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Language Learners in Anglophone Contexts Workshop (1 Oct. 2018). Jesus College, Oxford. A Critical Commentary by Dr. Fernando Gómez Herrero (U of Birmingham & Birkbeck, U of London).

October 31, 2018

Language Learners in Anglophone Contexts Workshop (1 Oct. 2018). Jesus College, Oxford. 

By Dr. Fernando Gómez Herrero, Teaching Fellow (Modern Languages, U of Birmingham, f.gomezherrero@bham.ac.uk, fgh2173@gmail.com). 

 

 

 

I attended the one-day workshop titled “Languages Learners in Anglophone Contexts” at Jesus College, Oxford, run by Katrin Kohl and Bill Rivers, wrapped up around the initiative called Creative Multilingualism (www.creativeml.ox.ac.uk) and organizations such as Art and Humanities Research Council, the U.S.-based Joint National Committee for the Languages (JNCL-NCLIS; https://languagepolicy.org) and Open World Research Initiative  (OWRI). It was largely an Anglo-American frame, with a few pointed exceptions, of professional Franco-German-language provenance, largely Anglo-centric Europe-based take on the challenges of learning languages other than English (LOTE acronym) inside the Anglophone zone. We were about 30 participants. Women were mostly carrying the torch. 

 

There were 9 panels and individual presentations appealing to the general virtues to “multilingualism” (no “multiculturalism,” mind you). The virtues of the many, let us say, and the theoretical vices of the one language dominance. Unlike other venues, the emphasis on “translation” was here missing in action. “Creative” was the agreeable qualifier, which may have been serviceable euphemism for the humanities in general or to simple pedagogic strategies in the classroom. There was little in the sense of specific institutional self-interrogation. The good intentions flew across North-Atlantic geographies with one or two references to Australia. The impetus was to promote the plurality (the “multi-”) against anyone singularity (“mono-“ or one, anyone), and there was, mind you, only one language spoken in the workshop with insufficient sprinkling of other languages. The workshop developed largely along the lines of classroom motivation, career expectations for “modern language” graduates at Oxford, the cognitive benefits of bilingualism and how secondary-school teachers handle French and German language teaching under time pressure and often lack of resources. 

 

My favourite sessions were the single presentations by Antonella Sorace (http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~antonell/), from Edinburgh who addressed some of the “determinants” of sustainable bilingualism (Scotland, perhaps granting a greater differential sensibility towards matters of majority language and dominant culture, i.e. England), and Dina Mehmebegovic (healthylinguisticdiet.com; UCL), who explicitly brought to bear the political dimension in relation to Houses of Parliament’s attitudes, documents, statements, etc. There was something of a non-Anglo flavour to both presenters (Italian and Croatian, if you wish) enriching perspectives in a general Anglo climate that is largely indifferent, if not hostile. “Languages” do not play a strong role in industrial strategy in these official circles in Britain and Brexit will not fundamentally change this, except in the shrinking of already diminished resources. “Policy” does not have that creative-multilingual focus, no matter how much “global Britain” is repeated. The Nuttfield Inquiry and the Lords Hansard Record of Parliamentary debates (1997-2006) will be good sources for further study in relation to the ranking of languages in Britain. Monoglot ideologies reign triumphant to this day and it is important to remain analytical with this mainstream or conventional political (un-)conscious. The Manifesto for Languages APPG (all-party Parliamentary Group) argues otherwise, a second document to bear in mind as one looks at the imperfect present. 

 

The invocations were to the “linguists” in the room at Jesus College, Oxford. I hesitated whether to call myself one. The general picture was sober: professionally speaking, we are dealing with low salaries for exceptionally creative professionals. At least, some of them will be so. The starting frame had to do with motivation, whether it is internal or external, instrumental or integrative (the latter was said to be more needed than ever in the imminent context of Brexit Britain). I thought a combination of all of these would wiser, never  restricting oneself to one environment. Anglophone environments need constant reminders that English is not enough, despite being the lingua franca, that Europe is not “out there,” that it is part of a vast world that exists “there” and also “here.” Take a walk in the centre of Birmingham any day to feel a youthful multi-hued multicultural and multilingual setting, all phenotypes, skin variations and body shapes, all hairdo and clothing styles, welcome. 

