quarta-feira, 27 de maio de 2009

Burning down the house: Canagarajah’s views on Lingua Franca English

Canagarajah, A. Suresh. Lingua Franca English, Multilingual Communities, and Language Acquisition. Modern Language Journal, 91/5 (2007): 921-937.

In his thought-provoking article, Suresh Canagarajah challenges traditional views of language learning and the status of English in a globalized world, proposing a new understanding of English as a lingua franca that allows communication in multilingual contexts among speakers who have English as an “additional language” and who do not take native-speaker varieties as target models.

A professor at Pennsylvania State University, Canagarajah is originally from Sri Lanka, a former British colony in Asia where multilingualism is widespread. The author’s background seems to drive his research, as issues such as identity, multilingualism and non-Western scholarship are present all over the article.

The article starts reviewing Firth and Wagner’s (1997) questioning of traditional dichotomies such as learner versus user, non-native versus native speaker and interlanguage versus target language, stating that there is a bias that holds the second element in each pair as superior. The author then calls for an SLA research that considers a broader context outside language classes and homogenous communities, overcoming what he considers the traditional Western emphasis on concepts such as cognition, innateness and form.

Lingua Franca English (LFE) is said by the author to be difficult to describe since its form is negotiated in interaction. As LFE does not belong to a limited geographical area, it is part of a virtual community in where all speakers, according to Cangarajah, have native competence. Here, the concept of native competence or proficiency is not fully developed as it applies to LFE. Because of the existence of speakers from different national, cultural and linguistic backgrounds, LFE is characterized by constant variation and active negotiation in each interaction. As a consequence, use and learning cannot be separated in LFE, according to the article. However, one could question if this indissoluble relation is not present in every language learning process, instead of being exclusive to LFE.

As form becomes less important than pragmatic strategies, error also receives a different significance in the context of LFE – error is a failure in communicating meaning, something that, according to the author, seldom happens in LFE. One could point out that Canagarajah does not provide evidences for many of his statements.

In one of the few insights that apply directly to classroom, Canagarajah reminds us how students can use different identities in class and even “subvert” activities that underestimate their identities, an observation that can - or should – affect the way teachers approach classroom material and routines.

A worth-reading article, “Lingua Franca English, Multilingual Communities, and Language Acquisition” makes us question many topics that have been taken for granted in our field and helps us ponder about ideological aspects of English that perhaps we may have wanted to avoid as language professionals and especially as English teachers. As we read it, however, it is impossible to stay indifferent to the iconoclastic perceptions it provides.

More about Suresh Canagarajah here.

For a discussions on the implications of global English to teaching methodologies, click here.

Teaching and learning Global English

There can be little doubt about the fact that in the last decades English has become a global language. In science or entertainment, on the internet or in conferences, in former colonies or in countries where it had never been historically present – such as Brazil -, English is now used to overcome national limits and provide communication among people from different nationalities that do not necessarily have the native speaker of English as a role model or a certain national variety as a target or measuring reference to one’s fluency in the language.

In this context where native speakers have become a minority, there is a necessity to question many traditional concepts that have been considered as proven facts and move to a new paradigm that may enable us to more accurately understand what English is today. From the popular assumption that English is likely to replace national languages to the questioning if the present “hegemony of English” is not going to be “replaced by an oligarchy of languages, including Spanish and Chinese” (GRADDOL, 1997, p.3), attempts to assess the issues related to global English vary widely, as well as the definition of global English itself.

As this debate shapes and generates many others in education, linguistic policies, culture and politics, one cannot expect it to be a neutral one. On the contrary, it is a discussion permeated by ideology and interest, as the predominance of English itself is in fact a result of complex economic and political contexts of the 20th century.

The language of British colonialism and American imperialism has become “independent of any form of social control” (CRYSTAL, 2002, p. x), escaping from the hands of the native speakers, so to speak, up to the point that it is appropriated by cultures at the periphery of the world as a tool to foster development and have admission in a globalized world. One could question, however, if this is actually a process of appropriation or just a new version of colonization that is welcomed by the people being colonized. Who benefits most from this global English?

