Tuesday, January 20, 2009

IAWE Day 1 (Dec. 3 2008)

The last time I went to a major academic conference was TESOL 2007, and I have always regretted not sitting down and writing summaries and my own thoughts on the whole thing as a way of processing it. I probably saw about 50 presentations and today barely remember any of them. So here, better late than never, is the first part of my writeup on the International Association of World Englishes (IAWE) conference which I attended about six weeks ago.

I wasn't able to attend the pre-conference workshops (though I really wanted to go to them, since they were all about World Englishes in the classroom), and my flight didn't allow me to arrive at the conference, which was held at the City University of Hong Kong, until a little before lunch. 

I was just abke to catch the end of a presentation by Xu Zhichang (Hong Kong Institute of Education) called "Chinese English: liguitsic features and pedagogical implications." It was mostly a summary of features of CE that most of us somewhat familar with it would recognize, but it was good to hear them laid out clearly. I caught bits on lexical, syntactic, and discourse features (especially liked the "ancestral hometown discourse," something I have seen/heard almost every single one of my students do in writing or conversation), though there may have been more. The talk ended with a section on the potential use of a CE model for ELT in China. More and more articles seem to be arguing for or at least looking forward to this, but I am not sure if it's being put into practice -- it certainly isn't done by foreign teachers, and most Chinese teachers I know are too busy trying to teach to standardized tests. I think the three points he made were really useful though: a) maximize mother tongue experience, b) raise awareness of Chinese identity ( these two are prefereable I think to asking students to sort of imagine themselves in England or the US, or asking them to discuss "foreign" ideas/concepts), and c) legitimize experiences of Chinese English teachers and students - which could go some way in helping to eradicate the bias toward "pure" English that plagues, um, almost everybody in the world. Andy Kirkpatrick touched on this issue in his plenary session as well, which I'll mention later.

Next up was Kwok Kan Tam (Open University of Hong Kong, link not working for me here in China without a proxy) with "Bilingual Metaphor: examples from Hong Kong and Singapore Writings." I haven't done much study of literature since college, but his illustrations of creative bilingual metaphors were effective in showing the way new meanings and ideas can be expressed/created when languages mix. I especially liked the "Rice-tastic" hamburger advertisement (ť•≠tasitic - fantastic). The main point, I think, was to focus on creativity as opposed to interference, or to show that interference gives rise to creativity. He also said something I found interesting: "Part of Hong Kong people's identity is constructed by English." He also referred to this as a "westernized Chinese identity." I sometimes have trouble with people saying Hong Kong is "western," because I think this is an oversimplification (though I guess there is certainly good reason to say it), but I think this is a model that I can use to encourage my students, especially those bound for Hong Kong -- the idea that English can be part of a Chinese identity. (Of course, you could argue that Hong Kong identity isn't "Chinese" identity, but that's tricky...)

There was a scheduling kerfuffle, and I missed Tatiana Ivankova's (Far Eastern National University, in Russia) "Intelligibility of Chinese English" talk. Please wait a moment while I email her. OK, done. Instead, I saw the beginning of Cecil Nelson's (Indiana U) talk on intelligibility, which was pretty comprehensive but since I only heard about ten minutes I can't really comment on, other than to say that the name Jennifer Jenkins came up. Her name was frequently bandied about, and I don't think anyone brought her up because they agree with her. I'm familiar with her work, but I'm now convinced I need to know something about it.

After that short sojourn, I was off to see Aya Matsuda (Arizona State) talke about the terminological confusion plaguing the field - EIL, ESL, EFL, ELF, EMT, ENL...bwuh? The problem is that the terms are applied inconsistnely, Matsuda said, and they're often inadequate and theoretically unsound. ELF (English as a Lingua Franca), she said, should be considered a function or a use of English, not a variety; some tend to think ELF, she says, as the happy-medium-like language shared by all English users in the world - which it isn't. No such thing exists. EIL (English as an International Language) and EInrtaL (English as an Intra-national language in a multilingual nation) are also subcategories of ELF, themselves again referring to functions of English. ESL, EFL, and some other lesser used terms (above), then, are contexts of acquisition. They describe the time/place/social/cultural/etc conditions in which the language is being learned. Again, these are not varieties of English either. Not a lot of talk about what are varities, and Matsuda argued that semi-international varities may be evolving, but that we shouldn't confuse these functions and contexts with Englishes themselves. One thing that came up in the Q&A was (I'm not sure who said it), "A(n international) variety may emerge when a community is stable." ASEAN was mentioned as a possible example.

Then I went to see an interesting presentation on blogging in Hong Kong, by Genevieve Leung (University of Pennsylvania) and Winnie Tang (HKIE). IKeywords I wrote down were "multiliteracies," "critical language awareness," "the complex notion of identity," and "Hong Kong English and creativity." They studied blogs by HK college students and the ways they use Chinese and English, then asked the students some questions about what makes a "typical" HK blogger. One thing that was mentioned was "bad grammar" and a few other somewhat negative comments about their own use of English. However the authors found that HK blogs were evidence of localization and indigenization of English, and a certain reconcilation of prescriptivism and creativity. They also talked about hopes for a future move from a "culture of complaints" (as one blogger wrote, "omg my grammar is rubbish") to a "culture of confidence." I got to meet Genevieve and Winnie after their talk - it was nice to chat with some Americans who are roughly in the same place I am in my career (post-MA/professional/eyeing or in PhDs). 

Finally, the last talk I saw on the first day was perhaps the most unique one at the whole conference: it was Michael Meyler (British Council) talking about his book, which is a dictionary of Sri Lankan English. He had never really heard of World Englishes before the conference and was refreshingly self-deprecating and unacademic. It was kind of just a tour through his dictionary - he's lived in Sri Lanka for 20 years and just compiled it in a kind of by-hand, ad-hoc fashion - with some bits on features of SLE, its differences with Indian English, and so on. You can see Meyler's website for the dictionary here. It's a really remarkable piece of work.

That was it for Day 1, after which I took a bus out to the peaceful hamlet of Sai Kung where I stayed with my Canadian friends Dave and Debbi and Caper, the last of whom is not technically Canadian, though I'm sure his hybridized linguistic identity is constructed by Cantonese, Putonghua, Hong Kong English, Canadian English, and above all the fact that he is a dog an as such is unable to use language.