Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Resources on the SWECCL 2.0

Just realized that my emails to a prof in Beijing were basically me admitting that I had downloaded the corpus w/o paying for it. (Somebody emailed it to me!) Now that I know you can get it in book/DVD form I will get it as soon as I can (somehow!) but for now I'm looking for info in English on how it was put together and what exactly the written texts are. This will be a list of what I can find.

Abstract of "Constructing and researching the Spoken and Written English Corpus of Chinese Learners (2007)"

This paper describes the Project of Spoken and Written English Corpus of Chinese Learners (SWECCL) co-constructed by Nanjing University and the Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press. It also reviews some of the recent SWECCL-based studies on the Chinese EFL learners' interlanguage by the project team. It points out that learner corpus-based research is a new direction in the studies of second language acquisition.

The rest is in Chinese. 

Here's a quote from Lee & Chen's  (2009)Making a bigger deal of the smaller words: Function words and other key items in research writing by Chinese learners which seems to refer to version 1.0:

Spoken and Written English Corpus of Chinese Learners (SWECCL; Wen, Wang, & Liang, 2005), a major corpus project covering university English major students in China, contains only timed argumentative essays written for proficiency exams, ignoring dissertations and other academic genres.

So far this is all I can find.

Why It's OK to Use Learner English

Because I'm studying people's reactions to whether it's correct.

This is a great weight lifted, in some ways. I am not linguistically analyzing these texts. Not really. I am analyzing what other people think of them -- that is, "acceptability." Which, according to Bamgbose, trumps nearly all else.

Big gap that needs to be filled though -- like, today -- is what features to focus on. Shall I use Xu or other lx analyses as a guide? (Don't want to be overly deterministic though.) I can't leave it totally open, because then people will just say "well, this looks weird." (Then again that kind of data is useful too.) I can't be totally like "please identify the morposyntactic features which do not conform to your understanding of Standard Written English for Academic Purposes" because that is lame. So we need something.

Also: Just came across He & Zhang (2010). Right smack dab where I'm headed in terms of looking at norms, but with matched-guise (spoken) tests. Looking forward to reading!


update: There are some problems with this. As I look at the corpus, I become quite  clear that it is indeed a learner corpus. Let's say that I find, as I'm looking at it right now, that the term "human being" is frequently used without an article, yet in a situation that seems to call for a plural. All of my participants have indicated that this is unacceptable, yet it is a common feature of these texts. Let's say I then take that to the Chinese teachers/students, and they all agree that it is unacceptable. What have I proven? That nobody accepts this as an innovation, yet it is a common feature of Chinese L2 writing students' texts.

I guess we can say that's worth doing. I have a hunch that almost none of the features that NSs would reject would not also be rejected by the Chinese teachers. I suppose this would show that CE is indeed exonormative and that these variations are being rejected as potential innovations.

Also, another piece of shaky ground I'm wondering about is the choice to include English students. Presumably, English majors in China are supposed to graduate with "near-native" proficiency (citation?) in English. This is interesting in that it tacitly acknowledges the difficulty of the NS-based model. But it also gives us a chance to test this, if we do the quiz with 4th-year English majors. (I do sort of see some reasons to do this at the end of the schoolyear though, if that is what it's being based on.)

Still,  I wonder if what I'm proposing really differs from Hinkel's study of the features of L2 texts. Is it just that I'm thinking about it differently, as 'potential innovations,' that makes the difference? I guess so.

"Potential innovations" -- remember that. That seems like an important hook to hang some of this on.


UPDATE 2: Remember:

This is a study about acceptability.
It is not a study which actually purports to identify features of CE.
It assumes certain things about CE based on WEs theories.
It aims to test certain aspects of WE theorizing by using (potential) CE.
Norms, standards, and acceptability are all part of WEs theory.
Features is another big part.
Is there an empirical basis for saying a variety of English has certain feature? Yes, but I don't know what.
Will my study provide an empirical basis for what some possible features of CE are? Maybe.
But that isn't necessarily the point.

