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Review of  Critical Perspectives on Language Education


Reviewer: Achilleas I. Kostoulas
Book Title: Critical Perspectives on Language Education
Book Author: Katie Dunworth Grace Qiao Zhang
Publisher: Springer
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Sociolinguistics
Language Acquisition
Subject Language(s): Chinese, Mandarin
English
Japanese
Tamil
Issue Number: 26.3114

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Review:
Review's Editors: Malgorzata Cavar and Ashley Parker

SUMMARY

This book, which brings together several perspectives on language education, mostly from Western Australia, consists of eleven chapters. Of these, one is a summary of the chapters by the editors, which includes sporadic reference to the thematic threads connecting the collection. The remaining ten chapters are grouped into two sections dealing with “English Language Teaching” and “Languages Other Than English”.

Section 1: “English Language Teaching”

The central thesis in this section is that language education should endorse and promote diversity and challenge normative and assimilationist practices. Key to the discussion is the concept of ‘thirdness’ (Kramsch 2009), which is perceived as a dynamic, contextually-shaped way of construing identity.

The first chapter (“Occupying the ‘Third Space’: Perspectives and Experiences of Asian English Language Teachers” by Toni Dobinson) reports on the views of English language teachers of Asian background. The teachers reported ambivalence about what Dobinson describes as ‘western’ educational discourses, their sentiments including enthusiasm and inspiration on the one hand, and insecurity, inadequacy, and fear on the other. In addition, they seemed keen to defend the effectiveness of teaching methods with which they were more familiar. A cogent case is articulated in their discourse for culturally sensitive language pedagogy, and for a synthesis of ‘western’ and ‘oriental’ teaching styles. Dobinson argues that the teachers in her study operate in a ‘Third Space,’ between the two cultures she contrasts, and outside the dominant ways of understanding them. It is further suggested that “Asian teachers [are] in closer proximity to a position of thirdness” than Western ones (p. 23). The chapter concludes by advocating increased respect and co-operation between teachers from both cultural groupings. Despite being premised on a perhaps unhelpful, and arguably essentialised, dichotomy between ‘Western’ and ‘Asian’ teachers, this chapter offers interesting insights into the perspectives of teachers from Asian professional contexts, and makes a useful addition to the growing discourse on eclectic teaching practice.

The next chapter (“Changing Perspectives of Literacy, Identity and Motivation: Implications for Language Education” by Paul Mercieca) argues for a critical repositioning of language learning, from developing communicative competence and cultural literacy towards acquiring intercultural literacy. The first half of the chapter provides the theoretical framing for this repositioning. The first strand of Mercieca’s argument involves a discussion of cultural literacy and cultural identity, which are seen as mutually shaping constructs. Another strand draws on critical pedagogy to define literacy as “socially constituted practice” (p. 34). Lastly, motivation is revisited from a sociolinguistic perspective, and the importance of socially constituted identities is highlighted. The second part of the chapter discusses two implications of the above for intercultural education. For instructed learning contexts, Mercieca proposes a set of critically-informed principles that can helpfully underpin pedagogy (e.g., allowing for the use of the L1, acknowledging the diversity of English varieties). Learning outside the classroom is discussed with reference to empirical data about the Northern Soul music scene in Australia, an exemplar of a locally situated yet global subculture, where intercultural learning takes place. Mercieca’s chapter, which is part of an ongoing paradigm shift towards critical pedagogy in language education, presents a well argued theoretical legitimation for post-communicative language learning, as well as intriguing examples of its possible forms.

The discussion of critical intercultural education is extended into the third chapter (“Constructing Meaning from the Unfamiliar: Implications for Critical Intercultural Education” by Ilan Zagoria), which looks into how familiar cultural schemas are used to interpret unfamiliar cultural signifiers. The chapter begins by defining key terms, such as culture, multiculturalism, and critical intercultural education. This is followed by an extended presentation of multiculturalism and demographic data that challenges “the myth of a ‘culturally homogeneous’ nation reflected and created through educational systems” (p. 50). To illustrate how meaning is constructed in intercultural encounters, Zagoria draws on interviews with musicians who performed West African music, and describes how they engaged with unfamiliar cultural signifiers, such as song lyrics in unfamiliar languages. The emerging discourses of inclusion and othering have implications for the “construction, maintenance and development of hybridized bilingual/bicultural identities” (p. 65). Though the empirical focus of this chapter lies outside language education, and its links to critical pedagogy are mostly indirect, the call to action against the construction and maintenance of essentialised cultural identities in education is valuable, and the insights into intercultural meaning-making can usefully inform critically-oriented language education.

