Language Evolution: The Windows Approach addresses the question: "How can we unravel the evolution of language, given that there is no direct evidence about it?"
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AUTHOR: Sterzuk, Andrea TITLE: The Struggle for Legitimacy SUBTITLE: Indigenised Englishes in Settler Schools SERIES TITLE: Critical Language and Literacy Studies PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters DATE: 2011
Dave Sayers, College of Arts & Humanities, Swansea University, UK
SUMMARY Aimed at a mixed audience -- perhaps principally teachers in settler schools -- Andrea Sterzuk’s debut monograph describes racial inequities among indigenous pupils in a school in rural Saskatchewan, Canada. Examining the everyday construction of racist colonialist ideologies through discourse, the book works towards proposals for changes to pedagogy. These are designed mainly for the Canadian context, but are tentatively extended to ''settler societies'' elsewhere.
After an engaging preface by the series editors (Brian Morgan, Alastair Pennycook, and Ryuko Kubota), Chapter 1, ''Settler Societies and Language'', guides the reader into the book through an anecdote about a question at a conference on the book's subject matter. The author cultivates this into a discussion of postcolonialism, and her own categorisation of Canada (in particular Saskatchewan) as a ''settler postcolonial'' society. Further terms are developed throughout Chapter 1, such as ''white settler society''. An undertone is the importance and prevalence of a kind of collective amnesia/denial about the sheer scale of genocide during the settlement of Canada -- and other New World countries -- and the modern day implications of this for education.
Chapter 1 goes on to review relevant academic subdisciplines, before deciding upon ''radical counternarratives in literacy research'' as the home of this study. Research participants are introduced, as are salient themes through the use of primary data, before a discussion of methodology. The relation between linguistic performance and race is discussed, along with introspection about subjectivity in researching one's home community, followed by demographic details of the population, and familiarly bleak racial inequalities in educational attainment (compared also to similar patterns in New Zealand and Australia). Illustrative anecdotes are deployed throughout.
Chapter 2, ''Looking at English Language Variation in Schools: Current and Critical Directions'', reviews discrimination against varieties of English in non-Canadian contexts, including African American Vernacular English, and the consequences for educational outcomes. The theoretical basis of the book is then expounded, reaching into postcolonial theory and Critical Race Theory (CRT). Suggestions begin to germinate here about making teachers more aware of racial divides, and of the implicit presumptions that cumulatively create discrimination. This is with a view to a more productive and egalitarian multi-racial pedagogy, and specifically to counter the idea that certain language varieties are inherently deficient. Primary data are then delved into, to illustrate a contrived ''colour-blindness'' among teachers -- a putatively politically correct practice which counter-intuitively reinforces discrimination, by breeding a sense that non-whiteness is a shameful thing to be skirted around.
In Chapter 3, ''Colonial Ideologies and Discourses'', the author guides the reader in by relating how, each year, she attempts to disrupt her new undergraduates' static views of the past. The chapter goes on to review themes of imperialism and colonialism, and ideology and discourse, before shining a light on the less-discussed destructive aspects of colonialism in colonial societies around the world. Primary data illustrate racially differentiated treatment of pupils. The following passage on page 50 -- which follows an account of the surprisingly colonialist opinion of a colleague on the linguistic deficiencies of indigenous Canadians -- sums up the overall thrust of the book.
''When we speak of decolonizing a society, it is the resiliency of colonial and settler ideologies and discourses that make decolonization difficult. Dismantling systems and practices that make colonial constructs such as residential schools and reserve pass systems is necessary but without an awareness of ideologies and discourses, the danger is that new colonial practices emerge in their place. Learning to deconstruct colonial discourses about identities, nations, languages and literacy is a necessary step in moving towards equitable practices in schools.''
Chapter 4, ''Constructing Race in Settler Seskatchewan'', gives a fuller overview of the brutal history of conquest in Canada, interweaved with the author's childhood memories of how this was sanitised in her own childhood school curricula -- and how that sanitisation continues today. The chapter has no primary data; its purpose is to expand themes of race and otherness, using anecdote ''as a way of demonstrating the implications of pedagogy beyond transmission of knowledge'' (p.71), to underscore an ideologically driven racial hierarchy which is reiterated through discourse.
