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Review of  English Language Pedagogies for a Northeast Asian Context

Reviewer: Clay Hunter Williams
Book Title: English Language Pedagogies for a Northeast Asian Context
Book Author: Michael Hadzantonis
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 24.4754

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Dimitrios Michael Hadzantonis makes the case for a paradigm shift in pedagogical models for language acquisition and development, principally for the Northeast Asia region -- especially Korea -- but he also lays claim to broader, global applications of the proposed model. The book employs a step-by-step approach to bringing the full scope of the problem to light, by introducing the push-pull dynamic in the struggle to implement new pedagogical norms without denigrating or rejecting traditional methods; discussing at length the social, cultural, and pedagogical identities of his target population, South Korea; describing issues, innovations, and shortfalls specific to language acquisition pedagogy in South Korea; and giving a holistic primer/review of Sociocultural Theory grounded in modern theory. Only after this comprehensive background on learning English in the South Korean context has been covered does the author move on to arguing for his proposal -- The Transitional Model and Theory. He begins with a thorough review of the theoretical background for Transition Theory, followed by the model itself and some concluding remarks on the desired results of implementation in the South Korean educational context.

The foreword retells the story of a verbal incident witnessed by the author, which he expounds upon in the introduction (Chapter 1) and alludes to frequently throughout the monograph as an example of “two people… express[ing] conflicting perspectives toward semiotic tools, texts, and textual modes, as elements for learning and development, and more so, for language development” (p. 1). The author draws a parallel between the issues of enculturation, methodology, conceptualization, agency, culture and ecology in this example to the larger goal of exploring how influences of identity in South Korea affect the development of L2 English competence and their negotiation of social identities and L2 pedagogies. The author then lays out his approach for the monograph -- postmodern, cross-disciplinary, and heavily grounded in Sociocultural Theory -- with the end goal of demonstrating a model capable of assisting South Korean (as well as other NE Asian) students of English to increase their ability to negotiate membership in global communities. He begins by asking himself and the reader two key questions: 1) whether or not the ability to successfully negotiate social identity would help students to find membership in such global communities; and 2) how to design an approach which would enable students to negotiate language identities.

Chapter 2 presents a detailed evaluation of language and identity issues in the modern South Korean context. Arguing that South Korean education must be seen from “within the context of its social and political situation, coupled with significant Western influence” (p.15), Hadzantonis provides a broad overview of the shaping forces on South Korean identity formulation, concentrating mostly on historical factors, government policies, and international/global aspirations. He begins with a brief overview of Confucianism, noting that the Confucianism in modern South Korea varies greatly from that in other regions, having been modified to better fit the Korean social context. This Neo-Confucianism is presented as an oppressive discourse due to its emphases on hierarchy, consensus, and authority through rank. The tendency to define oneself in terms of relation to others weakens individual identity and can lead to pedagogical confrontation when students are negotiating identity through L2. From there, the author moves to issues of nationalization and nationalism. Reviewing Korean history, he notes that the relatively recent emergence of a unified Korean political/cultural state coincided with an introduction of new historical, nationalistic narratives emphasizing “ethnic homogeneity, strongly grounding nation and national identity, thus conflating nation with ethnicity and race” (p. 22). Furthermore, historical forces colluded to produce strongly authoritarian political forces which have permeated the society, including education. The Korean educational system’s seeming main goal has been to promote nationalism and feelings of national unity, leading to a racialized idea of nationhood. The growing importance of the English language is therefore frequently conceived of as a threat, and has reinforced the South Korean mindset of nationalism and resistance to foreign ‘invasion.’ This sets up a paradox as South Korea has clearly stated transnational ambitions. While transnationalism would naturally suggest willingness to cross both national and personal boundaries, “[n]ational identity in South Korea has inhibited the crossing of transnational boundaries by South Koreans and their attempts to engage in the multiple orientations of global discourses” (p. 32). Appeals for globalization have been stymied by appeals to nationalism which disempower individuals, and reduce agency. Distorted and idealized images of the West also work to dim the prospects of successful L2 acquisition by potentially introducing envy or disappointment (when the reality fails to match the image), both of which can reinforce nationalism. The Korean government’s appeals for globalization actually explicitly aim “to appropriate globalization for nationalist goals” (p. 42). The author argues that while Koreans have a voracious appetite for English-language pedagogy, these pedagogies and texts have been misappropriated and distorted by filtering such through the lenses of nationalism, Confucianism, etc., resulting in reduced benefit, and ultimately in greater segregation from the world.