If NSs and NNSs reject something, it's widely considered an error.
If NSs reject something and NNSs don't, this seems like evidence for an 'innovation.'

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Erasing the Expanding Circle

Well, I don't want to erase it, per se, but my main criticism of the 3-circles paradigm is the assumption that because postcolonial societies have taken on English for different reasons than those countries who use English as a Foreign Language, English cannot become institutionalized in the expanding circle, and expanding circle Englishes are necessarily "performance" varieties. English may be a much more prominent part of Singaporean or Nigerian social life than it is in China, but I don't see why this should mean that the unique way in which English has become deeply embedded in education and social status for the middle class in China ought to be dismissed as a "mere" performance variety.

While I agree that the acceptance of an endonormative model would follow Kachru's steps (non-recognition, expansion of bilingualism, gradual acceptance of local norm, recognition), and  is much less likely to happen in an EFL/EC context, or at least to happen more slowly, I also think that the criteria laid out for an institutional variety stacks the deck -- it only allows for a 'real' variety to have characteristics similar to the Inner Circle. (Maybe. I'm making this up.) I'm thinking here of Butler's (1997) making "a standard and recognizable pattern of pronunciation handed down from one generation to another” her #1 criteria, and Kachru's (1992) list of criteria ending with "a body of nativized English literature." I'm not convinced those things are better criteria for a 'real' variety of English than some other things -- for example, the internet wasn't really around when those taxonomies were developed, and clearly that's become one of the most important domains for English.

Anyway, more soon, probably.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Problematizing "Mere Learner English"

Maybe what I want to do is use critical app lx to erase the clear divisions Kachru erected between ESL/EFL varieties and between outer circle and expanding circle contexts. Mollin (2005, 2007) and others, after Kachru I believe, have referred to some language  as "mere learner English." (Even though they've tried to break down the idea of 'interlanguage.')  Of course there is such a thing as learners making a bunch of random mistakes on their way to greater proficiency in a language (right? I sure hope so), but I still have a hunch that there is room for finding certain features in the language of a particular group of language users, and that this can (potentially) be considered a variety. Is it too silly to think of there being not perhaps a cohesive "Chinese English" but maybe an "English of Higher Education in China?"

Even among Chinese undergraduates, the population I've chosen to focus on, one senses ways of using English that remain common, if not, "acceptable." The somewhat uniform use of textbooks (what are they using nowadays -- New College English?), the widespread popularity of self-study books sold in every Xinhua bookstore, the chain of New Oriental schools with their patented (or whatever) methods....does this not create a kind of "English culture?"

And let's not forget the "Happy Everyday" phenomenon. This might sound simplistic (and it is a little), but say that phrase to any English-knowing undergrad in China and they will know exactly what you mean. Is that "mere learner English," or is that a legitimate semantic shift, a way of using English that does not exist in any other variety, but does in this one? My money is on the latter. Perhaps it is not an either/or question, though.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Critical Approaches, Rational Argument, and Commitments

"I turned to Alastair Pennycook’s Critical Applied Linguistics: A Critical Introduction  in the hope of ļ¬nding a systematic and coherent account of what I took to be one particular way of doing applied linguistics. I was looking for an (introductory) text which would make explicit not only the “real-world” problems critical work addresses, but also the principles it is based on together with an exploration of the (philosophical) origins of these principles and above all on their interrelation with each other. These expectations turned out to be inappropriate for a (critical) book on critical applied linguistics. But even more than that: I know that everything I have said above is based on my belief in the value of rational argument. And since I am not sure whether (or how) there is a place for rational argument in Pennycook’s world of critical applied linguistics, I am not sure whether what I have said here has any relevance. Maybe – if one truly adopts the CALx way of thinking and doing – a book review like this ceases to have any point or purpose."

 - Katharina Breyer (2002) in her review of Pennycook (2001).

