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!