The focus of the next chapter (“Can Teachers Know Learners’ Minds? Teacher Empathy and Learner Body Language in English Language Teaching” by Maggie McAlinden) is empathy, and the interpretation of non-verbal expression across cultures. First, McAlinden presents a comprehensive list of key terms and concepts that connect to her conceptualization of empathy. This listing, which includes terms such as ‘theories of culture,’ ‘interculturality’ and the ‘Third Space,’ is impressive in scope but stops short of explicitly articulating of how these constructs interconnect. These linkages are more evident in the second part of the chapter, which describes an empirical inquiry involving English language teachers. Some key findings include the observation that emotional body language and facial expressions were noticed by teachers, particularly the more experienced ones, and that awareness of non-verbal cues impacted teaching practice. In the third part of the chapter, McAlinden explores implications of a critical intercultural pedagogy. It is argued that there is a need for greater emphasis on the development of intercultural empathy, and for adding an intercultural dimension to communicative language teaching. It is further suggested that processes of stereotyping and othering, as well as practices that preserve social inequalities, need to be actively challenged. Towards the end of the chapter, McAlinden remarks that “teachers and institutions need a conceptual framework that enables them to explore and challenge their understandings of, and emotional and cognitive responses to, culturally and linguistically diverse learners” (p. 96). This chapter constitutes a valuable step towards addressing such a need.

The fifth chapter (“Code-Switching and Indigenous Workplace Learning: Cross-Cultural Competence Training or Cultural Assimilation?” by Ellen Grote, Rhonda Oliver and Judith Rochecouste) makes a robust case for promoting code-switching in vocational training for Aboriginal students. After a remarkably clear and comprehensive definition of code-switching, the authors list the advantages associated with this linguistic practice. It is suggested that code switching can foster easier participation in both Aboriginal and mainstream cultures, and the development of literacy skills. In addition, the argument is put forward that code switching can help Aboriginal students to participate effectively and equally in professional settings, it can facilitate the expression of attitude, motivation, work ethic and interpersonal interaction, and it can be useful in overcoming the debilitating feeling of ‘shame’ expressed in their discourse. The authors acknowledge that code-switching can be controversial, due to its association with assimilation policies, which have suppressed indigenous languages in the past. However, they pragmatically argue, code switching “is advocated because it accommodates Indigenous students’ first language” (p. 112), and that it empowers speakers, by allowing them to use their native language for cross-cultural communication. The arguments put forward in this chapter are precise and persuasive, and are –in my opinion– relevant to any setting involving the education of members of disenfranchised linguistic minorities.

Section 2: “Languages Other Than English”

Whereas the first five chapters looked into English language education, broadly construed, the contributions in the second half of the volume focus on Languages Other Than English in order to critically interrogate topics such as “language policy, language education and language maintenance” (p. 4). This section begins with a chapter that focuses on Chinese language courses in Australian secondary education with a view to explaining the decline in enrolment among older students (“The Retention of Year 11/12 Chinese in Australian Schools: A Relevance Theory Perspective”, by Grace Zhang and Qian Gong). Drawing on the literature, three interlinked causes are put forward: the perceived difficulty of Chinese for speakers of western languages, a streaming policy that disadvantages weaker students, and uneven levels of support from the education authorities. This discussion is followed by an empirical study that seems to corroborate the insights from the literature. The findings are discussed with reference to Relevance Theory (Sperber and Wilson 1995) and the argument is put forward that for “the majority of the students (…) the cost of their efforts is not justified by the benefits” (p. 137). In addition to raising important questions for Australian educators and policy planners, this chapter provides an interesting example of how Relevance Theory may be usefully applied to the study of language education.