I am sympathetic to Breyer's desire to, in essence, "critique the critical" (though I have promised myself this will not be a central feature of my own work -- too often my resistance feels to me like petty squabbling). Yet I am also (maybe due to my postmodern sympathies) suspicious of her deployment of "rational argument." Basically: Whence rationality? It is this critique of modernist discourse which both neo-Marxist/Gramscian/etc scholars and crazy religious people like me who actually believe in transcendence can agree on. (See, for example, Canagarajah's contributions to his and Wong's Christian and Critical English Language Educators in Dialogue.)

One wonders, then, is there room to wade in the waters of CAL for someone who will ultimately choose not to embrace its theoretical commitments? I'd like to hope so. Critical approaches tend to be shunned in part, I think, because of what reads like a you're-either-for-us-or-against-us attitude: if you are not questioning the basic assumptions of your discipline, you tacitly support existing injustice. This is a hard pill to swallow, yet it feels important. Like Canagarajah, Freire, and Osborn, I see important resonances between Christianity and critical practice. But I'm Just Not That Into Foucault, Marx, etc. I like to hang out with the Russian Orthodox version of Bakhtin; neither he, nor I, nor any theorist, is "the first speaker, the one who disturbs the eternal silence of the universe."

If one declares one's epistemological commitments, one is open to critique. Tell a staunchly materialist neuroscientist and philosopher of mind that you are committed to a particular religious story, and you may be ridiculed. Tell a critical theorist that you are committed to scientific materialism and Reason, and you may be written off as naive. Tell a critical applied linguist you are committed to an alternative vision of justice and ethics and you may be taken to task.

This, I suppose, is the price one pays for finding a way of thinking, being, and doing which allows one to sleep at night. The source of our commitments is complex, multifaceted, and mysterious, yet I suspect the further we drill down into them, the better chance we have of strengthening, rather than destroying, the foundations. What, after all, is the purpose of tearing down, if not to build?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Social Construction & Wikipedia

I'm still wading through Disinventing and Reconstituting Languages, trying to grapple with the authors' argument for using the term "invention" to describe the social construction of language. It's probably that I just don't have the theoretical background but I'm still not convinced it makes a big difference. On a related note, I also came across the Wikipedia page for "the Tinkerbell Effect" which purports to refer to "things that only exist because people believe in them." The (unreferenced) list includes items like private property, the monetary system, authority, and compulsory education. Aside from being one of many examples showing just how sloppy and nonspecific Wikipedia often is, the implication is clear: things that exist because they are discourses sustained by beliefs, social actions, and language, somehow are not real. Or to put it even more extremely: ideas don't exist.

Following this idea into broader cultural currents which seem to value a certain perception of the 'hard sciences' and material reality as ultimate would be a big detour for this blog, and has been too big a detour for my mind (er, I mean, "brain"), so we'll leave it at that.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

End of Crowley's "Standard English and the Politics of Language"

This is the final paragraph of Crowley (2003), after a lengthy chapter describing the debates about Standard English and teaching in the UK in the early 1980s. What I find interesting is how his proposed redefinition of standard spoken English is so similar to the idea of "Lingua Franca English" in which grammar and adherences to particular standards are downplayed in favor of emergent intelligibility (I might have made that term up). It's also notable that he elides the importance of defining standard written English; indeed, many scholars who argue for the non-stigmatization of traditionally marginalized English usage tend to hew more closely to the importance of traditional standard Written English than one might expect. I'm not accusing Crowley of this -- just noting that he doesn't posit a redefinition of a written standard in this passage.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Anne Pakir on Standardization

Pakir (1997) writes that "we well recognize that:

standardization is the recognition of the status of a particular variety;
standardization does not tolerate variability;
standardization is motivated by social, political, and commercial needs;
standardization is promoted;
standardization is an ideology; and
standard language is an idea in the mind rather than a reality"

Once again, this word reality -- I want to reclaim it. Standard language is a reality. It's a reality because it's an idea. Ideas are real and have real consequences. I'm happy to say "standard language as a system with special characteristics that make it sacrosanct" is not a reality.