Chapter 5, ''The Racialization of Space and School in Settler Saskatchewan'', recounts instances of what the author sees as racially motivated censure of indigenous students and an indigenous teacher. Primary data are combined with personal anecdote, and reference to research literature.
Chapter 6, ''Supressing Linguistic Alterity in Settler Schools'', considers standard language ideology and its refraction through a racial lens, tinted with the settler desire to dominate. Primary data exemplify how ''[n]one of the educators with whom I spoke in the school [settler or indigenous] had any awareness of ideas such as language variation; the hybridity of languages; or of Indigenous English as a legitimate language variety'' (p.97). The cultural inappropriateness of standardised curricula is asserted, and the more holistic methods of one teacher are held up as exemplary. Awareness and acceptance of language variation, along with more bespoke and imaginative teaching methods, are espoused.
Chapter 7, '''Radical' Solutions for Schools and Teacher Education'', is the normative climax of the book, delivering recommendations for pedagogy in settler contexts. The necessary reforms, it is argued, must not simply focus on present-day attitudes and pedagogical practices, but delve into the historical roots of the settler mentality, to unpick deeply woven assumptions about linguistic deficit, racial inferiority and so on. Specific proposals for teacher training are offered, in order to lessen the barriers faced by speakers of indigenous varieties of English. The chapter concludes with suggestions for further research.
EVALUATION Sterzuk is undoubtedly a skilled writer, and her mellifluous yet commanding style becomes clear early on. Formidable arguments are built up almost without noticeable scaffolding. Consider this passage (p.6):
''The term 'dialect', and the construct it describes, makes assumptions about the place of speakers in the world. These assumptions have the potential to construct our understanding of what counts as a legitimate language. Since this book intends to trouble our understanding of this very construct, it follows that alternate terminology is in order.''
Those sorts of ideas are so easy to mangle, and so hard to articulate so concisely, and so coolly. While going about the routine business of setting out the terminology used in the book, Chapter 1 also subtly instils real confidence that reading the other chapters will be time well spent.
Reading this book alongside the original thesis (http://digitool.library.mcgill.ca/R/?func=dbin-jump-full&object_id=103297) reveals that a meticulous and thorough overhaul has taken place. The above passage on dialect is a good example (pp.12-13 in the thesis), and shows a major boost in critical insight. (Still, the thesis is also eminently readable, and actually makes a good companion to the book.) In this transformation, the compatibility between author and editors is clear -- experienced readers will see the linguistic agnosticism of Alastair Pennycook (one of the editors, as mentioned earlier) creeping through particularly.
Some readers may find the book a little light on data, and the eponymous topic too often absent from view (especially detail of linguistic peculiarities). Large swathes are occupied with race, ideology, discourse, and the present-day echoes of the colonial past -- themes that are inconsistently tied back to language variation as such. The book is still highly engaging, but it will attract some readers on a slippery premise. (Worth mentioning: much more of the interview data and linguistic detail are available in the original thesis.) The same readers may also find discussion of certain theories too superficial. Chapters 2's discussion of the Enlightenment, referencing the likes of Foucault, Nietzsche and Descartes, is useful, and certainly better than the tokenistic namedropping one often finds, but it is highly compressed and a little perfunctory. Chapter 3 somewhat simplifies key authors and their theoretical contributions, for example Foucault and Fairclough on discourse. But the book is candidly intended for a mixed audience, and these simplifications do not come across as brash or over-confident.
At times the loose reliance on primary data is a matter of taste; some readers will undoubtedly prefer it. At other times it causes stickier problems. For example, claims of systematic racially motivated differential treatment of indigenous children, which tend to hover between implicit and explicit, are based ultimately on some quite isolated and anecdotal evidence (e.g. pp.54-55). Another example is the assertion that a parent, who took a complaint about classwork to the (white) headteacher instead of the (indigenous) class teacher, had nefarious and racially derogatory motivations. Isn't there a chance the parent was simply a coward? Perhaps she actually was acting solely on racial prejudice, but that is not really substantiated. There are a few too many of these apparently hasty racially based assertions; and as they say, the plural of anecdote is not data. But then, the book is not really designed as a fully buttressed indictment of existing practice; it is rather a call for change. Teaching practitioners reading this may well pencil in the fuller context, and see how it relates to their own practice.