 

 

The talks went willingly for the most part for a strong level of generality.  We were often in some kind of manageable power-point planet of content-and-context-free floatingness, English-language only with tokenized sprinkling of the other languages. The fingers of one finger could have sufficed for the entire day. I missed more than a bit the insinuation of a strong internationalist multi-perspectivism. Sometimes I wondered whether we were simply  supposed to be strictly (dancing) in the classrooms or roaming fast and furious the foreign world out there with greater conviction and determination pointing fingers in the direction of political situations. For example, when the occasional presentation displayed a colourful image of dancers generically identified as Argentinians in colourful folkloric attire, the benign presenter said that “fiesta” does not translate well into English “party.” I surely could think of meatier examples but there was no major point when Spanish was in the margins of this gathering until a couple of interventions that will be mentioned in the end. 

The official declaration of good intentions: to advance “language” capability for the 21stcentury. And some of the speakers focused on “policy” and GCSE-levels for secondary-education in Britain. The University level was not touched much. “Creative” may well have been a valid euphemism for the “humanities,” and the indistinct “LOTE” lot, the ominous other-than-English plurality, or even literacy also in English. Most of the assertations went along the lines that we are getting more diverse and thus more multi-lingual, and yet the institutional settings, less so. I wondered who that “we” was. Yet, “we” will be forgiving for thinking that there is a negative capability, or an inversely proportional relationship in the United States and the United Kingdom, the two national localities favoured in this one-day workshop: the expansive many will get fewer and fewer slots ever so naturally reverting to the dominant default-position of English-only. Tragedy, clearly. Language-learning was said to be “liberation from insularity.” True enough. Learning a “foreign” language was opening to other cultures. Me too: let us all clap hands at these values (humanism, liberalism, diversity, tolerance, etc.) and let us make sure they are thoroughly followed through. Among these sound bites, I missed a bit Fernando Ortiz’s notion of transculturation, to name but one philosophy of mixture, and a few generous-flesh-in-the-strong-bone examples of sustainable bilingualism in concrete communities inside and outside Britain. Retrospectively, “languages” may have been here cultural euphemism for the current plight of (non-professional) immigrant communities, even refugees. The small minority of privileged multilingualism needs no one’s help to thrive. It is the under-privileged dimension that must be brought to critical light, also in light of the “languages.”

 

The push was undoubtedly a good one: to go beyond the merely functional or the purely “transactional” motivation embedded in language learning, or any kind of learning for that matter. Why should anyone wish to demarcate the plural noun (languages) and artificially keep them apart from thought, knowledge, praxis, etc.? It is a bit like grabbing the still dangling fish out of the water without noticing the oceans, seas, rivers, landscapes, horizons.  The teaching of functional grammar was said not to be enough. Who ever said it ever was? And yet, students’ grasp of grammar is shakier now than ever, also in English. It is a bit like watching cricket having little or no clue about its rules, or enjoying music without playing an instrument or reading music, or eating raw chicken without adding grilling, mole or ketchup sauce. I suppose statements relativizing empiricism and pragmatism are still needed. And there is no doubt that students face incremental costs and pressures to justify to others and to themselves why they study what they study and how that translates into job prospects. Gone the humanistic and good-enlightenment values (love of learning for learning’s sake, delight and pleasure in curious explorations, even emancipations)! In this rampant marketisation, are Universities helping in keeping up the good name of the “languages”? I consult the crystal ball. Even so, life is changing fast, the nature of jobs also. So, a certain amount of education must allow for increasing exposure and awareness, tested resilience and experimentation, acquisition of skills around literacy, plasticity, multi-perspectivism, multi-relationality, how to be familiar with the foreign, etc. Brexit is throwing a big unpredictability into all things British. Look at the next couple of years: your guess is as good as mine.

