February 24, 2014 / Theology
Jesus isn’t scared of vaginas. He came out of one.
Teaching English overseas has become something of a “gap year” for many young Americans; if your post-college options seem limited, or your job feels stagnant, or you simply have an itch to travel, finding a job teaching English as a second or foreign language is a sexy option.
But the international spread of the English language is fraught with problems and inequality—why does the West send so many (sometimes unqualified, often monolingual, and even, some argue, imperialist) English teachers abroad, anyway? What is at stake, educationally and personally, for the multilingual students who are learning English both around the world and in mainstream American classrooms? As the steady march of globalization continues and the United States becomes increasingly diverse, the role of the English language in education is in need of radical rethinking.
Some scholars have realized the need for a shift in our narrow perception of English and English teaching. As we leave behind the days of teaching “non-English-speaking” people the “right” way to speak English, we are moving, slowly, toward a more helpful and realistic vision of a multilingual world in which many varieties of English, all equally valid and grammatical, coexist. Sometimes called World Englishes, International English, or Lingua Franca English, the global spread of “our” language should give us pause to rethink the role of English education and especially the role of English teachers in working toward justice for multilingual learners of English.
Suresh Canagarajah, William J. and Catherine Craig Kirby Professor in Language Learning at Pennsylvania State University, is one of the leading scholars exploring the global use of English. We are grateful that professor Conagarajah was willing to enter the conversation we are attempting to host in this issue of The Other Journal by sharing his thoughts about English, education, and social change.
The Other Journal (TOJ): English instruction and English-medium education are clearly global concerns, and I’ve been struck in my reading about World Englishes, especially in your article about Lingua Franca English,1 that in a way, everybody loses when this kind of international English isn’t accepted. Monolingual English speakers often lack the language skills and/or the orientation to language to allow them to deal with international English, and multilingual speakers of English may be belittled, bullied, or otherwise marginalized by speakers of dominant varieties of English. What can educators do to help deal with this problem?
Suresh Canagarajah (SC): We need a paradigm shift in language teaching. Clearly, we have to move away from prioritizing a single dialect, or variety, of English for classroom teaching. Whatever dialect we choose, whether one from the center or the periphery, is going to be inadequate for the demands of transnational communication in which we are all involved in the context of globalization. We all need a repertoire of English varieties to deal with the multitudinous communicative contexts and interlocutors we face today. How do we develop proficiency in a repertoire of varieties? Certainly, we can’t teach one variety at a time. Barbara Seidlhofer gives a good solution. She puts it pithily: we should move away from teaching languages to teaching Language.2 This is the paradigm shift I am referring to.
What this means is going behind varieties to develop language awareness, metacognitive understanding, sociolinguistic sensitivity, and learning strategies. This way, both monolingual and multilingual speakers will be prepared to infer the rules and norms of the new varieties they face in their everyday life and negotiate with the speakers of the variety to communicate effectively.
TOJ: The notion of Englishes is something I was never aware of as a monolingual American college kid, but it’s really opened my eyes to new ways of looking at language learning and teaching in my career as an English teacher in China. However, doesn’t all this focus on English also help to bolster the powerful position of English in the world? Some people say that as English continues to dominate—whether it’s American English, Singlish, China English, whatever—other languages are being squeezed out.
SC: I don’t mean to say that pluralizing English is the only option. I was thinking of that because we are all English language teachers. Parallel to this, we should also develop proficiencies in and awareness of other languages. Yet, there is a limit to how many languages one can learn. English does provide a good way for a great number of people in the world to talk to each other.
TOJ: Currently you’ve been working on your goal to make academic publishing more accessible and democratic for teachers in smaller or poorer countries through your editorship of TESOL Quarterly, which ends this January. Is there a connection between (a) helping those scholars who are too often shut out of the publishing process and (b) their teaching? To put it another way, does this kind of professional reform relate to a general goal of teachers better serving their students?
SC: I think all teachers have to be reflective professionals. In other words, teachers have to be researchers and scholars (perhaps not in the formal sense that they have huge research grants and engage in projects with massive subjects all the time, but they must at least bring an inquiring mind to their teaching). The possibility of sharing their work with other professionals in academic journals will motivate them to be researchers and scholars. I know from close relationships with Sri Lankan colleagues that the difficulties in publishing have demotivated their attitude to research and reading, and [that these difficulties] sometimes fill their teaching with apathy. Therefore, publishing and teaching are connected.