The author candidly states (p.17) that she is ''not a linguist'', but her use of linguistic terminology suits her purpose, and always strikes an appropriate tone. In some areas her insights are every bit the equal of critical linguists, as with the way she sees through the concept of dialects and deconstructs it as an explicit act of language politics.
Having identified colonialist ideologies at work, the book unabashedly proffers its own counter-ideologies. In this, the book often feels like a reparatory journey for the author, and for readers in similar situations. This is humbly executed, and not overstated. In places though, it does cause some terminological doublethink. There is a claim that ''standard language discourses are evidence of colonialist and nationalist ideologies about 'standard language''' (p.94). Correspondingly, the term ''dialect'' is eschewed for indigenous languages as derogatory, yet it is deployed relatively freely for what the book calls white English. Fair enough perhaps, you have to pick your battles -- and anyway, racial linguistic divides seem the most salient to her respondents (p.97) -- but this overlooks prejudice towards non-standard white English dialects, and for that matter immigrant dialects, not to mention (perhaps the most popularly despised) innovative urban vernaculars (see e.g. Blommaert 2001 on similar problems elsewhere). A fuller consideration of these other inequities is probably beyond the scope of the book, but that limitation could have been acknowledged.
One quite soothing aspect of the writing style is a frequent and skilfully handled movement between two registers, academic and anecdotal: for example moving from a literature-based discussion of colonial ideologies, to an account of how the author reacted to a particular passage and discussed it with a colleague over coffee (pp.49-50). It is hard to describe how this does not smack of first year undergraduate navel-gazing, but as the author demonstrates, the key is to distinguish clearly the anecdotal from the academic, deploying the former as an illustration -- never an extension -- of the latter. She never attempts to dress one register up as the other. This tactic takes a great deal of skill to pull off convincingly, and it is managed here expertly. For a comparison, the same register juxtaposition is deployed in John Maher's (2005) excellent and witty discussion of ''metroethnicity'' in Japan.
Clearly the author cares passionately about the plight of indigenous Canadians, and sets her sights on a disruptive emancipatory endeavour. The primary focus on race will powerfully engage a certain audience, but it also causes a problem, related to the terminological doublethink noted earlier. There is much contemporary debate over whether the ''cultural turn'' in the social sciences has overly re-interpreted inequities as culturally driven, undermining socioeconomic class as an explanatory factor, and stealing attention from larger structural imbalances (e.g. Crompton 2008: 43-44). The book is clearly in the firing line for that criticism, especially evident in Chapter 5, which describes the east-west split of the city where the research took place, with the west mostly indigenous and mostly poor, and the east mostly white and mostly affluent. This is a familiar correlation, and the book makes an impelling case that the ideological shadow of the colonial past looms large in maintaining these divides. Nevertheless, there is a sense that these segregations and inequities are excessively subsumed within race, to the point of ignoring class. For example, Chapter 5 asserts that white parents avoid sending their children to a predominantly indigenous school because they see the problems of the school, and its neighbourhood, as linked to race. Little is said about possible prejudice towards the poor. Again, the book has a particular battle to fight and an audience in mind, but the issue of class and poverty, irrespective of race, could at least have been caveated out.
In all, the interview data are well chosen, and effectively illuminate the issues discussed. At times it is clear that the interview technique is a little unpolished (this is based on PhD data), with some leading questions and interviewer interjections; but the interviewer contributes by far the lesser part of the quoted data, with the interviewees' contributions are given the most space.
