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.

3 comments:

Red Squirrel said...

I agree with your ideas on political correctness. You are welcome to see my blog to read my posts about it.

Mark said...

I think the term "political correctness" is used more as a defensive mechanism than an offensive one.

In any culture, including our own, certain ideas are heretical. Challenging those ideas directly is incredibly costly and dangerous, and in the 80's and 90's a profusion of ideas became "unspeakable" due to political reasons. The term "political correctness" is a direct response to that phenomenon. It's a meta-term, a way to complain about the witch hunts without invoking one.

One of the best pieces I've seen discuss this is What you can't say, by Paul Graham.

Gary said...

an aggressive reaction might be the best way of putting it. It all depends on the context really...What you have to remember is that all action, and by implication all speech, is political. There is no politically neutral position. Therefore, there are bound to be contests over what is an acceptable meaning. In almost all instances in which I have heard the term "politically correct" used by someone they are not thinking deeply about what they are saying. Instead they are reacting in an emotional way to new thinking that is challenging their assumptions about the world. Racism and sexism are forms of a wider subjection, and we have to tackle the language that supports that subjection. Exactly what that means in practice should be open to negotiation.