Sunday, October 30, 2011

Sin Boldly (A Navel-Gazing Interlude)

I'm in no position to be giving advice about how to do research. I've long considered it my weakest academic skill. I've always thought that being an academic consisted of chiefly these four things: reading, writing, teaching, and doing research. Here's how I'd rank myself in terms of level of confidence in each of those:

1. Writing
2. Reading
3. Teaching
4. Doing research

Actually, bump those all down a notch and add:

1. Obnoxiously inserting my opinion about what I study into every possible conversation while deriding non-specialists' views, even though my only point is usually "well, it's complicated"

Which is also something academics are known for.

I sometimes think that I've made it this far (through -- dear God -- eight and a half years of postsecondary education now) based almost solely my ability to put together a readable compound-complex sentence, and while that may not be entirely true, a lifetime of reading widely has, I think, afforded me a certain facility with language, if I can say so without being arrogant. (I can write stupid sentences, too, of course.) I have a long way to go as a teacher, but if I get going about something I really know, I can do pretty well with it (I'm psyched to be teaching two sections of world Englishes next term -- kind of a dream come true). But research -- even after writing a 40-page paper on methods, taking courses on ethnography, surveys, and interviews, and having my dissertation proposal passed by my committee -- still fills me with dread.

I know that research never pans out exactly the way one hopes (I've had to lower my sights quite a bit on this project) -- but I have so little experience with data collection and analysis that I'm constantly fearful that each step I take is further in the wrong direction. And getting derailed by a lack of confidence at this stage has proven even more debilitating than the "oh-crap-I-don't-know-what-I'm-talking-about" anxiety of writing 100 pages worth of comps this summer. I spent the last month hemming and hawing about getting Ethics Review Board approval for my study (which I finally got last week, 2-4 weeks later than I'd hoped), and during that time I could have been analyzing my pilot data (which I've barely looked at), learning NVivo, doing other writing and reading, making contact with more potential participants, and so on. Instead, as best I can tell, most days I woke up at noon, felt sorry for myself that I had a broken arm and no BREB approval and was in China away from my friends and family, sent a few emails, read a few articles, and watched 6 hours of television.

I'm not proud of any of this. But as I look back on the last month, I can see how (and I can still feel how, every time something goes wrong) my main malady has been a constant fear that I'm somehow doing something horribly wrong and irrevocably ruining my chances to do a good project and actually finish my PhD. (My brilliant defense mechanism, apparently: avoid thinking about the work.)

Rationally, I know this is silly. My university grades (since an unfortunate incident involving sophomore year physics) have been impeccable. I was accepted by the top PhD programs in my field. I've had book reviews published in well-known academic journals. I've presented at the top local, national, and international conferences in my field.  I wrote and published a book just for fun. Yet now, more than ever, I hear a nagging voice saying you're doing this wrong.

What's the remedy?  Well, as Martin Luther once wrote, "sin boldly." When I was looking up the context of that phrase, I came across a college writing guide of the same title by David Williams, which I'd like to quote here:

One important point about your adopted voice and its argument: you have at least to pretend to believe it. Like Solomon and all great minds that ever contemplated the human condition, Martin Luther was right when he said that all of humankind are sinners and sin in every thought and deed and must necessarily sin, so far are we removed from God. His response was, he declared, to "sin boldly." Do not hide quivering under the bed. Do not shuffle shamefully onto the stage full of abject apologies. Be assertive, be bold, adopt a self-confident voice. Fake it if you have to. The cynics may be right. Our worldly institutions and values may all be relative and artificial constructs like the money in our wallets, paper with ink on it and not anything of real value at all. But few of those who believe this line can be found burning the ten dollar bills in their wallets. We live in the world "as if." To some that "if" is a constantly looming threat; to others it's a challenge.

Williams is writing about writing, but the same is true of research. Here I am; I'm in this. I'm doing what I came here to do. I'm definitely going to screw some things up. And then I've got eighteen more months to diagnose what happened, make sense of it all, and head back to point #1 above -- my ability to write sentences -- to tie it all together.

So, to conclude this pep talk to myself, here are some mantras for the next three weeks:

1. It's all data. Things that go right, things that go wrong, ever time I set foot on a campus, every newspaper article I come across about English education in China, every photograph I take, every student I talk to, every class I teach, every instant messenger conversation I have with a student or a colleague -- it's not all going to be rigorously analyzed, but it's all a part of the story of this dissertation. Really, the last four years, and the next two also, are part of it -- from the day we got off the plane in Shanghai to the day we moved to Vancouver to the day I arrived in Ningbo, to do the day we touch Canadian soil again in January. My job, what I'm doing right now, is writing a long-ass manuscript about what's going on with English in China, albeit with a particular focus on a certain research project.

2. Sin boldly. I haven't done a project like this before, and this methodology is, for the most part, unique. Nobody else has done it this way, so I get to make it up. The project isn't going to get better if I keep sitting down to do some work on it and I feel so depressed by my lack of progress that I abandon it.

3. Get out. Every day, meet with people, talk to people, email people, interview people. Check in with participants. Politely assert myself when I don't hear back. Get used to explaining it confidently.

4. If there's not enough data this time, it's possible to get more later. Sure, it won't be easy, but making contacts now could possibly lead to more and better help getting more data in the future if it's deemed necessary.

