Friday, May 23, 2014

Others Mean Differently

"Why are many city people so violent in condemning what they consider substandard forms of speech? The answer seems to be that, although the attitudes are explicitly formulated in connection with immediately accessible matters of pronunciation and word formation, what is actually being reacted to is something much deeper. People are reacting to the fact that others mean differently from themselves, and they feel threatened by it.”

MAK Halliday

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Why "Ownership of English" is the wrong question

Henry Widdowson’s 1993 plenary address at TESOL, later published in TESOL Quarterly as “The Ownership of English,” started a trend in TESOL and applied linguistics which did two things, one of which I think was more explicitly intended, and one of which I think was less intended but also important:

A (more intended): Started a conversation about non-native speakers’ full “ownership” of English, not as linguistic second-class citizens, but as people who can use, shape, and “own” English in their own right.

B (less intended): Made “ownership” an important metaphor for talking about users of English.

Widdowson’s speech/essay discusses issues which are still very much in play for TESOL scholars who wrestle with the implications of the spread, localization, and use of English in diverse contexts around the world: what is standard English, what are standards, how are we to understand the role of both native and non-native speakers of English as teachers of the language, and so on. At one point he posits what I take to be his central question:

“The question is which community, and which culture, have a rightful claim to ownership of standard English?”

Even if we remove “standard” from this question, in order to expand it to any sort of English, I suggest that this is not quite the right question to be asking. Especially given the recent turn that encourages us to think less of langauges as reified “things” and more as resources that people use for certain purposes, it makes less and less sense to think of languages in terms of “ownership” at all -- even though ideas about native/nonnative speakership or even things like legitimacy or authority are still very relevant, both ideologically and practically.

So, why “ownership?” Who bestows it? How does one come to claim it? Although Widdowson carefully and persuasively argues that English is not (or is no longer)  under the sole provenance of British ‘native speakers,’ one might wonder whether any speaker or group of speakers of a language can be said to “own” it.

Try asking this of yourself: do I “own” my language? The pronoun I used in that sentence seems like a clue: I call English MY language. Yet it seems to me this is more of a way of denoting a closeness to or an affinity for a language, or a way of speaking, meaning, or even, dare I say, being in the world. Yoo (2014) uses the “ownership” of names as an analogy, arguing that just as Korean speakers of English using English does not mean they own English, neither does the fact that other people use your name more often than you use it mean that they own your name. Ren (2014) refutes this, arguing that a language is much larger and more complex than a name, and that it's a medium of communication through which people express their identities -- thus, NNESs can indeed "own" it.

I'd like to suggest a different analogy, but for the purposes of showing that "ownership" isn't the issue.

 Let's think about the way we refer to other things as “ours.” I speak of my wife, my son, my parents -- but of course I do not in any meaningful way consider myself to “own” these people. When I call them “mine,” I am referring to the strong ties that connect us, my close relationship with them, even in some cases our biological kinship. If you’d prefer a different illustration, think of the way we talk about, say, “my hockey team,” “my university,” “my favorite song.” I don’t claim to “own” any of these things, but I feel a very strong connection to, say, the University of British Columbia in a way that many people in the world do not. I am familiar with it, I use its resources, I can get around it with ease in a way I could not before I was enrolled there.

In the same way, when I say English is “my” language, I don’t mean that I own it, but that I am close to it, I am familiar with it, I know how to use it. I’m less comfortable calling other langauges “my” languages, though I might in a pinch refer to Spanish or Chinese as “my foreign languages,” even if I feel like I’m not very good at them. The fact is that I have been surrounded by English for my entire life, so I feel very comfortable calling it “my” language, but neither I nor anyone I know, nor even the country I live in or other people who speak it, really “own” the language.

Note: Stop reading here if you’re satisfied with this argument. I’m pretty satisfied with it myself. Read more below if you want to get nit-picky about current debates in applied linguistics, world Englishes, and ELF.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

New article published in the Journal of Second Language Writing

Very happy to mention that the article I co-wrote with Ryuko Kubota has been published by the Journal of Second Language Writing. Click the reference below to read, and see the abstract below.

Heng Hartse, J. & Kubota, R. (2014.) Pluralizing English? Variation in High-Stakes Academic Texts and Challenges of Copyediting. Journal of Second Language Writing 24, 71-82.

Paralleling the pluralistic conceptualizations of language as found in world Englishes and English as a lingua franca (ELF), pluralizing language use - that is, accepting deviations from standard Anglo-American written English - has been advocated in the field of second language (L2) writing. However, the question of how this pluralization is or can be achieved remains underexplored, particularly at the level of lexis and grammar, which has traditionally been an important focus for readers of L2 writers' texts. This question becomes contentious in high-stakes academic writing, which entails negotiation between L2 writers and gatekeepers (editors, copyeditors) who are expected to ensure academic sophistication and rigor of published texts. This article addresses theoretical issues related to differences in language use by critically analyzing the authors' own process of copyediting nonnative English writers’ manuscripts prepared for a book publication.. It examines the role of literacy brokering (textual mediation by editors, proofreaders, and others) at the lexicogrammatical level in academic text production. We found that despite sympathy for an approach that would pluralize English usage, the textual mediation of lexical and grammatical items was often driven by native-speaker intuition and was idiosyncratic. This idiosyncrasy further poses skepticism about the applicability of both error-oriented approaches to and pluralistic theories about L2 writing to copyediting in high-stakes academic publishing.  We conclude that pervasive ideologies and accepted practices in academic publishing make it difficult to pluralize academic writing at the level of lexis and grammar. We conclude with suggestions for advocacy, research, and practice for L2 writing scholars and literacy brokers.