Stara Zagora Plenary

Written by: Alan Pulverness

Language awareness can be defined as an understanding of the human faculty of language and its role in thinking, learning and social life. It includes an awareness of power and control through language, and of the intricate relationships between language and culture.
Leo van Lier, Introducing Language Awareness (1995)

Van Lier’s definition, with its extensive social, cultural and political implications, seems to relate to a far broader educational constituency than is typically addressed by the literature concerned with English Language Teaching. Within the ELT community, the term ‘language awareness’ has largely been adopted to denote the linguistic knowledge that it is believed should form the essential core of the foreign language teacher’s professional expertise. The timetables of Cambridge/RSA TEFL certificate and diploma courses (the ‘CELTA’ and the ‘DELTA’) routinely feature slots labelled ‘LA’, although the approach taken in these LA sessions tend to suggest that the ‘A’ should stand for ‘analysis’ rather than ‘awareness’. In EFL teacher training, language awareness has become a very loosely defined label used to refer to the explicit structural and functional knowledge that underpins effective language teaching. Indeed, ‘language knowledge’ might be a more appropriate term to describe the language study component of most EFL teacher training, devoted as it is to learning about the forms and the systems of the language. Interestingly, the idea of developing awareness seems to be restricted to what takes place within the teacher, and often does not extend to any growth of awareness within learners, who tend to be assessed strictly in terms of their ability to use language accurately and appropriately. It might, of course, be argued that such ability proceeds from awareness, but this would ignore the question of what kind of awareness we believe that learners – and their teachers – should have about language.

Closer perhaps to van Lier’s definition is the tradition of ‘language awareness’ that exists within British state school education. Prompted by government dissatisfaction in the early 1980s with the teaching of English and foreign languages, and chiefly associated with the work of Eric Hawkins, the concept of language awareness went beyond the conventional first and foreign language curriculum, promoting greater understanding by learners of the social nature of language in general. The move towards this broader sense of language awareness extended to consideration of language across the curriculum and involved collaborations between teachers of English (as both a first and a foreign language) and teachers of other languages.

In Awareness of Language, published in 1987, Hawkins outlines a curriculum in which students would learn about basic aspects of sociolinguistics, such as language variation and language change. They would practise general language awareness skills, for example, identifying patterns in language or listening for specific language features. It was felt that the general appreciation of what language is and how it works, would equip students with fundamental understandings that would enhance their ability to learn both their own and other languages. Underlying this approach there is also a benign political agenda: awareness of language – and indeed awareness of languages – should deflect any tendency towards linguistic prejudice, and should lead teachers and learners to view the presence of other languages in multi-ethnic schools as a valuable resource rather than a pedagogic obstacle. Students would be encouraged to exchange explicit aspects of their knowledge of their own language with fellow-students from different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds, to their mutual benefit. It should also be noted that this process of sensitisation to the nature and function of language was intended to begin at primary level, and Hawkins and his colleagues produced a series of textbooks for this purpose.

‘Knowledge About Language’ – or KAL – was a controversial element of the recommendations made in reports by The National Curriculum English Working Party in the late 1980s. KAL was intended to introduce students at secondary level in England and Wales to topics such as: differences between spoken and written English; literary language; language change; accents, dialects and standard Englishes; registers and varieties of English. The reports were widely misunderstood and created one of the moral panics about falling standards in education that seize the British at regular intervals. From Prince Charles to the editor of The Sun, leading public figures expressed their antagonism to a version of language awareness that relativised traditional notions of absolute standards of correctness, and suggested a degree of legitimacy for non-standard varieties of English. The then Conservative government subsequently modified the Working Party’s recommendations, replacing the focus on learning about language as social practice with an emphasis on a more traditional kind of knowledge about language, concerned with parts of speech, sentence grammar, correct spelling and punctuation. As the present New Labour Secretary of State for Education has followed much of the philosophy and practice of his predecessors, KAL and language awareness in Hawkins’ sense have remained marginalised.

Critical Language Awareness – CLA – can be seen as a reaction against the tendency to treat language, particularly in foreign language teaching, as a neutral and value-free code. CLA aims precisely to do what van Lier talks about – to raise students’ “awareness of power and control through language, and of the intricate relationships between language and culture”. Critical linguistics proceeds from the belief that language is always value-laden and that texts are never neutral. Language in the world is commonly used to exercise ‘power and control’, to reinforce dominant ideologies, to evade responsibility, to manufacture consensus. The most blatant examples occur (as we have seen all too clearly in recent years) during times of national or international conflict: if as the widely quoted maxim goes, “truth is the first casualty of war”, then language is all too often the second casualty. As readers in the real world – i.e. the world outside the classroom – we should always be on our guard, ‘suspicious’ of texts and prepared to challenge or interrogate them. However, in the foreign language classroom, texts are routinely treated as unproblematic, as if their implicit authority need never be questioned. Their single function is to provide a contextual backdrop for the presentation of language, and consequently, they tend at best to be comfortably bland. Foreign language learners, who may be quite critical readers in their mother tongues, are textually infantilised by the vast majority of EFL coursebooks and the classroom approaches that proceed from these books.

A CLA approach implies what Catherine Wallace calls “a methodology for interpreting texts which addresses ideological assumptions as well as propositional meaning”, which would require students to develop sociolinguistic and ethnographic research skills, in order to become proficient at observing, analysing and evaluating language use in the world around them. It would lead them to ask and answer crucial questions about a text: Who produced it? Who was it produced for? In what context was it published? It would encourage them to notice features such as lexical choice, passivisation or foregrounding that reveal both the position of the writer and the way in which the reader is ‘positioned’ by the text. It would offer them opportunities to intervene creatively in texts, to modify them or to produce their own ‘counter-texts’ in ways proposed in the work of Clare Kramsch and Rob Pope. It would empower students to become active participants in the negotiation of meaning, rather than passive recipients of ‘authoritative’ texts. In short, it would transform language training into language education.

I looked at a few representative examples of different text-types (Robin Cook’s “chicken tikka” speech, a Daily Mail report of a postal workers’ strike action and a magazine advertisement for fitted kitchens) to see how they were loaded with ideological assumptions and how they were constructed so as to influence their intended readership for political or social or commercial purposes. I proposed that our notion of what constitutes ‘reading skills’ needs to be expanded to take account of the skills of critical thinking and interpretation that form an inevitable part of our daily response to texts, but are usually elided in the foreign language classroom.

What I tried to suggest in this talk is that, unless they are purely functional, as in the case, say, of an instruction leaflet, texts are inevitably ‘loaded’ in some way. They are rarely, if ever, as neutral as they are made to appear in ELT textbooks. There are always questions to be asked, about authorship, about readership, about lexical choices and about textual organisation. Students can be encouraged to ask – and answer – these questions; they can be invited to ‘disturb’ or ‘intervene’ in the texts, as they often do in literature classes when they are asked to provide alternative titles or alternative endings, or to re-tell a story from a different point of view. Texts should not be regarded as sacrosanct – the key to critical language awareness is a healthy disrespect for the text.

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