Hearing Bonny Norton: Identity, Investment, and Multilingual Literacy (in a digital world)

Hearing Bonny Norton - Identity, Investment, and Multilingual Literacy (in a digital world)

UPDATED: May 1, 2014
Watch archived video
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fapiB6zgZUQ

Identity, Investment, and Multilingual Literacy (in a digital world)

Organised by Global Conversations in Literacy Research (GCLR)

bonnynorton_webinar

It was a rare opportunity to encounter Dr. Bonny Norton from the comfort and convenience of my study, while I was in Singapore, and she in Vancouver. Thanks to the web seminar organised by Global Conversations in Literacy Research (GCLR), I had the privilege to listen first hand to the pioneer of identity and language learning theory. Dr. Norton has researched and written extensively on how individuals have multiple and changing identities across time and space and how these identities influence their language learning.

I didn’t realize Dr Norton herself was an example of multiple identities. As I was hearing her speak, I couldn’t quite place her accent until she introduced herself as a scholar, a white woman in Canada, with a South African accent. The awareness and acceptance of how we have multiple roles and identities feature prominently in her writing. As she explained in the seminar, having multiple identities empowers learners, instead of restricting them to choosing one identity over the other. For Dr. Norton, that meant that she didn’t have to choose being Canadian over South African.

In the seminar, Dr. Norton focused on her work in Uganda where she and her colleagues  introduced digital literacies to teachers and students. The two technological tools they used were the camera and eGranary, literally, the internet in a box filled with millions of digital resources (e.g. wikipedia, educational websites, multimedia documents). With limited infrastructure and access to the Internet and even electricity, students and teachers seized the opportunities to use these newly discovered tools to become better learners, become more respected, and have more power over their learning.

Nonetheless, the limitation of having few cameras and a single computer in a classroom of over a hundred students continue to present obstacles to empowering each and every student. The challenge to overcome poverty and (im)possibilities continues.

Apart from sharing her work in Uganda, Dr. Norton also responded to a few questions from the audience. I asked about how we can create classroom conditions to foster greater investment among students. While much depends on the classroom context including culture and class size, Dr. Norton suggested two strategies:

#1 Students become ethnographers in their communities.

Students write in journals about their experiences in their day-to-day lives in their communities, and share with fellow classmates in the classroom. Through peer sharing, students may find that their experiences are not unique and teachers find out more about their students’ lives. The key is to create a sense of community in the classroom, making the classroom a vibrant place where the teacher helps to develop meaningful relationships among students.

#2 Students speak from positions of strength.

For quiet students who do not participate, teachers can identify their strengths in other areas such as sports or music, and structure classroom activities so their talents come to the fore. By doing so, the student’s identity shifts from being the quiet student to becoming the music virtuoso, for example. Other students begin to relate to that student in a different way and the student is able to speak from a position of strength, rather than weakness.

As Dr. Norton explained at the beginning of the seminar, both the student and community (of teacher and classmates) are responsible for the student’s learning. Thus literacy is a social practice, and the teacher is responsible for creating conditions for positive learner identity and greater investment in learning.

After hearing

After reading numerous research articles by Dr. Norton, as well as others who have based their research on her theories, the personal encounter with Dr. Norton herself  (albeit mediated by one-way video conferencing) has helped me connect the dots. The theory comes alive when the author articulates it and I look forward to many more of these web seminars which build bridges across continents and time zones.

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Me, Teacher Leader?

Me, Teacher Leader?

The successful teacher leader is one who is committed to making a difference in the school while the unsuccessful teacher leader is easily defeated by criticism and obstacles.

View Prezi on Teacher Leadership by Sherrie Lee

Teacher leadership is not reserved for the chosen few but a responsibility of all teachers. While school culture dampens the spirit of teacher leadership (Barth, 2001, p. 444), empowering teachers as leaders benefit students, teachers, administrators and the school (p. 445).

Who is the successful teacher leader?

The successful teacher leader is one who is committed to a set of beliefs about teaching and making a difference in the school (Barth, 2001; Ackerman & Mackenzie, 2006). She leads by example and thus begins to influence those around her. She perseveres despite obstacles (Barth, 2009, p. 447), claiming victories however small, and does not give up pursuing unrealized goals.

mountainjump

The unsuccessful teacher leader, on the other hand, is not focused in fulfilling goals and is overwhelmed by the daunting workload and critical colleagues. Ultimately, the teacher leader is unsuccessful because she finds greater comfort in remaining in her own classroom than stepping out of her comfort zone (Ackerman & Mackenzie, 2006).

