Friday, May 18, 2007

Critical Language Awareness (CLA) and EFL

Critical Language Awareness (CLA) is a notion that has partly developed from the considered application of Critical Applied Linguistics to language education, in turn partly as a response to the incorporation of uncritical “Language Awareness” into language education curricula in the 1980s. Pennycook has provided us with a very useful introduction to Critical Applied Linguistics in this article, and so I will concentrate on CLA, and the pedagogical implications of CLA for EFL in Taiwan, in this post.

In a sense, many of us “possess” some kind of CLA from a young age. Our CLA may be heightened by us being marginalised in some way: perhaps we are gay, an immigrant, working class, or belong to an “ethnic minority.” Such marginalised people tend to get a handle on the way language can be used as a weapon against them quite early on their lives, though they may not be able to describe at a deeper level what is really going on. I believe that EFL learners, “coming into” EFL from cultures that do not necessarily espouse the same social values as to be commonly found in dominant EFL discourses, may also be possessed of some “natural” CLA. Again, some ability to go deeper at the analytical level may be lacking—not surprisingly, as disempowerment is the logical outcome of uncritical approaches to language education.

Perhaps one useful way of easing ourselves into this complex topic is to start examining, in a critical way, some of the underlying assumptions behind commonly used ideological labels such as “common sense”, “appropriate” and “politically correct.”

Brian Street has observed that “What counts as common sense in one culture and in one era may indeed be arcane or ideologically fundamental in another.” Street made this comment within the context of a discussion on literacy, and he went on to note that the apparent common sense approach to literacy that prevails at the official level in the UK and the US is in fact highly ideologically invested. Emphasising language as code and promoting the teaching of phonics in fact supports an autonomous model of literacy, one where language is plucked from its messy social, political and economic contexts, and where the learner is constructed as an autonomous individual. In fact, there is nothing common sense about this approach at all. As Street observes, literacy is always ideological in the sense that it will always involve contests over meanings, definitions and boundaries. You cannot reduce language learning to code-breaking.

It follows from this that what constitutes “appropriate" in language use is also contested and cannot be treated as an absolute category. Although we may certainly observe patterns of language use in different contexts, and indeed should seek to analyse such patterns, we cannot divest those patterns of their ideological intent. Moreover, it is simply impossible to lay down the law about what is appropriate in language use, though many EFL teachers do clamour to lay down strict and formal rules for learners to follow. The main problem with the didactic notion of “appropriacy”, as Norman Fairclough has elaborated, is that it assumes speech communities are characterised by well-defined varieties of language. But in fact language communities are characterised by indeterminacy, heterogeneity and struggle that makes a mockery of talking about “skills.” Take, for example, the skill of writing of a resume. Clearly the writing of a resume falls in to a genre which implies certain patterns in linguistic choice, but is it really “appropriate” to include one’s photograph on a resume? As Fairclough notes “Appropriateness models…should therefore be seen as ideologies, by which I mean that they are projecting imaginary representations of sociolinguistic reality which correspond to the perspective and partisan interests of one section of society or one section of a particular social institution—it’s dominant section.”

In recent years, I have heard the phrase “politically correct” used as a label to attack those who are trying to challenge dominant discourses by using self-emancipatory language forms. But what actually constitutes “political correctness” in language use? Consider the following possible letter salutations: a) Dear Sir, b) Dear Sir/Madam, c) Dear Madam/Sir, d) Sir. Okay, so which of these salutations is “politically correct”? My answer is b) because it is the salutation that currently corresponds with the dominant ideological-discursive formation (IDF) of business English. What was your answer, and why?

As Pennycook points out, critical applied linguistic work in language education “always concerns how the classroom, text, or conversation is related to broader social critical analysis of social relations.” Before discussing CLA more specifically and and its implications for EFL, it is necessary to take a closer look at the relationship between language and power, which is the central concern Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA).

CDA seeks to understand the interconnectedness of three levels of social phenomena: social formation, social institution, and social action. For our purposes, that means the interconnectedness between class, school and pedagogy. According to Fairclough, all institutions (schools) produce generative discourses, and that to participate in the social action of the institution (i.e. to become a teacher) one must master the discursive and ideological norms which the school attaches to that subject position. But critically the ideology of the school becomes, in Fairclough’s words, opaque, or so normal that no one questions it. One is typically unaware of the ideological representations that underlie one’s talk. “Sit down”, “stop talking”, “be quiet”—whose interests do these utterances really serve? The important thing, as Fairclough notes, is that “the interests of the dominant class at the level of social formation require the maintenance in dominance in each social institution of an IDF compatible with their continued power.” If it is appropriate then to be talking about skills in EFL that is basically because the dominant social class does not want young people to be asking awkward, or serious, questions about what they are learning.