The seventh chapter (“Towards the Establishment of a WACE Examination in Japanese as a Heritage Language: Critical Perspectives” by Hiroshi Hasegawa) deals with Japanese as a Heritage Language (JHL) courses in Australia. After defining Heritage Languages and relating them to the West Australian Certificate of Education (WACE), Hasegawa lists four major factors that have hindered the development of JHL programmes in West Australian Education. These include: the low perceived legitimacy of JHL, which is largely confined to extracurricular education; unhelpful policies, including ineffective streaming; a competitive culture that seems to stigmatise underachievers; ambiguous specifications of the ‘target culture’; and a lack of human and material resources. Building on these observations, a number of implications are discussed for promoting the legitimacy of JHL courses.

The next chapter (“A Place for Second Generation Japanese Speaking Children in Perth: Can they Maintain Japanese as a Community Language?,” by Kyoko Kawasaki) also deals with the Japanese language, which is seen here from a community language perspective, and questions are raised about its long-term viability. The chapter begins with a discussion of the geographical and functional distribution of Japanese in Western Australia. Next, key terms such as social inclusion and multilingualism are problematised, as are national language policies in Australia. Following that, Kawasaki examines the language policies, broadly construed to include language management, ideology and practices (cf. Spolsky 2004), that impact Japanese language maintenance. It is suggested that educational policy, which excludes “students with cultural advantage” (p. 175) from heritage language courses, is detrimental to student enrolment. Moreover, at the community level, language maintenance provision is uneven. In addition, in community and family settings alike, the imperative to attain native-like proficiency in Japanese discourages bilingualism. Kawasaki concludes by arguing for the development, bottom up, of inclusive language policies as a requisite for language maintenance. There are several remarkable insights into language policy in the chapter, including discussion of the unintended consequences of policies meant to preserve and maintain the language, all of which should be of interest to critical language educators.

The penultimate chapter (“Tamil Language in Multilingual Singapore: Key Issues in Teaching and Maintaining a Minority Language” by Rajeni Rajan) discusses the maintenance of Tamil in Singapore, where it is recognised as one of four official languages. The chapter begins with an overview of the history of Tamil in Singapore, which leads to the observations that Tamil appears to be under pressure from English in family settings, and that attempts to increase its presence in education may not be sufficient to reverse the trend. The roles of the media and national language policies in threatening the viability of Tamil are also discussed. Next, there is a presentation of several initiatives for maintaining Tamil, including curricular reform, and the use of Tamil-speaking role models. The chapter concludes with a list of reforms that are deemed necessary for language maintenance. Readers with an interest in the Singaporean linguistic ecology, Tamil or language maintenance may find some useful historical data in this chapter, as well as examples of successful language revitalisation policies.

The final chapter (“Functional English and Chinese as Mediums of Instruction in a Higher Institution in Hong Kong” by Zhichang Xu) looks into the largely unexplored question of language as a Medium of Instruction in higher education. To address this question empirically, Xu compares an English Medium Instruction course and a Chinese Medium Instruction course offered at a Hong Kong university. He observes that, institutional policies notwithstanding, the Medium of Instruction is dynamically negotiated, and that English, Cantonese and Putonghua (Mandarin) all feature in different combinations, as students and instructors draw on their linguistic repertoires to engage in intercultural communication. This finding has a number of implications: Xu argues for aligning Higher Education policies with the official bi-literate and trilingual language policy, and establishing continuity with primary and secondary education. He also suggests treating multilingual resources as assets, and recognising translanguaging practices as “the norm for universities in a multilingual society” (p. 224). The excellent analysis and insights of this chapter can be usefully brought to bear on debates about English Medium Instruction in education settings beyond the Higher Education, and outside Hong Kong.

EVALUATION

This volume makes two important contributions to the scholarship about language education. Firstly, it provides a fascinating snapshot of the linguistic ecology of Western Australia. In this regard, it is useful to read about multicultural and multilingual communities, the role(s) of English within such spaces, and the challenges faced in the maintenance of minority and heritage languages. There are interesting historical and demographic data in some of the contributions, which may be valuable to readers with an interest in the languages of Western Australia, Singapore or Hong Kong. The second contribution that the book seeks to make is to provide a critical perspective of language education. The book raises important issues about language contact, hybrid identities, and the role of education in the maintenance of non-dominant languages, mostly in the context of Western Australia. Many of the chapters that make up the collection are successful in raising awareness of such themes and problematising dominant discourses. The contributions by Xu and Grote, Oliver and Rochecouste stand out in this regard, and the points they raise resonate quite broadly.