Flickr: Dead End by Benny Lin

Am I a teacher leader?

The initial years of my teaching career were characterized by the traits of the unsuccessful teacher. I was discouraged by colleagues who believed that leadership was reserved for senior staff and administrators. Their skepticism led me to think that I was better off focusing on teaching rather than leading, and that trying to make changes was a waste of time. For example, I suggested compiling video-recordings of student presentations but was quickly censured for creating more and unnecessary work for everyone. Now as I complete my Master of Arts in Teaching, I am convinced that my teaching career is a unique opportunity to be a change agent.

When I put myself in the position of a teacher leader, I am committed to producing excellent work, collaborating with colleagues, and helping our students succeed. While obstacles are real, I am reminded by Barth (2001) to enjoy “half a loaf”, that is, finding success in “incremental change[s] in the desirable direction” (p. 447). One of my weaknesses, however, is that my enthusiasm and energy can easily wear off, especially in the face of difficult colleagues or seemingly futile pursuits. Nonetheless, I must remember that Rome was not built in a day and that being a teacher leader is a journey in itself, and a rewarding one at that.

 Rome was not built in a day and that being a teacher leader is a journey in itself, and a rewarding one at that.

Problem of practice

One powerful way of developing teacher leaders is through action research where teachers identify areas of concern and begin to take steps to resolve issues to benefit the school community. At my school, the business communication subjects are taken by students with varying English proficiency standards. While all students have received education in English as a first language, there are minority English language learners (ELLs) whose home language is not English and face challenges with using academic language. My action research project focused on this problem of practice and explored student identity and empowerment.

As an emerging teacher leader, I plan on sharing the findings and recommendations of my action research project at department meetings. In addition, the school’s staff development department organizes events where I will have the opportunity to share my research with a wider school audience. Through these sharing sessions, I will need to develop interpersonal skills such as gentle persuasiveness, especially when dealing with experienced yet resistance teachers. As Danielson (2007) notes, “[l]eading change within one’s own department or team may require considerable interpersonal skill and tact [and] the success of such an effort … depends on the teacher leader’s having established credibility and trust with his or her colleagues” (p. 17).

I anticipate most of the audience to be politely lukewarm toward the information I share as the teachers at my school are generally cautious in making changes, especially when there are no immediate and visible benefits. Unfortunately, the issue of student identity and empowerment is one that is complex; it requires effort and time in exploring identity and empowerment issues with students.

Here’s the plan

To counter skepticism among the crowd, persistence is key. First, I endeavor to take up every opportunity within the school, formally and informally, to share the importance of issues of identity and empowerment and how my own action research project benefits students. This entails identifying appropriate platforms to speak, as well as being aware of the barriers each audience brings to the sharing session. For example, if the audience is unfamiliar with terminology, then I will make the effort to modify my presentation in order to be clear, and more importantly, convincing. A teacher leader is committed first to her beliefs and second to harnessing people’s potential to take necessary action.

A teacher leader is committed first to her beliefs and second to harnessing people’s potential to take necessary action.

In addition, I must also show that my work is recognized by other educators, especially those with authority in the education field. Possible actions include publishing the findings of my study in an education or TESOL related journal and presenting my study at a local or regional conference. The process of publishing or presenting requires a keen understanding of the requirements of each, such as intended audience, paper length and writing style. Apart from the detailed requirements, I must also be aware of the approval process be prepared for rejection. As a novice researcher, the best result I expect is to having to resubmit my paper with changes.

Even if I am rejected, however, I view it as a learning experience. I anticipate mixed reactions to my leadership project. Teachers in my school are likely to have varying levels of commitment to address the needs of minority ELLs in our school, even if my study is accepted by a journal or conference. Whatever the outcomes, I aim to be open to feedback and use the experience to inform my next step in leadership. Success in teacher leadership depends on reaching out, modeling for others, and helping colleagues develop skills and understanding (Ackerman & Mackenzie, 2006, p. 68).