Anyway, Pakir's main concern is actually codification. I need to read a little more about what that is.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

I Do Believe in Language(s)

I've been perusing Makoni & Pennycook's Disinventing and Reconstituting Languages -- some fascinating ideas, but I don't think I'll jump in wholeheartedly. Even if existence of discrete languages can be shown to be 'false' -- or at least if the beliefs that laypeople hold about what languages are can be shown to be dangerous and/or harmful, which can certainly be true -- I'd prefer to retain the concept of 'a language' just as we tend to retain concepts like 'native/nonnative speaker' or even' race'/'ethnicity'. They are terms that may be deployed in problematic ways but my tendency is to stick with 'commonsense' definitions and work on ways of understanding language that are a) nuanced, b) likely to be useful/helpful in educational and other social contexts, and c) plausibly acceptable by non-specialists. I can't see 'language isn't a thing' meeting the criteria for c).

Trevor Pateman (who I hadn't heard of until, um, today) writes in his essay "What is English if not a language?" "whatever isomorphism between speakers' knowledge of language and their beliefs about their language exists, it should not be allowed to obscure the major differences between these two orders of reality." That's important to remember, certainly. But he also writes, with a pragmatism I appreciate:

"...despite everything I have said, it is clear enough that the idiolects of speakers who believe themselves to be speakers of the same language do indeed cluster enough for the belief to be highly plausible. For most practical purposes, it is true to say that over there they speak French while over here we speak English."

So far I'm most convinced by those who argue that form and function of language are tied to belief/ideology, but the work that people do on this (like Silverstein 1979) is so technical I usually have no idea what's going on.

The Silent Traveller

One unexpected outcome of my studies of Chinese English, or English education in China, or whatever, has been  another interest I've developed as a sidebar: English-language literature of Republican China. I realize this sounds really hoity-toity and specialized, and it kind of is. I do not in any way consider myself a "sinologist" -- I think of my interest in China as something similar to my newfound interest in Vancouver Canucks hockey: when you live in a place, it becomes part of you. Anyway.

I'm talking about the period roughly between 1912 and 1949, after the last Chinese emperor and before the communist revolution. I hardly know anything of the political or social history of this period, but what I like about it is the literature written in English -- probably the first, really -- that it produced.

My first encounter was with Gu Hongming's 1915 book The Spirit of the Chinese People, which a colleague in Shaoxing lent me. Here's what I wrote after reading it:

Gu Hongming was a Malaysian Chinese born in Penang who went to England for an education, became a polyglot (speaking English, Malay, French, German, and Chinese), and eventually moved to China where he became a kind of apologist for Chinese civilization and especially religion (which he believes Confucianism is). This book, written around the time of the first world war, is, as far as I know, his only surviving legacy. It's hard to buy his premises by today's standards, since he he completely essentializes people based on nationality (especially, of course, the Chinese -- he says they are a people with adult intellect and child-like hearts). There are some delightful passages -- most of the latter half of the book actually -- in which he excoriates western academics who he sees as total posers when it comes to knowing about China ... but unfortunately Gu rarely gives a convincing reason why we should believe him more than anybody else.
The greatest writer of this time is probably Lin Yutang, a prolific author in English whose books My Country and My People and The Importance of Living were bestsellers in the U.S. in the 1930s. (He wrote dozens of other books.)

My latest discovery is Chiang Yee, who wrote a series of travelogues of his time in England  (not unlike Charles Dickens' travel diaries) in the 1930s and 40s. (He also wrote about other countries into the 1970s.) I picked up his book The Silent Traveller in London on sale at the Regent College bookstore yesterday. I'm looking forward to reading it.

I'd welcome any other information about authors from this period.