“I feel very strongly that the ideal shouldn’t be mastery of another language, because that’s an unachievable goal and holding it up as the aim just makes students feel hopeless… We should emphasise the pleasures of languages, rather than the need for complete competence.”
—Marina Warner, “English that’s good enough: The mastery of English is not the intimidating ideal any non-native should seek: a smattering will do.” The Guardian, March 13 2012.
Having attended the Multilingual, 2.0? symposium this past weekend at the University of Arizona, this was a question/topic that came up in several of the talks as it relates to education and language policy planning and ideology. In Deborah Cameron’s talk “The one, the many and the Other: representing mono/multilingualism in post 9/11 verbal hygiene,” one of the more challenging topics she brought was that of ‘standards.’ She argued that linguists don’t want to talk about norms or language standards when examining language policies but until they are willing to have a sensible discussion on “norms” in the establishment of language policy, then the linguists will always lose.
Excerpt from Deborah Cameron’s abstract from Multilingual, 2.0?
Full abstract [PDF]
I begin with one of the questions offered by the organizers of this symposium: ‘If multilingualism is founded on an assumption that we are shifting away from a monolingual perspective, how sound is that assumption? Can one shift away from that which does not exist in the first place?’… However assiduously academics may seek to criticize or deconstruct them, ‘monolingualism’ and ‘multilingualism’ undoubtedly exist in the world as ideological constructs, and in my view their existence has material and significant consequences; but it is difficult to generalize about the way in which they are constructed or imagined for different languages, nation-states, historical periods and geographical/ social locations. Representations of monolingualism/ multilingualism are also representations of particular languages (and people) in particular times and places: that inevitably shapes their form and the cultural work they do.
While I found myself generally agreeing with Ms. Warner’s piece and her overall push for not demanding “native speaker proficiency” as a rule for language learning, her discussion glossed over just how complicated this subject area is. The claim that “It is possible to speak another language fluently and yet make continual mistakes in it—mistakes of word order and phrasing, register and weight of terms used, and numerous other pitfalls” reveals that she is applying a popular notion of “fluency” meaning “native-like” or “near-native-like” ability and is not recognizing that a language speaker/learner can have varying levels of proficiency depending on the field (speaking, writing, listening and reading). ACTFL’s proficiency guidelines (for speaking, writing, listening, and reading) include Distinguished, Superior, Advanced, Intermediate, and Low, all of which have sub-categorizations.
I couldn’t agree more with her advocating “for multilingual households, for foreign-born mothers—and fathers—for the benefits of different tongues and their speakers, and for the cultures they originate in. I also see value in making the crossing from one language to another without fear or inhibition, and above all for not minding “making mistakes.” To say that “Languages matter, but smatterings will do,” however, ignores learners’ needs and requirements for successful communicative interaction. I would suggest rather than saying a smattering will do, it would be more helpful to work on an inclusive language policy that actually defines what a “smattering” of language is, for what areas of proficiency, for what group(s) of speakers, and being critical of who is making these determinations and for what purposes.
↬ Warner’s The Guardian article
↬ American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. National Standards for Foreign Language Education, Standards for Foreign Language Learning.
↬ American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines 2012: Speaking, Writing, Listening and Reading. [PDF]