Success in teacher leadership depends on reaching out, modeling for others, and helping colleagues develop skills and understanding.

Never give up, never give up, never give up

Thus my desire is to work with the few who are willing and be focused on student success, without losing sight of the bigger picture of greater student empowerment through the actions and leadership of each and every teacher. Even if I end up being alone in my cause, may I continue taking risks “to provide a constant, visible model of persistence, hope, and enthusiasm” (Barth, 2001, p. 447).

Flickr: Rock Climber by Greg Foster

References

Ackerman, R. & Mackenzie, S.V. (2006). Uncovering teacher leadership. Educational Leadership, May, 2006, 66-70.

Barth, R.S. (2001). Teacher leader. Phi Delta Kappa, February, 2001, 443-449.

Danielson, C. (2007). The many faces of leadership. Educational Leadership, 65(1), 14-19.

ESL Textbook Review

ESL Textbook Review


Headway Academic Skills 3: Reading, Writing, and Study Skills Student’s Book

Sarah Pilpot and Lesley Curnick

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

headway

Headway Academic Skills 3 aims to equip students in higher education with a comprehensive range of academic skills ranging from vocabulary strategies to essay planning in ten tightly packed units. It is an impressive and ambitious plan but will likely cause the student to be overwhelmed.

Description
The ten units in Headway Academic Skills 3 cover the following topics: education and learning, health and medicine, urban planning, natural resources, international trade, history conservation, modern engineering, the Olympics, describing statistics and trends, and communication and technology. Each unit covers academic skills in four main sections in the following sequence: reading, language for writing, writing and vocabulary development. In three of the units, the topic of research skills is covered as well. At the end of each unit is a review section which brings together the reading and writing skills learned in the unit. The main sections generally follow the presentation, practice and production (PPP) approach (Shehadeh, 2005, p. 14), that is, the presentation of specific language items and/or reading or writing strategies (termed “study skills” in the book) is followed by practice through exercises such as gap fill, spotting language features and completing graphic organizers, and finally the production stage where students use the target language and skills with less guidance. The review section itself serves as an overall production stage where students are expected to reproduce the language items and study skills covered in the unit more independently. The appendix contains a word list of the main vocabulary used, complete with word class and pronunciation. There is a separate Teacher’s Guide which contains tests and additional activities but is not part of this review.

Intended Audience 
According to the book summary, Headway Academic Skills 3 functions as a bridge between general and academic English, and can be used either independently or alongside a general English course. While it does not specify the proficiency level of students, the book will be helpful to both native speakers, as well as advanced ESL students who have just begun university.

Strengths and Weaknesses 
The overall goal of Headway Academic Skills 3 is to equip students in higher education with academic skills such as note-taking and essay-writing, as stated in the book summary. However, since the units are content driven rather than skills driven, there is more breadth than depth in the treatment of academic skills. One exemption is reading skills which are adequately explored in each unit, as well as reinforced across units, highlighting strategies related to external text features (e.g. skimming and scanning for information), as well as internal text features (e.g. text structure and signal words). Other skills like writing and vocabulary development, however, are not as well integrated; the language features and strategies are introduced once in the unit but are hardly mentioned again in other units, thus limiting students’ opportunities for developing those skills. Furthermore, the PPP approach, as stated by Shehadeh (2005), does not allow students to develop both accuracy and fluency in using language items as students tend to either end up focusing primarily on form and not fluency or focus primarily on meaning without incorporating the target language at all (pp. 14-15). Thus the lack of integration of academic skills across units and the weakness of the PPP approach undermine the very purpose of the book.

Apart from its main weakness of not providing integrated and appropriate opportunities for students to fully develop academic skills, the book also features topics which may be too impersonal for young adults to identify with. While the topics represent diverse cultures and are appropriate for a higher education audience, the approach taken does not lead students to be personally interested in the material. Activities revolve around the given reading passages or writing tasks with few opportunities for students to provide their viewpoints or creatively interact with the material provided. This lack of personal interaction is reinforced by the largely similar nature of the tasks such as underlining words and phrases, filling in gaps and matching items with corresponding answers.