 

 

Healthy big numbers may convey the opposite effect: misery in the neglect or abandonment. The American Joint National Committee for Languages has declared more than 600 languages and more than 400 language schools. Great! And yet the demand for languages among the students is declining on both sides of the Anglophone Atlantic and it is not obvious to the conventional Anglo-American monolingual mind-and-tongue-and-deaf-ears why on this earth one should even begin to bother with the “languages” of this beautiful world? The word, “cultures” was less often mentioned, “cultural studies” were nowhere. We seemed at times to be floating in ethereal worlds not far from the Sheldonian Theatre in the city centre of Oxford. 

The American side of the gathering tended towards business. Would “creative multilingualism” move business types in Congress? The politics of it all reaches for the level of “policy.” The attempt is to try to influence governmental and private sectors to do something about the “languages” (make no mistake, Spanish is here a leading one among these). Easy world? Think otherwise when 6% of public funds goes for the “humanities.” So, increasing “diversity” in the workplace, great asset for the company with the knowledge to navigate it, and underfunding (the more, the less, remember the inversely proportional relationship aforementioned?). Union in the strength? The 8 different languages at Oxford were said to be in separate tracks and their presence was not overwhelming in this “creative multilingualism” initiative, as though the sooner specificity entered the room kicking and screaming, the sooner the universalist-humanitarian mission jumped out the window. The acronym “APEC” (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) was mentioned by the American co-organizer (Slavic-Languages credentialed) and this surely throws a monkey wrench in the works of conventional Eurocentrism privileging the strongest economies in the “old world.” There is already an APEC education strategy going along and your walks around U of Birmingham campus will detect some visible changes in the configuration of the student-population internationalist strategy. Will the turn to the “East” change fundamentally the parameters? The document easily downloadable: America’s Languages: Investing in Language Education in the 21stcenturywas mentioned. Warning: it will not cheer you up. Number One Ranking for the U.S.A.?: think again, consistently, 35thplace in ranking global competencies. Given the British language deficiency, who will help with good educational models?

 

Employers in the U.K. are said to want French / German / Spanish / Italian /Mandarin Chinese in this order. I was increasingly thinking “languages and what else?,” and “languages, what for?” The British Council 2017 Report Languages for the Future presents a different arrangement in increasing order of preference: Spanish / Mandarin / French / Arabic / German. The demand is there, we are told, for good job prospects and serious salary demands. Translation direct will not do. The “everybody already speaks English” combines with the “(ideally) greater money’s worth with another language” (Johnson’s Economist article, “What is a foreign language worth?,” presents this type of theoretical money argument,https://www.economist.com/prospero/2014/03/11/johnson-what-is-a-foreign-language-worth). Other arguments for the study of the generic languages go along the lines of health / medical sciences: bilingualism is good for babies’ cognitive ability and slows down dementia. There were two colleagues working in sign language and deaf studies, and also on ethno-ornithology. We approached disability and protected environmentalism apropos minority languages in the Pacific. A term invoked ever so occasionally was “identity,” which can be put together with “heritage.” Even those fixated on entrepreneurialism will admit there are “externalities” (who I claim to be, what is my sense of my community and what I want it to be, belief systems I claim to uphold, what is my sense of politics, etc.). Not everything in life is measurable and quantifiable or put into metrics. And yet, the world of IT is throwing all of these “things” up in the digital air. 

 

 

Antonella Sorace reminded us that “bilingual” is not “one plus one,” and also not a “yes or no” condition. Bilingualism is more than “more than one,” and worry not: perfect bilinguals do not exist. A bilingual person is not “two monolinguals in one,” not even Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde. The notion of “heritage” was here nuanced to mean “regional minority language” introduced by migration, i.e. the LOTE language in second generations in migrant history. The ideal scenario would here be to engage in exposure to both languages produced by a variety of speakers, improvement in literacy levels and positive attitudes. Examples were mentioned against this ideal and how issues related to migrations are pathologized and treated as problematic. There was mention of the document New Scots: Refugee Integration Strategy, 2018-2022. Again, the repetition: we are growing multilingual societies inside globalization, undoubtedly, with hierarchies and inequalities in them, or rather “us.”  