The aforementioned tactic of register juxtaposition fits well with the book's aim to be a conduit between highfalutin academic theories and everyday classroom practice. It is this kind of manoeuvre that sets up the deftly articulated question: ''How does an idea like terra nullius get introduced in the 1500s in Europe and then surface in a settler school in Saskatchewan in 2002 out of the mouth of an elementary school teacher?'' The objective is to wedge open the minds of practitioners and students alike, and reveal the racist undertones of everyday life in settler schools. This objective the book achieves adroitly, gently, and magnificently, over and over again.
The register splicing will, no doubt, annoy some who would prefer a more academic or data-driven discussion. The unorthodox structure of the book may cause additional frustration in such quarters, and fans of the introduction--review--methodology--data--discussion--conclusion format may be disappointed. Quite a bit of primary data spills out in Chapter 1 (the introduction), before the first mention of methodology on page 14 (which itself only very briefly mentions semi-structured interviews). Data then resurfaces somewhat unannounced part way through Chapter 3, makes no appearance in Chapter 4, and comes up again in Chapters 5 and 6. (This is another contrast with the original thesis, which is more conservative.) The book is no less readable for these quirks, and indeed for the most part gives an ineffable sense that everything is perfectly well in hand. Still, there could have been a few more signposts dotted about as to where the book was going.
The normative proposals in Chapter 7 are generally clear, and mostly sensible, suggesting relatively straightforward yet powerful changes to curricula, referral practices, and approaches to linguistic correctness. Some proposals, however, will raise eyebrows, for example requiring teachers to learn a second language to increase their sensitivity to linguistic difference. That would surely be on top of normal teaching duties, and may get short shrift from teaching unions. Another suggestion is to make more use of contrastive analysis with indigenous students, systematically comparing home language and standard language for more effective mastery of the latter. This is inspired by similar programmes reported for African American English speakers, and the exemplary practice of the teacher mentioned earlier. But the suggestion that this be rolled out more widely does not answer the problem that dogged the African American case, namely negative reactions from parents (including African Americans) about the perceived legitimisation of a stigmatised language variety. That goes beyond the classroom, into areas not considered in this book.
The author is usually cautious to limit conclusions to the school and the community being researched, and there is a caveat in Chapter 7 (p.111) that ''[n]ot all the suggestions I make […] will be pertinent to every settler school context […] for example […] in New Zealand''. There are similar less explicit caveats here and there, but these are countered at times by frequent generic references to ''settler schools'' (and other unqualified plurals). These occasionally give an impression of transferability, which is tenuous when the teacher interviews were limited to one school, and the participant observation to a single class. Still, the author may be wagering that these insights will resonate with teachers in Canada, and further afield. The assertions made in the book do seem intuitively reasonable, and based on the author's prior experience the wager may well come good.
There are some other little vitiating problems in the book: a few too many copy-editing oversights, like redundant words that survived a sentence re-write, and missing colons and apostrophes that drive the eyes back for a second try. These are not massively frequent though, and the writing style is otherwise so neat and disarming that minor gaffes are easier to forgive.
Overall, ''The Struggle for Legitimacy: Indigenised Englishes in Settler Schools'' is personal and intimate without being garrulous or excessively introspective; it is transparent and readable without being condescending or over-simplistic; and it relates clearly to a target audience with clear proposals for changes to their practice. The book's occasional imbalances are understandable given the context and intended audience; and from the looks of Sterzuk's online profile she is working towards positive change in pedagogical practice on the ground.
This evaluation section has ended up as something of a compliment sandwich: good point, bad point, repeat. Readers may feel the same way, but on balance, for this reader, the good points outweighed the bad.
REFERENCES Blommaert, Jan. 2001. The Asmara Declaration as a sociolinguistic problem: Notes in scholarship and linguistic rights. Journal of Sociolinguistics 5(1): 131-142.
Crompton, Rosemary. 2008. Class and stratification. Bristol: Polity Press.
Maher, John C. 2005. Metroethnicity, language, and the principle of Cool. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 175/176: 83-102.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Dr. Dave Sayers is an Honorary Research Fellow of the College of Arts &
Humanities at Swansea University, UK. His research is on language policy
and planning, and sociolinguistics.