Despite its instructional flaws, Headway Academic Skills 3 has several strengths. One of them is the use of near authentic materials such as journal articles, news reports and letter to capture the range of expository writing material a university student would likely to be exposed to. Even though some of the materials were probably re-written with a more appropriate level of grammar and vocabulary, it is more important for the materials to be more easily understood while simulating authenticity than for materials to be presented in its original but less comprehensible form, especially for students who struggle with such texts (Flowerdew & Peacock, 2001, p. 185).

Another strength is that the book can be adapted for use with either native English speakers or ESL students. While ESL students would probably appreciate the straightforward and simplified language used, all students will find it beneficial to learn specific reading and writing strategies. For first language students, teachers can consider using more challenging supplementary reading material for students to practice their academic skills.

Finally, Headway Academic Skills 3 does well in having visually appealing graphics and layout. For example, most of the photos used are clear, colorful and informative. In terms of the layout, the different sections are color-coded for easy reference. In addition, important information like study skills and language rules are highlighted in boxes and placed at the side so as not to interrupt the flow of the text. However, one minor complaint I have about the layout is that there is hardly any white space on each page and the limited spacing between tasks and sections. Thus the reader will find it difficult to focus on the text at first glance.

Conclusion 
Headway Academic Skills 3 succeeds in introducing a comprehensive range of reading and writing skills and strategies but falls short in providing integrated and meaningful practice across the units for students to master the skills. While the brightly colored photos and pages stand out, those elements will not be sufficient to engage students. Teachers who choose to use the book may make up for the lack of depth in the coverage of academic skills by being selective about which language items and strategies to focus on. Alternatively, teachers may design their own lessons and use the book’s activities as supplementary material. Either way, teachers should not overlook what is useful in the book for their purposes in teaching academic skills.

References 

Flowerdew, J., Peacock, M. (2001). The EAP curriculum: Issues, methods, and challenges. In J. Flowerdew M. Peacock (Eds.), Research perspectives on English for academic purposes (pp. 177-194). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Philpot, S. & Curnick, L. (2011). Headway academic skills 3: Reading, writing, and study skills student’s book. In L. Soars & J. Soars (Series Eds.), Headway academic skills. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Shehadeh, A. (2005). Task-based language learning and teaching: Theories and applications. In C. Edwards J. Willis (Eds.), Teachers exploring tasks in English language teaching (pp. 13-30). New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 

Re-imagining the non-native speaker

Re-imagining the non-native speaker

A short essay on the debate on who makes a better English teacher: a native or non-native speaker of English

Introduction

Advertisements for English teachers often stress native speakers (NSs) in their hiring requirements, thus denying those labeled as non-native speakers (NNSs) jobs even if they are qualified teachers (Reis, 2011, p. 140), as well as reinforcing discrimination against NNSs in their profession. As noted by Rubdy, the NS is privileged “not only in decisions concerning the norms for determining the most appropriate models for teaching the language, but also in recruiting teachers.” In fact, the dichotomy between NS and NNS is “often essentialised by non-native speakers themselves, thus actively contributing to the adoption of such beliefs and their own disenfranchisement” (Rubdy, 2009, 158 – 159). This paper examines the debate about whether the NS is superior to NNS, highlights the global context of the English language, and addresses the challenges for the non-native English-speaking teacher (NNEST). In addition, this paper argues that the NS/NNS dichotomy is flawed for three reasons: i) every language user is a speaker of his or her own unique language; ii) the use of English has expanded well beyond the countries where English originated from; and iii) the NS/NNS dichotomy does not reflect the sociolinguistic complexities of language learning. Instead of viewing NS and NNS as a dichotomy, a continuum should be used to reflect the varying types and degree of proficiency of any English speaker.

Who is the Ideal English Teacher?

 The NS is assumed to be “inherently [a] better language teacher than [a] NNS” (Reis, 2011, p. 140) because the NS comes from a country (e.g. United States and United Kingdom) where English originated from and the accompanying culture dominates in. Apart from the notion that “speakerhood relates to birth within a particular country” (Holliday, 2008, p. 121), the acceptance of the NS as an English teacher is tied up with ethnicity and race. For example, an ethnic Chinese who was born in the United States would not necessarily be considered an ideal English teacher because he or she “doesn’t look right”, never mind that “the birth criterion for being a ‘native speaker’ is fulfilled” (Holliday, 2008, p. 121).

