal Krishna Sharma

“I had one person who was always working and two people were just sitting there and watching.”

“At the beginning of the semester I had two very talkative students, and they were sitting in opposite sides of the classroom; and all the time it is them talking.”

“I have had several students who frequently bring topics that are unrelated to the teaching agenda.”

These are some of the quotes I took from my colleagues teaching academic writing at the University of Hawaii. My teaching experience, and perhaps yours as well, shows that students show different learning dynamics and engagement patterns in language classrooms. For example, you may encounter students who are quiet and shy and do not make verbal contributions to whole class or group tasks. You may also find some students who are overtly dominant; that is, they tend to take most of the talk time as well as task time in class as well as in collaborative projects. Still another dynamics: you may find your students engaging in talk and discussions but they may quite frequently drive your teaching agenda to different directions and lead you to off-task situations where you and your learners may not achieve the stated lesson goals. These are some of the learner dynamics I have recently been interested in.

Three years ago, I video recorded five lessons my own class where I was teaching academic writing to international graduate students. When I repeatedly watched the video for a reflection, I noticed that my class included all three types of students described above. As I had just moved from a relatively teacher-centered pedagogic context (Nepal) to a more learner-centered teaching context (the US), I was metacognitively more aware of the belief that ‘Now I have to do a more learner-centered teaching’. As a result, after watching the video, I noticed that I was unnecessarily giving more autonomy to my students. That is, I was not making as much interventions in student activities, particularly in group work, as I now realize I should have.

Then I was curious what other teachers were doing with similar students. I took this issue as a research topic for a Task-Based Language Teaching seminar that Dr. John Norris was teaching. As a next step for my own professional development, I prepared three video clips, each of which contained examples of ‘silence’, ‘dominance’ and ‘off-task’ behaviors of my students. Then I showed those videos to eight writing teachers who were from the same language institute I was part of. As you might know, success of a task depends on all its variables: the nature of the task itself, the learners and the teacher. Based on this principle, I interviewed those eight teachers regarding how they address ‘silence’, ‘dominance’ and ‘off-task’ behaviors of their students. Their responses showed that a teacher has to be well-trained in designing and implementing the tasks in all three stages: pre-task design, task design, and task implementation. Following table gives a summary of these teachers’ suggestions:

Pre-task design Task design Implementation
• Know learners by collecting background information, e.g. use of literacy autobiography assignment, learner style survey, background survey questionnaire, etc.• Use awareness raising tasks, e.g. show videos to illustrate ‘good vs. bad’ group participation patterns; explicitly discuss issues with learners, with a reflection from their own classroom, if possible • Choose familiar topic for the task• Make task guidelines and task goal explicit• Give planning time

• Give worksheet/ handout for preparation

• Designate different roles (e.g. reporter, recorder, time keeper, etc.) in the task itself.

• Do the task first by yourself in order to experience its pros and cons

• Arrange the learners in groups in terms of their demonstrated task engagement patterns•Keep changing group composition unless there is a reason not to do so• Assign learner roles in group

• Keep eyes on what learners are doing

• Make an informed intervention and remind the learners of task goal and allocated time

•Motivate the students

Let us have a look what these teachers say:

“I used to have a video of Cambridge task; it was like about 2 minutes for the task. And one student was dominating the other student. I asked them like how they would rate them. Everyone said that they did not like the student talk too much. And I asked what advice would you give to the one who talks too much or the one who talked too little? So I recommend this to others.”

“Each time I give them a task, I want to engage myself like how much time it should take, its difficulty level like that. And also who is this task for, does it really work? When am I going to put it in class? Am I going to use it in the beginning or end? After I analyzed all of that then I think okay I am going to pair them up or put them in groups. I’m not going to give my students a blind task.”

“I don’t interrupt immediately. I feel it’s kinna rude. And then I indicate ‘okay that’s great, but how about this reading?’ I do expect them to talk about the reading but I am also glad if they are getting fluency practiced. I also feel that it is important to let them talk about social things and make friends.”

“When I see a student talking a lot, I would say something that would go against his or her opinion and then ask the other students which opinion they would agree or disagree with. So, that way quiet students get space between talkative students and they can state their opinions and get involved in discussions.”

“Some students finish tasks before others. Sometimes I go around groups and ask additional questions”.

“If I see that students move to some off-topic talk, I also try to see a reason why they did so. I go next to them and try to restate the task so that they understand what they are supposed to do.”

“Try to let the student do the task independently as much as possible but intervene when it is necessary.”

Concluding remarks: After these two stages of reflection (video watching and interview), I have had more insights on how to deal with diverse students. I have used many of the suggested ideas in my recent teaching. For example, in the beginning of the semester, I always collect student background information through short questionnaire. Frequently, I designate different roles to different students in a group so that each student has a visible contribution to make.

With the incorporation of such ideas, I have had more balanced contributions from my students. Please respond to this if you find the ideas useful to you.

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