Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Chinese English (pt 1): Culture and Context

The questions of Chinese English have been on my mind a lot lately -- questions like "what is it?" and "does it exist?" and "what do people think it is?" and "how do people (Chinese and non-Chinese) interpret its use?" I'll be exploring it some more in the coming weeks, but for now, let me share with you a paragraph I recently read from a textbook written for Chinese elementary school students.

Why Can't You Drink Cold Water Right After Sport?

After you play some sport, you often feel thirsty. So you like to drink some water or some orange juice. But you mustn't drink anything cold. It is not good for your stomach. If you have a cold drink, you may be sick. Your parents will worry about you. And you can't go to school. You can't see your friends. You can't play outside.
Why can't you drink cold water right after sport?

Although I disagree with the premise of this paragraph, since I didn't grow up with the Chinese belief that cold drinks are bad for you, in some ways I'm heartened to see that English is being used to transmit Chinese cultural norms. Too often, English textbooks use "Western" examples and scenarios, which I think must be somewhat alienating. By now, learning English is not like learning a foreign language "just for fun" that you'll never use, and so the idea that it must be tied to learning American or British culture is beginning to become a bit less relevant. I'm always trying to tell my students that a language can be used by anyone, and that their goal is not to become like "Western" English speakers, but to develop their own use of English as individuals with a Chinese cultural identity. (Not in so many words, of course.)

Monday, October 29, 2007

Briefly: Plagiarism, Shaoxing Phonology, and Grading

I. A great discussion of plagiarism in ESL and EFL contexts. Sage advice from Paul Stables:
...the best way to help undergraduate students avoid plagiarism is to set assignments that are not plagiarism friendly. Very specific essay questions rather than vague general term papers can help the student to approach the original source material from a particular angle which assists with the selection of material to be included and excluded.

II. If I actually knew anything about linguistics (or Chinese), I'd be devouring this PhD dissertation by Zhang Jisheng, which is a comprehensive analysis of the sounds which comprise the language spoken by most of my neighbors. As it is, I'm just skipping the phonology stuff (90% of the paper) and reading interesting trivia about the language. Apparently, Shaoxinghua has influenced some Japanese and Cantonese words -- and it has eight tones, compared to the four tones of Putonghua (Mandarin). I'll post any other interesting tidbits. Also, I considered changing the name of this blog and my field of study to "Totally Not Real Linguistics" or "Pretend Linguistics."

III. I may have alluded to this before, but as a rule, Chinese universities place a huge emphasis on final exams at the expense of any other classwork. My students' final exam is required to constitute 80% of their grade in my class, while participation, attendance, and all other homework must only account for 20%. As a result, I've discovered that I'm giving way too much homework, which is a problem because a) the students don't take it seriously and b) it's boring as hell to grade 180 notebooks of grammar and sentence structure exercises. So, I'm planning to emphasize in-class writing activities much more during the rest of the semester -- so they can practice the skills they'll need for the final (and, more importantly to me, beyond the final).

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Authentic Language and the Language of Authenticity

Earlier this week, I read Alastair Pennycook's article “Language, Localization, and the Real: Hip-hop and the Global Spread of Authenticity” from the JLIE. It's quite exciting to see that the direction I want to go in my profession -- to study the confluence of language, music, and social practices involving them both -- is starting to gain traction in academic circles.

The article itself was really interesting, and I'll have more on it later, but I also wanted to note that there's a debate about "realness" and/or "authenticity" as it relates to race and class happening now in the world of music criticism.

The hullabaloo in Rock-Crit land (aka “Cultural Studies Jr.”) strikes me as a bit more territorial and opinionated (what is real for real? And why don't indie rockers sound more Black?) compared to the current understanding of “realness” that seems to be put forth by Pennycook and others. While Carl Wilson and Sasha Frere-Jones write about the problems of indie rock, they don't seem to be that interested in how people “use” indie rock. It's almost as if – and I'm just kind of thinking out loud here – it's now possible to be a prescriptive cult-studies practitioner, the way you can be a prescriptive grammarian. Isn't the nut of Frere-Jones' argument something like “indie rock should be more conscious of race?” This is fine, I guess, but I'm more interested in figuring out the way people use music, the way people shape music and music shapes people, than in diagnosing any particular problems with it. Perhaps I should be more concerned with justice and all that. The politics of critical applied linguistics remain a bit beyond my ken at this point, but I find the direction of Pennycook's research exciting, to say the least.

Final half-formed thought

Hybridity is a big buzzword these days – along with localization – and these words seem to me to offer a compelling understanding of the way our world works, linguistically and otherwise, these days: we take what we've got, even if what we've “got” is the product of an evil-sounding and suspicious thing like cultural imperialism, and shape it to our own ends, yielding particular – but thick and deep – meanings in local contexts.

More later?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Stuff I've Been Reading

This week, I started a new regime of reading to (I hope) work on my academic chops. Here's what I read. Comments are welcome, though this collection of readings is a bit esoteric.

Shi-xu (2006). Editorial: Researching Multicultural Discourses. Journal of Multicultural Discourses. 1(1): 1-5

The Journal of Multicultural Discourses is an exciting (if at times theoretically impenetrable by a novice like myself) journal based at Zhejiang University, just the next town East of where I live. This editorial sets the research agenda for the journal, which seeks to sort of "liberate" discourse studies* from its Eurocentric biases. I'm most interested in Shi-xu's desire to "reflect upon and re-create discourses in order to restore and elevate humanity" as well as to "engage in egalitarian intercultural communication, critique, and cooperation in discourse scholarships." Im unfamiliar with a lot of the terminology used in this editorial, but intrigued, so I'm going to poke around in this journal's archives and try to find an article that advances the mission laid out here.