In this paper, I try to address the following questions: what are the implications of this global English to language teaching? How does one deal with a global language living in a country where just a small minority speaks it? Is global English a natural outcome of learning English in a non-English speaking country? How are English teachers expected to deal with this new phenomenon?

What is global English? And what makes a language global?

As David Crystal states, “a language has traditionally become an international language for one chief reason: the power of its people – especially their political and military power”. (CRYSTAL, 2002, p. 9) The development of English as an international language is a direct outcome of British colonialism and, in more recent times, the position obtained by the United States after the Second World War. The status acquired and or attributed to English therefore is not apart from the entire historical context of the last 60 years:

Had Hitler won World War II and had the USA been reduced to a confederation of banana republics, we would probably today use German as a universal vehicular language, and Japanese electronics firms would advertise their products in Hong Kong airport duty-free shops (…) in German (ECO, 1995, p. 331 apud GRADDOL, 1997, p. 8)

The English language was then closely associated to the American culture and lifestyle. Students from a traditional language institution in Porto Alegre, for example, reported that in the 1980’s they were taught how to greet Americans and the appropriate distance to keep, etc. Text books and other didactic materials also reproduced the same ideas promoting English as an American language.
English became an international language as American influence became stronger around the globe. Americans (and in less degree in our hemisphere, British) were seem as the source and owners of the language. This perception may still exist among English teachers in Brazil, even though there is a tendency to develop a more critical thinking concerning our relation to the English language and culture.

The end of the Cold War and what was then understood as the hegemony of the American power also ratified the status of English as the most important international language. On the other hand, in the last decades it became more evident that English was not an American or British language anymore, and beyond all national Englishes there was now a global language used in many aspects as a lingua franca.

In recent years, I have listened many times to teenage students saying how they hate Americans. They would then portrait Americans in very stereotyped terms. As someone who was probably seen as a kind of representative of that foreign language and culture, I had to explain my views of English as a language that does not depend on a national culture, at the same time I questioned their biased perception of uniformity among Americans asking them how they though Americans would picture a Brazilian person.

These experiences in classroom helped me to understand this phenomenon as an overreaction to the world inequality and injustice that those students associated with the American institutions, a kind of perception that has become more and more common after the September 11 events and the Bush administration. Is it being now minimized with the election of Obama?

Governments and institutions have also responded to this new scenario. In Brazil, it was during the Bush administration that Itamaraty decided to attribute less importance to its English test in admissional exams for the future Brazilian diplomats, in a clear ideological refusal of a supposed acceptance of “imperialism”.[1] A few years ago, Mongolia made English its official second language in a controversial measure. [2] The British Council has sponsored research on the topic, including the book The future of English?, by linguist David Graddol (1997).

Scholarly research has attempted to assess the issues related to global English, in which the role of non-native speakers is of notice. Suresh Canagarajah (2007), for example, stresses the role of what he calls Lingua Franca English in multilingual contexts where speakers have native competence in this additional language (not “second” or “foreign”). However, it seems necessary that a more accurate and detailed research is carried out to assess global English in contexts where there is no widespread multilingualism and English is taught as a foreign language as we do in Brazil.

In terms of the language teaching market, so far, there has been a shy attempt to recognize the existence of global English, since it seems to avoid a shift from the American English versus British English dichotomy. Some books will just add “foreign accents” to audio materials to give a global “flavor”. Many schools advertise their connection to a national variety and in many countries there is a high demand for native teachers. In some cases, the criteria do not include any previous teaching experience or degree in language, being the condition of native speaker the only requirement. [3]

I believe that such a shift will never happen completely, given the marketing power that “American “English” has as a label or a symbolic product to be sold. However, we do need in fact a more realistic view of English and better approaches to its teaching that can consider it as a global language and effectively provide students with a tool for real communication.

