EDUCATIONAL INSTITUTIONS, COMMUNITIES,
& PROFESSIONAL LIFE COMPETENCY

AWARENESS Sub-competency

Socio-Political Dimensions of Language Teaching

  Tito's barracks, Sarajevo, Bosnia i Herzegovina, 1999

Tito's barracks, Sarajevo, Bosnia i Herzegovina, 1999

Documents
CDA_English Language Introduction
IN_
Lesson plan (showing socio-political considerations)
AE_Bhutanese Refugees

To fully delve into the title of this sub-competency could produce a dissertation - a book -
a series of publications. If language is to communicate, and teaching it is to help students learn to communicate, how are we to assess the socio-political dimensions of the effects of our language teaching. We could easily use our L1 language as an example to discuss critical thinking - the essence of the best of socio-political expression. We hear the term, assuredly, but where is its truth evident? What language do we teach our children? I will not assume the subject of this essay to be solely directed at teaching L2, or L3, etc., The ramifications of our resultant social and political environs here, in the USA, can be partially attributed to inadequate L1 teaching. Language fluency
is necessary if we are to engage in rational thought.

If language is the tool we use to commnicate, how is it being taught? Words are not enough.
When we teach an L2, we are teaching its cultural, as well as its linguistic character. Our ability to choose our political milieu arises partly out of our ability to use language (For this essay, I’m putting aside the discussion of government structure.) Are we semantic automatons? What is the purpose
of teaching language? Just to speak or read words? Do we not use words to represent concepts?
And when we can define a word no further, does its irreducibility not provide us with a tool to use to generalize? I take this thought from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Conceptual Pluralism, which positions us to recognize that truth cannot be defined. The idea that it - an irreducible word -
can be defined, is idiosyncratic.

Teaching language without taking cognizance of its socio-political enironment does disservice to
the student. There is a relationship between language and our surround. Why do we need language?
Do we use it to exchange our thoughts about what we deem reality? How can we inform our students to make them truly fluent? Is fluency not the ability to transmit ideas effectively? (Comprehensible output [Merrill Swain], is not the only form needed for communication, as we do that effectively through many other art forms.) Individual words may be correct in meaning, but does our choice of syntax convey our intent accurately? Looking at the difficulties of reaching fluency, I borrow from Wittgenstein: 

…..the vagueness of ordinary usage is not a problem to be eliminated but rather the source of linguistic riches. It is misleading even to attempt to fix the meaning of particular expressions by linking them referentially to things in the world. The meaning of a word or phrase or proposition is nothing other than the set of (informal) rules governing the use of the expression in actual life.
— Ludwig Wittgenstein: (from the Encyclopedia Britannica - Internet edition)

Also from the Encyclopedia: Like the rules of a game, Wittgenstein argued, these rules for the use of ordinary language are neither right nor wrong, neither true nor false: they are merely useful for the particular applications in which we apply them. The members of any community—cost accountants, college students, or rap musicians, for example—develop ways of speaking that serve their needs as a group, and these constitute the language-game they employ. Human beings at large constitute a greater community within which similar, though more widely-shared, language-games get played. 

When we teach a language, we need to be sensitive to the student’s socio-political relationship to it. With English, we have a long history of its hegemony with colonialism and imperialism by its language inner circle countries (in which English is the first or the dominant language: Australia, Britain, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, United States [core English-speaking countries]). And,
there are as many types of English, as there are countries speaking it. Students can be placed in
a quandary of competing choices. They are required to learn English. They hate its historical symbolism. They must learn it to succeed in their culture - success which they want. How we address their emotional filters is critical to their success.

You can see in this portfolio, that I am a proponent of translanguaging as an optimum method for teaching language. Respecting the socio-political aspect of language is a large consideration for using it. By showing our acceptance of the importance - the validity - of a student’s L1, we can teach the language without dividing the student’s psyche; without minimizing their L1 culture.

It is when the student has enough command of the target language, that I bring open discussion
of its socio-political history -  with its ramifications, to the classroom. In my classes at the refugee center, I incorporated as much social and political discourse as the students could understand. The class convened right before - and continued past - Trump’s inauguration. Most of my students were directly affected by his views on immigration, and his ban on entry for refugees from the very countries they had escaped, and where they still had family. As they learned English, they battled with its affiliation to its political associations. They had escaped the country of their cultural identity to reform their lives in this English speaking country, which was threatening, instead of validating, that very identity. 

With the multi-lingual student, who has a greater experiential awareness of the globalization of language, we can delve into the heart of language communication consequence in a heterogenous society. The student’s identity - as culture - is affected by language learning.

Power depends on communicative ability: comprehension; therefore, fluency. To enable this power, is our mandate as language teachers.