The arguments against the NS as the ideal teacher include distinguishing language proficiency from teaching ability, as well as citing the advantages of having NNS as teachers. For example, the TESOL association, in their position statement (2006), states that “[t]eaching skills, teaching experience, and professional preparation should be given as much weight as language proficiency. … All educators should be evaluated within the same criteria” (in Reis, 201, p. 140). In addition, Moussu & Llurda highlight various advantages of the NNEST. For example, the NNEST, who learned English as a second language (L2) can “empathize very well with their students’ learning difficulties” better than the native English-speaking teacher (NEST) who learned it as a first language (L1). Also NNESTs can be “greatly admired by their students because they are successful role models and often very motivated” (2008, p. 322).

Who is a Native Speaker anyway?

While the above arguments work with the NS and NNS labels, another set of arguments question the very label and identity of the NS, showing how inappropriate and false the dichotomy between the NS and NNS is. According to Moussu and Llurda (2008), “three arguments have been used to attack the legitimacy of the dichotomy:” i) everyone is a native speaker of his or her own unique language; ii) English has become an indigenized language in many countries outside the circle of BANA (British, Australasian, North American) countries; and iii) the NS/NNS dichotomy does not reflect the complexities of language learning in the local context. (p. 317).

The first argument that every language user is in fact a native speaker of a given language means that “speakers cannot be divided according to whether they have a given quality (i.e., native speakers) or they do not have it (i.e., non-native speakers), based on whether English is their first language or not” (Nayar, 1994, in Moussu & Llurda, 2008, p. 316). This dichotomy, Nayar argues, shows the “unfairness of Anglo-centrism, through which English is taken as the only language in the world that deserves attention.” While some view this dichotomy as linguistic elitism, others consider it linguistic imperialism. The exclusivity of the English language is further questioned in terms of the concept of the ownership of English.

Who Owns the English Language?

The central point of the second argument is that English has become an indigenized language in many of the countries where English is not the native tongue but is an official language (what Kachru categorized as the Outer Circle countries) and therefore “speakers of English in such countries cannot be dismissed as non-native speakers of English just because they do not speak a centre variety of the language” (Moussu & Llurda, 2008, p. 317). Furthermore, as English spreads to the Emerging Circle countries where it is used as a foreign language or lingua franca (or contact language), “learners may be producing forms characteristic of their own variety of English, which reflect the sociolinguistic reality of their English use … far better than either British or American norms are able to” (Jenkins, 2006, p. 168). In fact, the number of so-called non-native speakers “vastly outnumber” native speakers (p. 158) such that the idea of the BANA countries ‘owning’ English becomes untenable, thereby weakening the dichotomy between NS and NNS.

What do the Labels Really Mean?

The third argument against the NS/NNS dichotomy is that it lacks contextualization, “on the grounds that it disregards the interdependence between language teaching and the local context where it takes place” (Moussu & Llurda, 2008, p. 317). Evidence from case studies show how individuals who could not easily self-identify as either NS or NNS. In Menard-Warwick’s (2008) case studies , for example, two “intercultural teachers” show how the NS/NNS dichotomy fails to take into consideration their particular circumstances and context. One teacher, ‘Ruby’, is an adult ESL teacher in the United States who was born in Brazil to an American father and an English mother who were both bilingual in English and Portuguese. Her language proficiency in English was not consistent during her childhood but she eventually regained a native-like proficiency in English by the time she finished high school in the United States. Another teacher, ‘Paloma’, is a university-level Chilean EFL teacher who was born in a Spanish-speaking family in Chile and acquired English initially through academic study as a Chilean university and developed ‘near-native’ proficiency after 20 years in the United States. In both examples, both teachers have had deep contact with the so-called native source of English, the United States, and possess the linguistic and cultural competencies of the NS despite not being born in and having grown up in the United States.

Using a Continuum, Not Labels

The three arguments which challenge the NS/NNS dichotomy compels us to use alternative paradigms in addressing the legitimacy, proficiency and relevance of the English that any user possesses, and by extension, compels us to reconsider the divide between the NEST and the NNEST. Since English no longer operates in a monolingual and monocultural environment, the teaching and learning of English must accommodate the personal linguistic biographies and contexts of the teacher and learner. Hence there is no justification for the ideal English teacher to be the fair-skinned expert from an originating country of the language. Furthermore, the labels ‘native speaker’ and ‘non-native speaker’ perpetuate too simplistic a divide which remains largely unexamined and unquestioned by the majority of those who use it.

