Friday, February 24, 2012

Long Time No Figure This Out

Sorry, wacky news network, I think you're wrong.

I'm pretty sure I'm inadvertently becoming the world authority on the origin of "long time no see," so I just want to clarify some points I've come across in my absurd, ongoing searches through Google Books and library databases.

1. The two main theories generally seem to be that it comes from a pidgin English, either Native American or Chinese.

2. The earliest written usages are all native English speakers "reporting" the speech of non-native speakers, from about 1840-1915. This really needs to be taken into account. You can't say that because a British navy man or an American explorer says that a Chinese prostitute or a Native American chief said it, they really said it. The literature of that era is rife with stylized English attributed to non-native speakers -- can we trust it?

3. The earliest written Chinese English usage -- that is, written in English by a Chinese writer for a Chinese audience --  I can find is from 1921, in an magazine for Chinese students studying in the USA.

4. The fact that 好久不见 can be translated as long time no see does not seem that convincing a case for a strictly Chinese origin -- there are other ways to literally translate that, and I have to assume that the 100+ year history of long time no see as an American English expression has influenced that translation.

5. Knowing Americans like I do, I'm inclined to lean much more toward the idea that LTNS is mainly a way to mock people for not speaking standard American English, but it also seems too tangled up with legitimate possibilities of pidgin usage to be only that.

6. However, LTNS seems to have been taken up by Chinese learners of English (and the current generation of English-using young people) as a kind of symbolic victory for Chinglish. It's often lumped together with Chinglish phrases that are only known in China and only used as jokes to show "ha ha, Chinglish is funny"(like "horse horse tiger tiger" and "I'll give you some color to see see"), but -- and this is key -- it's held up as an example of Chinglish that "made it" -- successfully joining the one big happy family that is English in the World.

7. So really, this goes back to something I touched on in the "driving the pigs to market" example -- an expression that previously had a relatively fixed local meaning in one variety of English, reappropriated and ideologically repurposed.

PS: I'd love to do a Google N-Gram search on this, but to search for a 4-word phrase you have to download something like 250 gigabytes worth of .csv files. No thanks.

Friday, February 03, 2012

World Englishes and Teaching Writing

I have mentioned in the past that there hasn't been much interplay between the worlds of L2 writing and world Englishes -- nor, I suppose, has the whole spirit of world Englishes (or sociolinguistics, or really applied linguistics writ large) had much impact on what we on this side of the biz call "L1 composition" -- those people who pal around at NCTE and CCCC. The reasons for this have more to do with traditional disciplinary boundaries than with willful ignorance, I think, but as I've moved toward this "acceptability" thing (that is, looking at the significance of readers' reactions to texts not in terms of how they treat "errors," but how they react to things the deem unacceptable/inappropriate for a variety of possible reasons) in my own study I've been interested to see that others are moving in a similar direction.

Three important scholars to keep an eye on in this regard are Aya Matsuda, Suresh Canagarajah, and Bruce Horner.

Canagarajah should come as no surprise; you could say that his well-known 2006 article "The Place of World Englishes in Composition: Pluralization Continued" has jump-started the movement in this direction, and really he's been writing about this sort of thing off and on since at least his Geopolitics of Academic Writing (2002).

Matsuda has been writing about world Englishes for the last decade, but she's done some work with her husband, who is an L2 writing scholar, on WEs and teaching writing in the last couple of years. I'm hoping to see more from her on this.

Horner is an interesting case. In recent years he's been working closely with Min-Zhan Lu (whose name I should perhaps have mentioned along with his, but she doesn't much of have a website), the originator of the anecdote (the "can able to" incident, all the way back in a 1994 article) that has animated a number of Canagarajah's arguments on the subject, and they published a kind of manifesto last year on what they call a "translingual approach" to teaching writing. There is much to commend in this article, though as a stodgy TESOL/applied linguistics person I find myself not able to identify with some of its more US-centric perspective and subsequent political positions.

I say "US-centric" simply because composition studies is about teaching writing to college students in America, and there's nothing wrong with that. But its politics are also influenced by its being rooted in American higher education (which again is not wrong! I'm a product of that system and I hope to eventually work in it!), and Horner's statement on how he found his way to a more world Englishes-influenced approach to comp is interesting: "I came to this concern through my work on immigrant rights and English-only legislation in Iowa. This has led me to argue against the English monolingualism dominating the teaching and study of writing in U.S. colleges and universities." 

Thus, the notion of "English-only" policies, which are pretty uniquely American, often comes up in his work (the little of it I've seen). Of course, the ideology of monolingualism (which does need to be looked into more deeply) is implicated in most contexts, and indeed this is a reason this 'new' approach to teaching writing is really worthwhile -- but many of us outside the US are simply not dealing with the same political questions. Also, this is where I'd throw in my usual caveat -- "we don't all have the same politics, so let's try to make this palatable to the widest amount of people possible" -- if I had more time. What can I say -- I'm the academic progeny of a "vulgar pragmatist."

In any case, what I like about this approach that is emerging is the way it seeks insights from rhetoric and composition studies, TESOL, sociolinguistics/world Englishes, foreign language teaching, and translation, to be applied to the question of teaching writing to diverse groups of students in different contexts. We could all benefit from more of that kind of thing -- or hopefully, students could benefit from it.