 

I close this quick reflexion with the following analogy. Imagine “languages” (including English) are like cuisine or sports or music. Each single noun is brutal simplification of complex worlds out there. There is a world of a difference between Kentucky Fried Chicken and mole-poblano chicken. Reaching English Premier League football requires superb levels of dedication, skill and effort.  Each piece of music (say, Wagner’s Parsifal, but also Charles Mingus’s Pitecanthropus Erectus) will deliver rich life if you have a listen and you know that each piece is part of a trajectory that may be recreated elsewhere by attentive care by those who care. There is also obviously impoverishments of this ideal (philosophically, Walter Benjamin spoke of the “work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction,” we can also add market logic of university life, bureaucratic life, fast food, easy-listening, etc.). The appeal to “creative multilingualism” is made, ever so cautiously, in the current climate of compression of the “languages,” if not their gradual or sudden de-institutionalization. Are we singing to the virtues of the many when the many find increasingly fewer spots for flourish? We all have an awareness of this or that cuisine, no matter how elementary. We are all aware that there is football, cycling, swimming, tennis, rugby, cricket, etc. whether we follow or play, or not all. We may recognize classical music and even attend concerts and know that there is big-time Wagner season at the MET in New York and also at the Royal Opera House in London, or not at all and instead enjoy pop, rock, jazz, punk, grime, reggaetón, what have you. What would it be to eat global cuisine regularly, or play all sports at once, or listen to all music options at the same time in the accelerated, scattered modules standing for University courses? “Creative multilingualism” floated in the rarefied air of non-specificity and the default position, that of the lingua franca, appeared paradoxically reinforced in the end. Another analogy: remember the terminology of “coalition forces” in the Bush-and-Blair-led Iraq War? Mutatis mutandis: we had all seemed to have been invited to some kind of humanitarian universalism proclaiming the equal value of all languages, and how wonderful and worth studying and treasured they all are. The default position was, no surprise here, English-only declaration of good intentions. Think the default racial category from which “BAME” emerges and you guess the participants pushing for greater diversity from within the monolingual norm. And how much of it? Is it really possible within the existing mainstream and conventional coordinates in the U.K. and the U.S.? 

 

 

“Content” of these “languages” matters. “Subjects” or “disciplines” embedded in these “languages” of course matter. In twenty-years of teaching experience, I have not witnessed one single example of convincing “Language Across the Disciplines.”So, languages, what for? And, languages and what else? Words and images and music: fair enough. What about politics, economics, sociology, philosophy, religion, the natural sciences, etc.? 

And finally, the pre-eminence of politics. I will say it like this: the study of Spanish conveys automatically an entirely different “feeling” in Birmingham, the midlands of Great Britain on the brink of Brexit against the European continent; in sharp contrast to, say, Birmingham, Alabama, or Durham in North Carolina, or El Paso, Texas or New York City, or San Francisco, California, not to mention other “Latin” settings in the Americas. The conventional Eurocentric frame of “Spanish” in the U.K. and the U.S. does tremendous violence to it, no matter how many “global Hispanic” signs you put on the imaginary ground. And how expansive do you want your world to be? I trust you want it to be as expansive as possible. Our esteemed colleague of Italian origin based in Scotland mentioned how her bilingual initiatives in Southern California had attracted white-supremacists’ attention. If it is crucial to remember that it is not that dire everywhere, it is also undeniable to face up honestly and forcefully the mounting difficulties of “language learning” (the pallid expression is grating to me) in Anglophone contexts in the double conjuncture of Brexit Britain and Trump Presidency. Hence, I remain in the end firmly of two minds about the rather insipid generalism (languages, like food, or sports, or music, are good) and the imperious need to regain greater, motivational specificity (say, Neruda’s Spanish, mole poblano or manchego cheese, Messi’s fútbol, Chucho Valdés’s piano, etc.) caught up in concrete institutional and national settings or not at all.  

 

 

My personal site: fernandogherrero.com

 

My departmental site: https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/staff/profiles/hispanic/herrero-fernando-gomez.aspx

 

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