There is a less direct connection between publishing and teaching. When we don’t hear voices from diverse professional communities, our teaching discourses and practices are impoverished. Worse, [such teaching tends] to repress other teaching cultures and alternate professional practices. If a wider group of teachers would publish, our professional discourses would be broadened to the point where teachers who are currently excluded from publishing will see a place for their diverse teaching practices and feel motivated to develop them further.
TOJ: You obviously care a great deal about justice for marginalized people and communities—can you say something about why you’ve decided to base your work in the United States? I don’t mean to say that working in the United States is selling out by any means, but you’ve situated yourself and your work in this context, living in the “center” while working on issues very much relevant to the “periphery.”
SC: Both are unsatisfactory: you could remain in the periphery and serve your community well, but remain voiceless in the profession and fail to change the dominant discourses; or you can remain in the center, alienated from the values and cultures you care about, and yet lobby effectively for changes in the heart of the professional community. I have been in both places. For now, I enjoy being a “cultural broker” or a “professional mediator” in the center, articulating the interests of the periphery to scholars in the center. This is a different kind of struggle for voice and empowerment—different from remaining in the periphery and empowering our students and teachers for meaningful learning and teaching. I don’t think one is better than the other. Both have their place. I have great respect (envy?) for those who remain in the periphery and do meaningful service to their people. Who knows, I might go back to where I came from in the not-too-distant future to continue the work I began in the periphery.
An interesting paradox: I am able to visit other periphery communities from the center. I couldn’t have done that from Sri Lanka. After coming to the United States, I have deliberately accepted invitations to speak in countries like Turkey, Cyprus, South Africa, Singapore, Malaysia, Argentina, and Mexico with the interest of learning from them and sharing my expertise. I have started rejecting invitations from universities in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia as I feel there is a greater need for me to visit the communities that really need my presence more. This is just a paradox of having to use the superior resources for travel, communication, and networking that are afforded by the center—yes, to establish solidarity with the periphery and work for the transformation of dominant ideologies and structures in the center!
TOJ: I know that for many of my peers that kind of social change has become a priority for Christians in the field of education. What does success look like for those of us who are engaged with this kind of work?
SC: At the level of teaching, language proficiency, social awareness, and spiritual values are interconnected. A pedagogy that combines them, such as the Freirean approach,3 will work well. Developing social and spiritual awareness gives motivation for ethical language use, critical reading and writing, and reflective self-development—all three are interconnected in other diverse ways. However, we cannot guarantee uptake. Some students will thrive, and others may resist.
TOJ: In the past, you’ve mentioned your desire to “change the world” through teaching and scholarship. You are not the only scholar who identifies as both Christian and critical, but do you ever feel that you are rubbing shoulders with others who are hostile to Christianity or who perceive it as antithetical to the “critical” mission?
SC: I do rub shoulders with both critical practitioners who consider my faith irrational and Christians who consider my critical practice unchristian. I try to show as best I can that there needn’t be a contradiction between these positions—I am not sure I am always successful. More importantly, I try to demonstrate by my practice how this combination accounts for a meaningful Christian witness and a more humane and personal critical practice. Though I don’t know how effective my witness is to both groups, I can say that this tension (and pressure from both groups) is important for my faith and professional life. I continue to think in new directions; I read both the Bible and Marx with new eyes always; I find the classroom posing new questions every day I grow in my faith and social awareness!
2. For more on Seidlhofer’s approach to English as a Lingua Franca, see Seidlhofer, “A concept of ‘international English’ and related issues: From ‘real English’ to ‘realistic English’?” (Strasbourg: Council of Europe. 2003), or visit her website at the University of Vienna for a bibliography.
3. Brazilian educational theorist Paolo Freire is best known for his 1970 book Pedagogy of the Oppressed in which he advocates “problem-posing education,” a dialogic method whereby students develop critical thinking skills that can ultimately lead to transformation of oppressive social circumstances.
Joel Hartse just finished his Masters degree in English at Humboldt State University, and will spend the summer writing about music for alternative weeklies before moving to China to teach English and applied linguistics in the fall.
Suresh Canagarajah, William J. and Catherine Craig Kirby Professor in Language Learning at Pennsylvania State University, is one of the leading scholars exploring the global use of English. Originally from Sri Lanka, professor Canagarajah researches English in a variety of contexts throughout the world and has done work in areas as wide-ranging as bilingualism, discourse analysis, academic writing, critical pedagogy, and postcolonial theory. He is the author of several books, including Resisting Linguistic Imperialism in English Language Teaching, which examines English teaching in postcolonial settings, and A Geopolitics of Academic Writing, which provides a critical analysis of academic publishing. Professor Canagarajah has been the editor of TESOL Quarterly, the flagship academic journal of the TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) organization, since 2005.