Whether or not we train our Brazilian students to perfectly pronounce the th sound or teach them the native-speakers’ culture behind the language without a critical viewpoint, they will still be Brazilians learning English. This means that the outcome of their learning is not likely to be American or British English but global English.

English teachers should be more realistic about the use of English that happens so frequently in conversations with non-native speakers or through the internet. Much more needs to be pondered and discussed about what makes global English and all its implications in classroom as it is in fact a new concept that challenges our understanding of English learning and teaching.


[1] Articles from Brazilian newspapers about the Itamaraty’s decision

[2] Located between China and Russia, Mongolia is a former communist country where the study of Russian was widespread before the debacle of the Soviet Union.

[3] Some brief reflections on native and non-native teachers are available here

Social practices and Good Language Learners

In Changing Perspectives on Good Language Learners [1], Norton and Toohey (2001) assess different approaches that try to explain success in second language acquisition (SLA) and affirm the importance of social practices within a community as means to enhance or constrain learning.

Early research on good language learning focused on the importance of personal motivations, attitudes and cognitive styles as determining to a learner’s success. Environment and social interaction were not focused.

More recent research, however, has brought into SLA studies an emphasis on sociocultural aspects. This approach stresses that learning takes place within a “community of practice” where there are opportunities and relations established that foster or prevent more effective learning.

Norton and Toohey propose that the sociocultural conditions include the learner’s perception of the language and its accompanying relations of power and symbolic constructions. Such are evident in their case study of immigrants in Canada.

The authors observed two female Polish immigrants – a 5-year-old child, Julie, and a young woman, Eva – that were highly successful English learners. The authors investigated how these two immigrants' social practices could facilitate, or not, their L2 acquisition, as well as how they negotiated their acceptance into the social network around them.

Working in a fast-food restaurant, Eva found an environment where long conversations were not expected between employees and costumers and even talk between co-workers was short and limited. At first, she was assigned to tasks that required little, if any, speaking, such as cleaning the floor. That situation constrained her access to language practice and put her in a low social position. However, with her participation in the monthly activities sponsored by the company outside the workplace, Eva started being seen from a different angle where her personality and youth constituted positive symbolic features. As a result, she later had other jobs in the restaurant that offered more interaction opportunities.

At kindergarten, Julie had speaking as a requirement and participated of activities in group. Giving Julie communicative opportunities and scaffolding her learning were responsibilities of the teacher, who would also help her deal with social difficulties in class, something that Eva did not have at her workplace.

Julie’s and Eva’s agency was determinant not only to enter their peer networks but to affirm their identities as respectable and desirable members. They were able to overcome attempts to exclude or subordinate them through intellectual and social resources.

In terms of intellectual resources, Eva’s knowledge of Italian and European countries was impressive to her Canadian peers and was a way to resist subordination or isolation. With a similar outcome, Julie tried to teach classmates some Polish words. Also, her previous knowledge of classroom dynamics acquired in a Sunday school made her a recipient of “valued information” about classroom routines and activities.

An important social resource Eva and Julie had were their “allies”. Eva had a Polish boyfriend who used to drive her co-workers to the monthly activities, while Julie had the teacher and some of her peers helping her. The perception their peers had of these allies as desirable people was also significant to their acceptance. If the perception about them had been negative, it is likely that this social strategy would not have been successful. These strategies helped both Eva and Julie to establish strong identities in those contexts, where the possibilities offered to interact with the group were met by their personal choices and strategies.

Norton and Toohey conclude stressing the importance of considering the social practices involved in L2 acquisition and questioning how other factors can also be influential on this matter. The fact that Eva and Julie were Caucasian, with blond hair and blue eyes, able-bodied, slim and well-dressed could have affected their interaction in a very positive way within their communities. The authors then suggest for further developments in SLA research a closer consideration on how ethnicity and physical appearance may influence this process of social interaction and language acquisition.

[1] See the original article here