From here, the author bridges into a basic review of sociolinguistic scholarship, defining and explaining concepts of social identity, negotiating identities, and fluidity and rheosis (which the author defines as facility in switching identities, discourses, etc., and the ability to negotiate social capital, as well as the skills used to develop and employ fluid identities, respectively). He then discusses issues of native vs. nonnative speaker educators, exposing the racial and imperial assumptions behind the English language industry preferences in South Korea for native speaker “models,” and proposes that “‘native’ speaker teachers without effective professional development have qualifications insufficient to develop language competence in South Korean students” (p. 72). The inequalities in language education are discussed in terms of power relationships between speakers (native and non) and the notion that the English competence that South Koreans seek is actually that of White, upper-class Americans, thus privileging certain learners and instructors over others. The chapter ends with notes on the transfer of sociocultural frameworks and identity negotiation during communication, paying special attention to the impact of cross-cultural classroom behaviors which will impact interaction and identity management.

Chapter 3 surveys how language teaching is conducted currently in the Northeast Asian educational context. The author starts with the sociolinguistic context, noting the effects of the U.S. occupation and globalist policies which have raised the profile of the English language, and has created a large demand for its instruction, and English ability has become a type of class marker in South Korea. The author presents the traditional language pedagogies of South Korea; much like in the rest of Northeast Asia, rote memorization, drilling, and grammar-translation are the rule. He then presents the outside influences on language education, and why modern, Western pedagogies have largely failed to be adapted. He details, step-by-step, the learning styles and strategies of East Asian students before detailing the struggles more specific to Korean students of English. He argues that the primacy of transmission approaches, combined with the inefficiencies of materials designed for different educational milieus, as well as other factors act to limit students’ abilities to form communities of practice. Turning to educators in South Korea, he reiterates the common complaints that many educators simply lack the requisite skills, and will often fall back on traditional pedagogies in order mask shortfalls in language competency. The perceived inefficiencies of the public education system has sparked a massive private instruction and testing industry, described in detail, which has exacerbated the role of English ability as a class marker in modern South Korean society. The author describes the counterproductive effects as language testing has become a de facto goal in and of itself, and also how the private market has responded to demand by importing Western instructors en masse. This has had questionable effects on students’ progress for, while these teachers often have a full command of the language, they are, more often than not, wholly ignorant of the socio-educational dynamics in South Korea which can make their attempts to employ modern (Western) pedagogies exercises in frustration. The author suggests that “providing appropriate pedagogical education for these foreign educators to acculturate to and incorporate local styles: all stake holders would greatly benefit from this” (p. 120). Thus the author has set up the problem in South Korean language education: modern interactive pedagogies seem to be at odds with South Korean educational culture, and thus are met with strong resistance. As such, he sets up the need for the socio-educational culture to make a directed transition to a point wherein students can productively employ modern pedagogies.

Chapter 4 presents a quick but broad overview of Sociocultural Theory to establish the foundation and define the terms employed when presenting the author’s own theoretical framework. The chapter defines such concepts as imitation, lower/higher-order mental functions, genetic development, artifacts/tools/signs, mediation, scaffolding, the zone of proximal development (ZPD), and social constructionism.

The author begins to delve into the specifics of his proposal in chapter 5, however he is still focused on giving the background necessary to ground the proposed Transition Theory in theory. As such, the chapter is enormous, and largely covers review of theory. He reviews the critical concepts of competences; communicative strategies, including cognitive strategies, input, output, repetition, inculcation, and imitation; social strategies, delving into issues such as ecological approaches, student agency and autonomy, teacher roles, and group dynamics; affective strategies with the related factors of motivation, anxiety, self-esteem, and communicative willingness; and pedagogical strategies, examining a broad range of pedagogical theories, from task-based to form-based to content and context-based. Throughout, he presents relevant examples from the South Korean student population to build the case that (most) South Korean students are unable to effectively employ learning strategies in L2 acquisition. They are often stymied by cultural factors which perceive the L2 as a threat to L1 identity, raising anxiety and lowering willingness to learn, as well as by foreign pedagogical methodologies which do not consider the students’ educational context, and thus their de facto default learning strategies, and are often rejected for their lack of relevancy. The author then argues for both teaching through Sociocultural Theory and for using sociocultural theories as content, and he thereby sets up the need for pedagogical theory which will help the students to bridge from their traditional pedagogies to that which would help them to better leverage their competencies toward the task of learning English.