CLA should not be seen as a discrete category, in the sense of a “skill”, but rather be viewed as social practice. In CLA we are seeking to examine texts (a text here means any extant of language written or verbal) in a critical manner. CLA raises a number of questions about the the ways particular ideological messages are conveyed in any given text, how that text may be positioning the reader, and how wider social processes shape the text. Obviously CLA has many “applications” but I want to now focus more narrowly on CLA and EFL.

CLA has direct relevance to EFL. Typically, as Catherine Wallace notes, EFL learners are not encouraged to engage with texts in a critical manner—in a sense, EFL learners are the classic marginalised group. EFL texts are typically seen as neutral texts which act as a vehicle for presenting linguistic structures. But as I demonstrated in my post on feminism and EFL, texts are anything but neutral. In fact, international publishers, and Taiwan publishers, have taken a market view of English teaching as a commodity. The “global textbook” is reductive and presents a consumerist view of the world. The content of English language textbooks tends to be narrow and parochial and often reflects the preoccupations—dinner parties, dieting, dating etc.—of the textbook writers. As a sometime EFL textbook writer and editor I can confirm that, though I have had my successes, it is difficult to challenge this order of things. There is not enough emphasis on serious literacy in EFL, and further learners are not encouraged to engage with serious social issues. Thus we get Communicative Language Teaching which privileges short-burst informal talk. I agree with Catherine Wallace that developing literate English must be a priority in EFL, and we should move away from the communicative and task-based approaches that have come to dominate commercial EFL in Taiwan.

The purpose of CLA is to treat texts as cultural objects, or artefacts, and to interrogate them critically. Where do we start with CLA in the classroom? Well, it’s all about asking some critical questions, and this can be done in different ways with different levels of learners. Young learners may not have an understanding of functional grammar, or other metalanguages available to those engaged in CDA, but the critical question “why?” is one that can always be asked. Some basic questions are: Why is this topic being written about? How is the topic being written about? What other ways of writing about the topic are there? (a very important question that often revels hidden ideological intent—should that be “The Power of Reading”, or “Power and Reading”?) Who is writing to whom? CLA helps learners to recognise the power vested in the speaker or writer; when a critical approach is adopted learners will see how people from certain groups tend to dominate language interactions and how language tends to impose the speaker’s view of the world on us. Learners may be guided to the realisation that they need not be the “ideal reader”—who reads for “fun”—and may explore the possibilities of contesting the discourses that marginalise them.

No doubt there are risks involved in challenging dominant IDFs, but we fail in our responsibilities as language educators if we ignore what CLA, as an explicit pedagogical mode, has to offer.

Friday, May 04, 2007

This is a feminist blog

Feminism is an ideology that seeks to challenge sex-based discrimination, and foster relations based on equality and mutual respect between the sexes.

A detailed accounting of the origins and shape of sex discrimination in Taiwan is outside the scope of this short post. Suffice to say, such discrimination is self-evident and all-pervasive today—just go and ask any woman. Sexism is not just about a man having a bad attitude or saying something nasty or “inappropriate” to a woman, rather it concerns a whole institutionalised system of discrimination backed up by an extensive ideology that genders women and men. I am interested in this phenomenon of gendering as it applies to educational contexts, particularly in the EFL arena. My expertise here is in critical discourse analysis, and below we will take a detailed look at a typical EFL text to reveal its gender bias.

Firstly though, I would like to make some general comments about gendering. Gendering is a social process by which men and women are given a certain sex-conscious identity, a process that is linked to socialcultural reproduction in any society. The given identities are designed to support and reproduce certain economic relations. To give an example, in traditional Taiwanese indigenous cultures men were given the identity of hunter, and women of weaver; the identities clearly and directly correspond to economic function. In fact, there was no good reason why a man shouldn’t weave, or a woman not hunt, except that it was not the “done thing” to do—gendering par excellence. In the West, gendering continued throughout the twentieth century partly as a function of Fordist capitalism. Again the need for a division of labour is the key to understanding gendering; in this case the women stayed at home and looked after the children whilst the men worked inhumanly hard in factories. Despite the successes of the feminist movement, gendering continues today, and is very much alive and well in Taiwan.

A small anecdote: the other day I took the 508 bus up to Yang Ming Shan, a bus route that runs past Tun Hsu Vocational High School, a school where I used to teach English as it happens. On the bus sat a number of Tun Hsu students. I observed the new school athletic uniform had added a pink stripe down the sleeve for girls, and a blue stripe for the boys. Such distinctions did not exist on the old uniform. The pink-for-girls and blue-for-boys scenario is a classic example of gendering in the West. It’s interesting how this gendering pattern has been picked up at Tun Hsu High School in the year 2007!