Instead of using NS/NNS labels, a continuum can be used to account for “all possible cases between the two extreme options, each corresponding to the two idealized notions of what traditionally was considered a native speaker and a non-native speaker” (Moussu & Llurda, 2008, p. 318). I would further suggest that this continuum introduce objective yardsticks such as technical competence (e.g. reading and writing skills), communicative competence (e.g. giving and receiving instructions), and intercultural awareness (e.g. a person asking “How are you?” may not be expecting a detailed explanation of your current state of affairs).

Recommendations

In light of the above discussion, I propose that all English teachers, regardless of country of origin, accent, race, cultural background, be given a new name: culturally competent English language teachers (CCELTs). Following from the proposed continuum, the CCELT can be evaluated against more neutral terms of reference which relate to the real challenges that face TESOL students: to be linguistically and communicatively competent in a global context of English used as first, second and contact languages. In addition, the ideal CCELT possesses multicultural pedagogical skills, as well as multicultural interpersonal awareness and skills. Examples of such multicultural skills include addressing the different learning styles of students of different ethnic backgrounds, and being sensitive to body language and its intended signals when interacting with a diverse group of students.

In nurturing ideal CCELTs, all teachers should look at one another as belonging to a “cooperative learning community and consider their development holistically” (Matsuda 1997, in Moussu & Llurda, 2008, p. 323). TESOL teacher preparation programs and hiring organizations should aim at developing CCELTs who are comfortable and confident in managing competencies regardless of perceived ‘differences’ and ‘otherness’.

Conclusion

Despite the realities of discrimination against NNESTs, the changing nature of the contexts of use of the English language will require all stakeholders re-examine their previously held convictions of NS/NNS labeling in order to prepare English learners for the real world of English, as well as make the English teaching landscape a more equitable playing field for all teachers, thus making the TESOL profession a true profession. Those labeled as NNESTs, in particular, must themselves embrace their unique identity in shaping the English language teaching and learning landscape by demonstrating high levels of competence in language, culture, communication and pedagogy.

Personally, as a Chinese Singaporean with demonstrated competence in the English language, ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ English cultures, cross-cultural communication skills and pedagogical delivery, I am determined to succeed as a TESOL professional by continually demonstrating not just competence, but also how relevant my English language biography is to my teaching context.

This paper was written for a course in the MAT-TESOL at USC in July 2011.

References

Holliday, A. (2008). Standards of English and politics of inclusion. Language Teaching, 41:1, pp. 119 – 130. Cambridge University Press.

Jenkins, J. (2006). Current Perspectives on Teaching World Englishes and English as a Lingua Franca. TESOL Quarterly, 40(1), pp. 157 – 181.

Menard-Warwick, J. (2008). The cultural and intercultural identities of transnational English teachers: Two case studies from the Americas. TESOL Quarterly, 42(4), pp. 617 – 640.

Moussu, L. and Llurda, E. (2008). Non-native English-speaking English language teachers: History and research. Language Teaching, 41:3, pp. 315 – 348. Cambridge University Press.

Reis, D.S. (2011). Non-native English-speaking teachers (NNESTs) and professional legitimacy: a sociocultural theoretical perspective on identity transformation. International Journal of Society and Language 208, pp. 139 – 160.

Rubdy, R. (2009). Reclaiming the local in teaching EIL. Language and Intercultural Communication, 9(2), pp. 156 – 174.

 

The truths about teaching English

The truths about teaching English

In preparation for a new course with the MAT TESOL program, I read the first three chapters of James Crawford’s “Educating English Learners: Language Diversity in the Classroom“. I was at first overwhelmed with the various programs and acronyms for teaching English to immigrants in America, but soon I grew curious about the assumptions and implications of these programs. By the end of Chapter 3 on Language Policies in the USA,  I viewed the act of educating an English learner with greater appreciation for the non-pedagogical (i.e. social and political) reasons. In fact, I started to think about my personal journey as an English learner, a timely response as Singapore’s annual Speak Good English Movement trots out slogans and ministerial soundbites in a bid to rescue the language from falling standards, whether real or perceived.