Yet, despite the merits of individual chapters, the collection as a whole is only partly successful in delivering what it promises. As most of the chapters have been contributed by scholars working at Curtin University in Perth, Australia, issues that are of mainly local significance are over-represented, at the expense of broader themes of the linguistic ecology in the Asia-Pacific region. Moreover, there is some tension between claims like “chapters (have) been written from a position that endorses a critical approach to language and intercultural education” (p. 2) and the inclusion, in the collection, of chapters that fail to connect with the literature on critical education or critical applied linguistics, and even chapters that are only tangentially related to education. In making this observation I am not passing comment on the quality of these contributions, which is usually hard to fault; rather, it is their inclusion in a volume titled “Critical Perspectives on Language Education” that I find problematic. This problem is compounded by the lack of a strong editorial voice that could have highlighted salient unifying themes. There is sporadic reference to similarities across chapters in the introduction (pp. 1, 7) and cross-referencing in the text, but these fail to add up to an explicitly articulated argument.

In addition to the above, there are a number of minor issues with the book, which detract from its value. One is occasional carelessness in the arguments put forward by some authors. Although I do not have expertise in the Western Australian context, and cannot provide detailed commentary on the validity of individual claims, I was frustrated to find several inaccuracies in the text. For instance, there is reference to the “official language” of the USA (English is the dominant language of the country, but does not have legal status), and just a few lines after that, linguistic enclaves are referred to with the singular form ‘Sprachinsel’, rather than the plural ‘Sprachinseln’ (p. 167). Elsewhere, sources are cited which are not listed in the bibliographical sections (e.g., pp. 120, 197), and key information seems to be missing from some chapters, leading to occasional methodological opacity. Individually, these are very inconsequential infelicities, but taken together they have a cumulative effect of undermining the credibility of the book. In the same vein, it seems that the authors have been let down by Springer’s copy editors. Starting from p. xi, titled “About the Author” (sic), I found a number of punctuation, capitalisation and typesetting issues, which do little justice to the content of the book. More disconcertingly, the hierarchy of headings appears to have been flattened in many chapters. The fourth chapter, for instance, has been segmented into 26 sections, some spanning a single paragraph, and each starting with a Level 1 heading. This structure makes it unnecessarily difficult to follow the author’s argument. One hopes that such issues might be corrected in subsequent editions.

On the whole, this volume makes a useful addition to the scholarship about language education. Some of the chapters will be of particular interest to scholars interested in critical education, language contact and language maintenance. The book contains a good range of interesting examples of how concepts such as the ‘third space’ have been applied in the setting of Western Australia, and multiple thought-provoking insights into the linguistic ecologies of large, multicultural cities. I believe that the book would be especially suitable as a work of reference for teacher education programmes in these settings, as it could be used to build awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity, and it might help to counter the sometimes insular orientation of specialist teacher training. Furthermore, many of the contributions could be used to inform debates about language policy in Western Australia, and I expect that teaching practitioners and policymakers in these settings might benefit from consulting it those chapters that are relevant to their needs.

REFERENCES

Kramsch, Claire. 2009. Third culture and language education. In Cook, Vivian and Li Wei. (eds.) Contemporary Applied Linguistics : Language Teaching and Learning (pp. 233-254). London: Continuum.

Sperber, Dan and Deirdre Wilson. 1995. Relevance : Communication and Cognition (2nd edn.) Oxford: Blackwell.

Spolsky, Bernard. 2004. Language Policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Achilleas Kostoulas is currently affiliated with The University of Manchester (UK). He has a PhD in Education and an MA in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (both from The University of Manchester) and a BA in English Studies (Athens). His research draws on Complex Systems Theory as a means to study the linguistic, pedagogical and societal aspects of English Language education.