In Taiwan, gendering starts in the family where parents typically have different expectations for girls and boys. The gendering is then reinforced in school at a very early age, girls and boys being rigorously separated in kindergarten: “boys over here, girls over there”, etc. By the time they get to high school, many girls are already suffering the type of chronic lack of self-esteem that will lead them to exhibiting dysfunctional and/or manipulative behaviours. This scenario does not apply to all girls, but I would say it applies to a good many, and the critical age is between fifteen to eighteen years: it is during this period that Taiwanese women are “finished off” in terms of being made to accept an unequal relationship to men.

I would like now to illustrate how gendering is supported by one EFL text. My example has been taken from part of a graduate paper I wrote concerning ideology in texts. As I stated in that paper: “The work of Bakhtin, among others, has shown how language is saturated with ideological meaning; all texts are inherently ideological whether we admit to it or not, and all texts are a composite of others’ ideological meanings…” –and that also applies to this post! Okay, so what I did was take an “ordinary” EFL text and denaturalize it. Among other findings, the text turned out to be highly biased. How? In the whole text five males are mentioned, four of them by proper nouns, versus no females. Meanwhile, in a computer concordance of the rest of the book (see below) I found the pronoun “he” used 26 times, whereas “she” is used only seven times. A further analysis of this concordance revealed all seven mentions of “she” occur in one Reading describing the death of a woman. By contrast, “he” finds himself in a varied set of contexts in the eight Readings of this textbook. For example, he “works hard”, “is a good servant”, “is very good at tennis”, “never lies”, “is at a science museum”, “ignored his girlfriend”, and “shot an arrow.” It is interesting, isn’t it, how “he” in these texts seems to represent middle-class values and behaviour, while “she” turns out to be a victim of violence.

Selected Computer concordance results

She in eight collated Readings

ry special French girl. She was born in 1412 and was
ly to her parents. When she was 13, she started
rents. When she was 13, she started to hear v
to hear voices. She believed they were the vo
nto France. By the time she was 17, England c
burned her to death. She was only 19. voice: the s
. oil: She cooks with a lot o

He in eight collated Readings

eaning for other people He works hard. He
e works hard. He is a good servant.
vide: to cut into parts He divided the cake into thr
't thank Joan. Instead, he let the English put her i
to beat: to win He is very good at tennis, a
very good at tennis, and he often beats me. wo
d Bill never eats meat; he only eats fruit a
businessman, and he is on the road again.
his life changes. While he is at a science museum,
as superpowers. He can also climb walls and
b walls and shoot webs. He becomes Spider-Ma
Lee was very upset, but he didn't give up. Marvel C
nusual: not usual He is a very unusual
ust: to believe He never lies, so I trust hi
e witchdoctor was afraid he might lose his be
beautiful daughters, so he made a plan to protect th
a plan to protect them. He took Mehni, Weema
o turn them into stone. He thought that he would bri
stone. He thought that he would bring them back
th Cinderella as soon as he saw her. tribe: a
ng or someone He ignored his girlfriend an
end that is long He hit his head on the edge
e into zombies. He asked eight witchdoctors
ks food He is an excellent c
very much not the same He has a brother, but they a
sharp point at one end He shot an arrow at the

Well, you get the picture. If you can’t see the gender bias now, you must be blind. But in actual fact, many people just don’t notice it because it is spread out through whole texts. The vast majority of books have these kinds of biases built into them. Granted a few of the larger publishers have made an attempt to “weed out” bias. However, gender bias is not a technical problem, it is a cultural phenomenon linked to economic relations and one must challenge the system as a whole. Feminism seeks to re-design the world in a more feminine way, not just allow women to act, think and behave like men.

As educators, I believe we must take an assertive feminist position. The sexist subjection of females not only harms the interests of women, but it is part of a wider subjection of domination that warps and distorts male personalities. Here are some concrete steps that all educators can take in class:

· Always challenge male dominant assumptions
· Always give girls at least a fifty percent chance to speak
· Don’t allow boys to dominate girls in the classroom
· Don’t gender students by separating them, or in other ways

(separation may be desirable for explicit discussions about sexism, but that is another story )
· Raise critical awareness of texts: analyse texts for bias
· Treat girls and boys equally and be consistent about this
· Always have high expectations of your female students

· Make your anti-sexist policies explicit and public

My advice to girls studying English is to be aware of gendering and sexism in the English you are learning, and don’t be afraid to challenge male dominant assumptions. Going against the grain is hard, but ultimately you must not allow your self-worth and dignity to be denied.