Response to Crawford

First, let me sum up my thoughts on Crawford’s overview of the diversity of English language programs in America. On the surface, it seems that the US government makes the effort to help immigrants and their children to assimilate into American society. But assimilation itself is not necessarily an ideal outcome. The whole idea of a Melting Pot sounds innocuous enough, where many cultures combine to form one homogenous culture (therefore avoiding ethnic, religious and political divisions). However, what goes unquestioned is that homogenous culture – whose culture is it exactly?

Crawford seems to champion acculturation instead, which he defines as “adding the new without discarding the old” (Crawford, p. 63). He highlights a competing metaphor, the Salad Bowl, which suggests that cultures should blend without losing their distinct flavors.

According to Crawford, the debate over teaching English in an English-only environment versus a bilingual (and bicultural) program has a lot to do with whether political camps take the Melting Pot or Salad Bowl view.

The America context, historical, social and political is a minefield that I am beginning to understand and discover. (See The Official English Movement: Reimagining America for an overview of the debate over language policies in America.) The Singapore context of language policies, on the other hand, is something that I’ve wondered about, sometimes becoming critical but mostly brushing it aside to deal with its realities. Crawford’s book has ignited my interest once again but this time, I hope to sustain my critical understanding of how English is taught, and “deal with its realities” in less reactive and more proactive ways.

How English is taught

The first thing I’m concerned with is how English is taught in this country. And the way it is and has been taught cannot be divorced from the history of the use of the language.

The history of English language teaching in Singapore goes back to the early 19th century when the British Empire conquered this sleepy Malay fishing village. This village was soon a major trading port and attracted immigrants from a mix of countries including India and China. In the land of immigrants speaking a plethora of languages, or more accurately, dialects, English was the language of the ruling power, administration, law, commerce and over and above all, privilege. English in as ‘pure’ as form as possible as long as the British were in charge, or had a heavy influence, entrenched itself in English medium (as opposed to Chinese medium) schools right up to the 60s. By the late 70s and early 80s, Chinese medium schools were no longer around, and English was firmly taught as a first language in all schools. (Note: These are broad historical strokes from my under-researched understanding. I welcome clarifications, corrections and recommended readings.)

Even as a first language, the way English has been taught (particularly in primary schools) from the 80s right up till today has undergone several changes. The most obvious one to me, since I was a primary school student during the 80s and now I teach students who went through primary school in the 90s, is a shift from a focus on grammar to a focus on communicative competence. I have yet to come across solid researched evidence but my sense (as well as the sense of my peers and elders) is that the standard of English has dropped, with a typical teenager who has undergone the 10 years of schooling, speaking and writing less grammatically. Of course we can all understand each other, and even foreigners will figure us out, but the fact that it is our first language (or is it?) should demand that we know and perform it well.

English language and the immigrant

The second thing that I’m concerned with is how the English language interfaces with the 2nd wave of immigrants coming to Singapore. Now, more than ever before, Singapore is experiencing an influx of foreign workers, blue-collar, white-collar, with a range of qualifications and motives. Many Singaporeans, especially those who speak and understand primarily English, are frustrated at the number of foreign service staff who seem inept at providing customer service since thy struggle with the language. There are others who feel that the immigrants (or perhaps more rightly called migrants) are not even interested in assimilating into Singapore culture, and by that, I think they mean speaking the lingua franca of English.

Apart from the workplace, there are also potential issues in English language learning among immigrant children or foreign students in Singapore who struggle not only with the language, but also understanding other subjects that are taught in English, and mixing with their local peers.

This issue of how English interfaces with the foreign community is complex and I will have to deal with it separately at a later date. But for now, my view is that we cannot assume that the foreigner themselves should bear the burden when it is clear that their language competence affects how we perceive them and how well we all get together.

E pluribus unum (Out of many, one). But there is no one truth about learning or teaching a language. There are many because we as language learners are complex creatures because of our histories, social interactions, personal motivations and aspirations.

Reference

Crawford, J. (2004).  Educating English Learners: Language Diversity in the Classroom (5th edition).  Los Angeles:  Bilingual Educational Services (BES).