That's it for now.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Some Recent Recommended Academic Articles on English in China

Fong, E. T. Y. (2009). English in China: some thoughts after the Beijing Olympics. English Today 25(1), 44-49.

He, D.  & Li, D. C.S. (2009). Language attitudes and linguistic features in the ‘China English debate. World Englishes 28(1), 70-89.

Henry, E. S. (2010.) Interpretations of “Chinglish”: Native speakers, language learners and the enregisterment of a stigmatized code. Language in Society, 35, 669-688.

Lo Bianco, J. (2009), Being Chinese, Speaking English. In J. Lo Bianco, J. Orton, & Y. Gao  (Eds.), China and English: Globalization and the dilemmas of identity (pp. 200-211). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.  

You, X. (2011), Chinese white-collar workers and multilingual creativity in the diaspora. World Englishes 30, 409–427.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Time to Face Facts: This Study Isn't About "China English"

In fact, it's a reaction to the proliferation of China English studies, when I really think about it.

What influenced me to change this from a "what is China English" study to a "what do people think about English in China" study?

1. The growing consensus that labelling individual varieties of English in the Kachruvian framework is to some extent ideological

2. The notion (promoted by Saraceni) that it's more worthwhile to look at very particular contexts rather than whole "Englishes"

3. The fact that nobody I work with at UBC is academic progeny of any WEs scholars

4. I'm not entirely enthusiastic about what can be revealed by asking people direct questions about "China English"

5. I think that ideology and attitude have important implications for WE theory, but that they don't necessarily have to be attitudes and ideologies directly expressed about a variety.

Most importantly, I think that there isn't enough done to get at people's attitudes and reactions to particular instances of language use and exploring how they make judgments about language from an ideological/social perspective.

I think that's it.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Interpretations of “Chinglish"

One of the smartest papers on language ideology re English in China that I've read. My only beef is the emphasis on "learners" and spoken English when I think it's arguable that it is legit to call some CE speakers legitimate 'users' rather than learners, plus there is a lot more going on than speaking. He notes this, but I'd just like to see a clearer distinction made between "somebody made a funny translation on a sign" and "students make mistakes." These are almost totally conflated in popular culture, media, online, etc. I'm not saying Henry overgeneralizes -- he susses out this phenomenon better than almost anyone else. Here's the abstract:

As a linguistic curiosity, Chinglish has long fascinated native speakers of English, prompting numerous studies that analyze its form with a view towards either eliminating it or accepting it as a viable Standard English variant. In this article, I examine how various social groups involved in foreign language education in China, including Chinese students, foreign teachers and linguists, enregister Chinglish as a linguistic variety. I argue that Chinglish is not distinguished by the presence or absence of any particular linguistic feature, but a label produced in the intersubjective engagements between language learners and native speakers. Chinglish is structured by and reinforces the relations of expertise within the Chinese English language speech community, thus representing larger anxieties about nationalism and modernization in a global context.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Almost Every Conversation I Have with Taxi Drivers in China

The following takes place several times a month:
(translated from the original Chinese)

Driver: where to?
Me: (my destination)
Driver: Your Chinese is really good!
Me: Oh, no, it's not.
Driver: Yeah, it is! How long have you been studying Chinese/been in China?
Me: about 2 years. (Optional long-winded explanation about my career)
Driver: Where are you from?
Me: The US.
Driver: Lengthy monologue about the difference between the US and China in the realm of culture, politics, economy, housing, family relationships, education system, food, or language.
Me: (during monologue) Well-meaning Chinese backchannel sounds (en, ah, oh, etc.)
Driver: (reaching the end of monologue) ... right?
Me: (smiling) Sorry, I can't understand clearly. My Chinese really isn't that good.

[Ideally, we have reached our destination by this point; otherwise, silence for the remainder of the ride.]

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Chinese construction of English

I think I've already mentioned several times that many examples of  so-called Chinglish,  usually presented for our educational  enlightenment or entertainment,  don't often seem like Chinglish to me. In some cases, the opposite can happen as well.

 Here's an example that I came across when I was in Beijing last month. In the English newspaper Beijing Today, there's a column which focuses on Chinese English mistakes. People who know me will know that I don't think this is necessarily the greatest use of column inches, but this particular example is interesting.

This column is an amusing story about a middle-aged Chinese man who cannot understand the idiom  “to drive one's pigs to market.”  You know,  that really common idiom that native speakers use all the time. What's that? You don't use it all the time? You've never heard of it?

Indeed. In fact, if you do a Google search for the phrase "drive one's pigs to market" you will pretty much  only find Chinese websites; deeper digging reveals this to be an obscure and long-abandoned reference to snoring.  A blog called “obsolete word of the day” gives an explanation of the phrase as an 18th-century regionalism from England.

As a native speaker, I want to chuckle at what I see as a misguided attempt  to improve language learning and explain a useful idiom.  That's not the only thing that's going on here, however.  The fact that mostly only Chinese English-learning websites use this phrase nowadays  suggests that it has been repurposed; resurrected, even. In the Chinese newspaper, the story of the older man not being familiar with an "English" term is used as  a rhetorical device to almost shame people into studying English.  “I must study English harder," the man says at the end of the article. What was once an obscure metaphor has been given a new life  as a motivational language learning tool.

On the other hand, I pity the poor college student who will someday use this phrase with his host family in England,  only to be met with blank stares.