(*NB: not discourse analysis in a sociolinguistic sense; this is more like Cultural Studies)

Kanno, Y., & Norton, B. (2003). Imagined communities and educational possibilities: Introduction. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 2(4), 241-249.

This intro to a special issue of JLIE explains the current use of the theory of imagined communities in language learning research. These are communities which exist only in the minds of their members -- for example, nations. Kanno and Norton argue that "learners' affiliations with imagined communities might affect heir learning trajectories," and that these communities can include potential future relationships (like professional communities which people hope to join).

I really like the direction that Kanno and Norton take their research, because it sheds some light on an often-neglected aspect of language learning: the hopes and goals of the learners. However, I think we do people a disservice when we call these communities "imagined." Regardless of positive connotations (imagination, creativity, etc), the term has the effect of minimizing the potential or actual reality of an individual's self-perceived identity or group membership. For example, Norton talks about one ESL learner's "imagined professional community" when in fact the woman had already built a professional identity as a teacher in Poland. Wasn't she, in some real (un-imaginary) sense, a teacher, a member of that professional community?

Kanno, Y. (2003). Imagined Communities, School Visions, and the Education of Bilingual Students in Japan. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 2(4), 285-300

Kanno looks at four different bilingual education programs in Japan, each of which, she argues, "imagines" a unique (possible) future community affiliation for its students. This article feels practical, which isn't always true of this kind of research. I learned a lot about bilingual education in Japan, and I think she offers some valuable insights about the effect an institution can have on its students.

Holliday, A. (2005). How is it possible to write? Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 4(4), 304-309.

Canagarajah, S. (2005). Rhetoricizing reflexivity. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 4(4), 309-315.

Holliday's work on "small cultures" in ELT research was influential to me during my time at HSU, and I enjoyed this short essay on using reflexivity to understand and negotiate a researcher's position as a priviledged, "Western" academic studying and working with those poor, helpless Others we so often do in this profession. Holliday talks about the necessity of understanding that "Center" scholars cannot claim to speak for the (marginalized/othered) people they work with, but instead can claim their research as their own narratives and learn something about the relationship between themselves and their research and "subjects."

Canagarajah warns against the temptation and possibility of researcher navel-gazing in "postmodern"/reflexive applied lingustics research by showing how an article written with a fervently pomo perspective (and a raving capacity for neologisms) actually does very little to advance the progressive concerns of critical qualitative research, whereas an article written in a modernist/post-positivist vein can, using traditional academic language, actually reveal some ("critical") truths about the researcher-researched relationship.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Interlanguage Disfluencies

Don't be scared; I'm only using those big words to sound cool. Interlanguage is a stage of language learning during which the learner is building his or her own conception of the L2, but which is in fact a system distinct from both the L1 and the L2. It's kind of like making your own map of a new city -- you can get some of it right, but until you've been there for quite a while, you'll have to constantly revise the map as you discover new information ("Oh, OK, this road intersects the highway...") "Disfluencies" are little words that break up the meaningful parts of utterances -- words like uh and um in English.

In Chinese, the most common disfluencies -- the closest analogues to English's uh and um -- are nei ge and zhi ge (they sound like nei-guh and juh-guh). (Another popular one is en, though it's not as frequent, to my knowledge.)

I've noticed that some of my students, when speaking in English, use English disfluencies(uh, um), some use Chinese disfluencies (mostly nei ge), and some seem to create new ones all together. My favorite sounds roughly like "bluh-blup-blup!"

Similarly, we had an American friend visiting a month or so ago who made a phone call for us, mostly in Chinese, but peppered with English disfluencies and conjunctions. He'd say things like " [Chinesechinesechinesechinese]....OK, so, like, [Chinesechinesechinese]?"

The point is, I guess, that, especially in the case of "bluh-blup-blup," interlanguage is at work.

Not a very exciting point, I guess. I just think it's interesting.

Next up (which is a sure sign I won't write about it): Is the term "imagined communities" insulting to language learners?

Monday, October 01, 2007

Glocal Linguistic Flows, brief updates

1. I would really love to be able to see the new JLIE (Vol 6 Issue 2 of the Journal of Language, Identity, and Education), which is a special issue on global hip-hop. Can anyone help me out with PDFs or scanned copies of any of the articles? (Jeremy, are you out there?)

2. What do you think about "Teaching English in China" as a cultural readymade (Ramage) -- a pre-existing social role with attendant behaviors and expectations, ready for young Americans to step into at will? It seems to be turning in to something like a Gap Year, a way for recent graduates or young married couples to sort of get out there in the world, as it were. I'd love to hear some feedback on this. There's kind of a whole syntagm (I dare you to look it up, I'm not sure I used it correctly) swirling around the identity of the young American Teaching English in China -- culture shock, blogging (ha!), 'adventure,' lack of professional interest in TESOL (maybe, maybe not), and so on. Further study, as they say, as needed.

3. I was planning to apply for a Fulbright but have decided not to. Maybe next year. I am doing a lot of reading about Singapore English, if that gives you a hint about my current interests.

4. Slow going with language learning, though I did have someone at a DVD shop compliment me on my Chinese before showing us to the super-cheap-isn't-this-still-in-the-theaters section. Haven't started taking formal classes but am hoping to.

5. Huge internal struggle on the To PhD or Not To PhD question continues, but I am tentatively researching all kinds of options. The gut says that I should avoid scary stuff (which includes words like comprehensive oral examination and fifth year and dissertation defense) and do stuff I know I enjoy (which includes words like getting paid and rocking out and book proposal). But the gut -- well, it says a lot of things, doesn't it?