After thoroughly covering theory, the author finally in chapter 6 lays out the framework for the proposed Transition Model and Theory. The theory is designed to leverage the learning styles which students have already mastered, and via a step-by-step incremental process, enable students to stretch their skills until they can participate in and benefit from alternative/foreign pedagogies, and ultimately to be able to facilely negotiate their L2 identities. As the author states, this transition “constitutes a gradual paradigm shift within the individual … through transition, individuals develop knowledge of, and increasingly accept, their own enculturations, for without drawing from their own enculturations, negotiation becomes problematic at some points” (p. 250). The Transition Model can be briefly delineated as a set of 11 step-ordered strategies composed of types of transition. These steps are: 1) task hierarchy transition; 2) group hierarchy transition; 3) affective transition; 4) pedagogical transition; 5) societal and cultural transition; 6) transition through teacher pivoting; 7) top-down transition; 8) transition through multiple texts; 9) transitional modernities; 10) ecological modernity; 11) transition of self. Each of these strategies is fully explained in its own section. The author asserts the model as having potential global application in its ability to facilitate development of language competence, especially in areas where social, cultural, or educational factors can inhibit students’ productive negotiation of identity and membership in the language communities. “The model and theory thus respond to a highly significant need for resolution to a problem not only pertinent to South Korea, but globally. South Korea is only one of the many (countless) regions requiring transition…” (p. 300).

Chapter 7, the final chapter, briefly revisits the ideas of the Transition Theory and gives the author the opportunity to make a final appeal to the potential effect of the theory in allowing students to get beyond traditional pedagogies which effectively preclude interaction during English classes. In the author’s words, the model “bridges and integrates a series of sociocultural factors, through which groups such as South Koreans can develop a facility with and adroitness in identity selection, giving themselves stronger leverage to move into more powerful communities” (pp. 302-303).

English-Language Pedagogies for a Northeast Asian Context was written as a scholarly monograph for fellow scholars involved in research on language pedagogy in East Asia. The prose is extremely dense and scholarly in tone, and as such, would be of no real interest to anyone outside of academia, but the thorough theoretical grounding and review of up-to-date literature on the topic would make this text to be of considerable interest to any sociolinguist and especially to adherents of Sociocultural Theory.

In general, I found the proposed model entirely convincing. The basic idea of achieving a practical transition to increase L2 pedagogical relevance to East Asian students is not new by any means. Full disclosure: I’ve advocated similar ideas myself, and I’ve heard the like from other theorists for many years. Where the author is, I believe, breaking new ground, however, is the extent to which he takes the idea of transition. Most of calls for bridging/stretching strategies for East Asian students I have seen (and made) over the years have been focused purely on issues of specific pedagogical methodologies. Hadzantonis takes this concept and expands it into an over-arching model which accomplishes far more than simply enabling students to better understand and to participate in Western-model classroom activities. The model proposed engages students at both the societal and personal level to actively engage in identity negotiation which will enable higher levels of student agency and autonomy and ultimately allow them to achieve full membership in the L2 community. The comprehensive way in which Hadzantonis also manages to tie the proposal in to relevant sociocultural theories also serves to differentiate this monograph as offering something new, relevant, and useful to the field.

While the premise of the text is sound and the sourcing so abundant and solid that it is nigh impossible to criticize the theory itself, I am not without a couple of minor critiques. First, the title and the claims of application to a broader Northeast Asian educational context are only in the narrowest sense supported by the text, as it relies almost entirely on evidence from the South Korean context. While this is a minor quibble and I suspect the proposed model would still prove largely valid in Japanese or Chinese contexts, still much of the evidence marshaled in building the theoretical case was specific to South Korean historical and cultural matters. It would be tenuous at best to uncritically apply the lessons of the ethnology reported to other regions without a similar intensive look at the social, cultural, and educational forces which have shaped those milieus, and thus armed to be able to make adaptations to the model as needed. It is my hope that regional scholars will take the ideas proffered in this monograph and seek to apply the model to other regions and cultures. My second critique is simply a question of dissemination. The value of the Transition Model will only be realized upon implementation, but given the dense prose and the intended audience of this text, the monograph itself cannot act as a vehicle for changing educational practices in South Korea. Simply put, general educational practitioners are unlikely to ever come across, let alone read, this book, even though they would derive the most benefit from the ideas therein. I would thus implore the author (or other interested academics) to consider distilling concepts within the Transition Model to be presented in a more general audience teaching methodology primer (such as those used in undergraduate teacher education books).

In summary, if you are interested in sociocultural theories or second language pedagogy issues in East Asia, English-Language Pedagogies for a Northeast Asian Context will give you a lot of new ideas to consider. I look forward to this model entering into discussions about language education in East Asia.
Clay Williams is an assistant professor in the graduate English Language Teaching Practices department of Akita International University. His primary areas of research include cross-script effects on L2 literacy development, lexical access in non-alphabetic script reading, and adapting L2 teaching methodologies to East Asian classroom contexts.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780415806909
Pages: 392
Prices: U.K. £ 80.00