Remember the last part of my last post? That’s where I brought up delving into the salient points of Norton and Toohey’s “Identity, language learning, and social change.” They talk about how the social sciences, especially those highly influenced by post-modernism where dynamic identity transformation is an important research topic, has broken into and upended conventional debates within the field of Second Language Acquisition. They strongly infer that issues surrounding identity have an impact on how we learn languages and how well we learn languages. While this may seem fairly unsurprising, it is actually a topic that is quite groundbreaking and that up until the last couple of decades, we had not seen a lot of this argument in Second Language Acquisition research. To suss out what Norton and Toohey are saying, it might be beneficial to consider one’s own autobiography as an example of where they might be going with this line of inquiry. How is it that one winds up wanting to become bilingual or multilingual? Is there or choice or does it simply happen automatically, like the sun rising in the east? And like within other domains of our educational system, do we see patterns of social stratification where some definable groups do better at language learning than others do?
Before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and the 1960’s, language learners’ identity needs were scarcely attended to. I feel like a citation is missing here and I don’t have one right off the top of my head. But I can tell you that language needs was the main topic of my dissertation in 1993, and basically the main sources for my bibliography were written in the 1960s and afterwards. Coincidence? Probably not! Think about how language learning has been routinely put into motion in the history of American academia. In the 19th century, the ancient languages, Greek, Latin, and Biblical Hebrew, were at the center of the “language learning” curriculum. Vernacular languages had to compete with those languages and in the terms set out by those languages. That is, ancient languages were not taught so much in order to communicate with people from other lands and other cultures, but to fit into a certain educational mold and to be able to read ancient texts in the original. The mark of an educated person was reading fluency in one or many ancient languages.
So when the modern vernaculars (German, French, and Italian, with Spanish only eclipsing those languages in the late 20th century) began to make claims about having a legitimate place at the table of academia, they did it through the argument that their literary traditions were every bit as rich and exciting as those of ancient languages. The notion that people should learn languages to be able to express themselves and converse with their counterparts from far-distant nations and cultures was at best an afterthought. (For a very good history of language teaching in the U.S., see Musumeci (1997)). What we find ourselves in today are expectations borne from these academic pressures, and my claim, which I will elaborate in later posts, is that other sets of expectations are encroaching upon the curriculum because of such things as the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. According to Norton and Toohey, this will help liberate a search for more powerful identity positions that can lead to greater success in language programs, a point I want to elaborate on in my next post.
Musumeci, Diane Breaking Tradition: An Exploration of the Historical Relationship Between Theory and Practice In Second Language Teaching. McGraw-Hill. 1997.