ConceptApplied Linguists seek to challenge unhelpful public beliefs about language
In this section we really are talking about 'turning around an oil tanker'! But, difficult though this job might be, we think that, as applied linguists, it is our responsibility to try. Applied linguistics is the field of academic study and professional practice in which language problems are investigated and addressed. This includes the teaching and learning of English.
In our introduction to the field, written for students and practitioners (including teachers of additional languages), we say this about our responsibilities:
Applied linguistics is […] a problem-solving discipline, and while any project in applied linguistics may begin with a description or empirical investigation of the role of language in a real-world problem, it should aim to end with the planning, testing and evaluation of a potential solution. This, we believe, should be conducted in close collaboration with the people who are experiencing the problem or whose needs are to be met (Hall et al., 2017, p. 17).
The real-world problem that we are focusing on in this section is the monolithic beliefs of the general public, especially as manifested in statements (not always explicit ones) which contain the following:
● an incorrect 'fact' about English (e.g., that advice cannot be pluralised)
● an opinion that is presented as a fact (e.g., the best English is spoken in the UK)
● an opinion that may or may not be presented as a fact but potentially has discriminatory consequences for some users of the language (e.g., that only 'native speakers' of English are qualified to teach it)
Statements like these occur regularly—in conversations, newspaper articles, blogs, editorial policies, marketing materials, hiring practices, etc.
Such statements are, of course, not a problem for the person or institution that makes them. They may however cause problems for users and learners of English whose usage is being judged, who are trying to decide where to study, or who are applying for a job. As such, it is our responsibility to look for solutions.
ActivityWhy do people and institutions make such statements? In order to decide on the most effective strategy for responding (and thereby addressing the potential problem), it is useful to identify and understand underlying causes. They can be quite different from each other: try to think of two or three main ones.
FeedbackIt is possible that the people and institutions that make such statements:
● may simply not have thought much about what 'English' is, and then say something false because they are unaware of the facts.
● may stand to benefit from trying to pass off an opinion as a fact (perhaps their exam will attract more fee-paying examinees if they market it as the best test of 'International English', for example).
● may harbour (conscious or unconscious) prejudices against certain groups of English users, or want to be associated with them, and will use the group's English as a proxy for the (positive or negative) attributes they attribute to them.
So, where to start turning around the oil tanker of public belief about English?
In DepthWe could first try to conduct a thorough investigation of the problem, an investigation which attempts to answer these questions:
1. What was said or written about English that might be problematic?
2. Who said it? Where? To whom?
3. Why did they say it? What are the benefits of the statement to them or to their institution?
4. Is their statement incorrect? What is the evidence for this?
5. Is their statement an opinion that is presented as a fact?
6. What are the potential negative consequences of their statement for any learners or users of English?
Once you have the answers to these questions, you need to plan a solution. The solution will be a response, in writing or spoken, that is:
● visible to the person or institution that made the statement;
● expressed in a way they will understand;
● one which should not, unintentionally, make the situation worse for any learners or users who are being discriminated against.
Depending on your answers to questions (1) – (6), your response may contain the following elements:
● a factual correction, perhaps with examples or reference to published research findings
● the identification of their statement as an opinion (that is, something which cannot be proved or which is an individual or group belief, not necessarily shared by everyone)
● the identification of the negative consequences of their statement for individuals or groups of English learners or users, and the unethical nature of this discrimination
● a reference to accepted good practice and professional opinion in English teaching in your area or internationally (e.g. TESOL position statements on Language Varieties and English as a Global Language)
● a recognition of the benefits of their statement for the person or institution who made it and a suggestion for how these benefits might be achieved without the use of incorrect facts, of opinions which are presented as facts, or by discriminating against any individuals or groups
● failing an alternative plan for achieving the same benefits, you may have to urge the person or institution to retract their statement, and/or to avoid making such statements in the future, in order to be seen to be behaving ethically, or simply in order to be more ethical!
Now you need to decide where to present your response. Depending on the nature of the statement and response, and local context, options include:
● a letter or email to the person or organisation involved
● a letter to a newspaper, magazine or newsletter
● a blog posting
● a posting to an online discussion board
● an item on a meeting agenda
● the organisation of a petition
ActivityDescribing problems of public belief and planning solutions
Identify a problematic statement about English in assessment or editorial policies you are familiar with, in marketing materials, job advertisements, or newspaper reports. Consider questions (a) – (f) above and make a note of your answers. (Using the Internet, see if you can find similar cases—indeed, you might find one on our Discussion Board. Have English teachers or other applied linguists identified similar problems? What were their solutions and how effective were they?)
Plan your response to the problem. Discuss your solution with colleagues and, where relevant, with members of any group that the statement may be discriminating against. If you can, implement your solution and evaluate its effectiveness.
Discussion point 5.2In your view, what are the main ‘problems of public belief’ about English (and other languages) in the context(s) you are familiar with? Do you have any ideas for how to address them? Share your ideas here.