Sunday, April 1, 2012

Hand wringing at AAAL

I guess I will start with the "m'eh" of the conference considering that we can only go up if we start at the bottom (and it just so happens that one of the first session I went to was one of these two).  So, I think this was partly my fault for not really reading the abstracts prior to going to the sessions (mostly going by the title), and even when I read the abstracts, not really looking up things I was unfamiliar with (thinking that I would pick stuff up in the session.

The first session that was a bit  "m'eh" for me was:
Title: Native or Non-native: “That is the question!” or “Is that the question?”
Abstract: NNESTs find themselves in a profession wherein (a) NESTs are perceived as idealized language teachers, and (b) there exists an untenable causality between nativeness and pedagogical competence. Utilizing labeling theory, the current study aims to foment a move from a polarizing “either/or” to a “both/and” wherein professionalism will be redefined.
Now, what I thought I was going in for was some research showing that Natives and Non-Natives teachers are equally good at teaching language. It's not their "nativeness" that makes them good teachers, but their command of the materials, pedagogic knowledge and so on. The one gem out of this session was that indeed most teachers of English are non-native speakers, and there is research that shows that there is no deficit in the abilities of non-native speakers when it comes to teaching language.  That's where the gems end.

It seemed to me that the non-native speakers that teach that were presenting and those who were in the audience (and there were quite a few of us) were suffering from professional angst. The "what if my employers don't think I am a good teacher because English is not my native language." Apparently there is discrimination around this, with employers preferring native speakers without any shred of evidence on the superiority of native speakers. OK, sure, but this isn't a linguistic issue, but rather an HR issue, it's a discrimination issue, and it should be treated as such.

There was an audience member who shared an anecdote that a potential student shied away from their class when they found out that the teacher was a non native speaker. In a subsequent semester when this non-native speaker was the only game in town for Part II of the class, and the student had no other choice, the student had an "aha" moment where they understood that this teacher was pretty exceptional regardless of their native language.  You know, biases like these might exist, but we ought to be going out an showing that we are just as good as native speakers, and if people don't want to believe us, let's not wring our hands - it's their loss.  No need to feel inferior or adopt a "woe is me" attitude - which is the vibe I got from the session.

Title: Problematizing the construction of US Americans as monolingual English speakers
Abstract: The presenter problematizes the discursive construction of US Americans as monolingual native English speakers, which normalizes and solidifies the ideology of English monolingualism as part of the US identity. Then she explores how changing such discourse is needed for successful policies and practices that promote and support multilingualism

The second session also seemed promising, but it failed me.  The main theme was the monolingual US American, but then the speakers brought in the notion of immigrants, or second generation, or third generation who speak English, plus a home language, and perhaps something they learned in college, so the Monolingual American is a myth.  OK, I agree, but the session then is not about monolingual Americans but rather what it means to be an American. I am an American, but most people tend to think of me as "Greek." When people think of Monolingual Americans, at least from my experience, they think of the archetypical white-anglo-american, and even then it's a certain socioeconomic stratum of white-anglo-america.

I was interested in this discussion of what it means to be American, but the discussion moved onto a debate of the terms Monolingual, Bilingual, Multilingual and Plurilingual.   I really could not believe my ears when the meaning of Monolingual and Bilingual was debated.  Sure, Monolingual has been co-opted in some cases to mean "english only" - but that is not the case everywhere. Monolingual means speaking one language period.  And again, just because bilingual has been co-opted in some cases to mean English-Spanish, it doesn't mean that we need to stop using the term in its entirety.  People who speak two languages are bilingual.  The main #facepalm moment was the suggestion that we might not want to use bilingual and multilingual because bi- means two and multi- means many and people might feel inferior if they only speak two languages - oh...#facepalm.... WTH? It's like I jumped into some PC (politically correct) twilight zone.

Some audience member suggested a new term plurilingual to potentially remove stigmas for the bi- and multi-, and some suggested not using English as a Second language because it might not be indicative of the actual language that students are learning (it might be their third of fourth for example).  It is true that people who've had more than one second language are generally better able to pick up more languages because they've developed their meta-linguistic competence, but this terminology silliness needs to stop.  If we dump terms because they've been stigmatized and co-opted, we will keep dumping words ad infinitum because the power structure will keep stigmatizing and co-opting whatever we come up with.  The main idea here is to fight the power and reclaim the meaning of mono-, bi-, tri- and multilingualism.

OK, so there are my rants for the "m'eh" sessions.  Coming up in another blog post (soon), my learnings on Australian indigenous languages! :-)
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