our words make worlds

Languagers’ invisible multilingual worlds

Debate 2

In this blog post, Cristina Ros i Solé writes about the second Language Acts and Worldmaking debate, Debate 2: Modern Languages—A Discipline (still) in Search of an Identity?

Is the discipline of Modern Languages really a subject in permanent crisis? A lost cause? An unsurmountable problem? A deeply unpopular subject that only seems to attract a privileged sector of society? Or is it that it is presented as a luxury?

I would like to challenge ‘the luxury’ approach to Languages and instead I propose a new philosophy and raison d’etre for languages that departs from a view of modern languages that sees them as something exotic, out of the ordinary and unusual. One that rescues it from obscurity and gives it new and visible clothes. I shall explain.

I will start by taking the cue from Derek’s Hird’s call for ‘anchoring words in everyday culture’. In this short paper I would like to argue that we can see languages as both ordinary and profound, pragmatic and abstract and will try to develop an argument to get unstuck from the polarisation of objectives that was talked about in this Debate. One of such polarisations is the division of labour in Modern Languages that some have called ‘snobbery’: the separation between the ‘learning’ of languages and the ‘study’ of cultures. For me, the problem is that Modern languages does not only suffer from an image problem but a problem of ‘place’. Where do we look for or expect to find Modern Languages? In foreign lands, in manufactured cultural products and cultural history, or at our doorstep? What counts as Language in Modern Languages? My impression is that at the moment we understand so called ‘foreign’ languages as the first two, but not the third, our ordinary living in alternative worlds.

Indeed, there is a need to start looking at the society that surrounds us, the much closer, personally relevant, and dynamic spaces that languagers inhabit. Languagers, as Phipps poses, is not only learning language in context, but ‘the effort of being a person in that language in the social and material world of everyday interactions (…) [languagers] who engage with the world-in-action’ (Phipps 2011:365). So that, languagers not only ‘learn’ and ‘study’, but perform day-to-day Modern Language practices, in our cities, in our cafés, in our shops; and how these are played out in our educational spaces.

The relationship between languages and the force of the ordinary experience, in my view, is something that has not been sufficiently explored. We are not talking about the instrumental and pragmatic approach of languages that sees them as a means to an end, a way of getting by in another language, but language as self-translation, as transposition and as a transformative practice. I do not mean to see languages as escapism to a world of the imagination, some fiction we want to escape to, but in relation to our banal and day-to-day and concrete lives, our day to day goings on, and our carefully assembled worlds.

Indeed, ‘languages’ in Modern Languages do not have to be locked into the false dichotomy of big and small cultures (with a small and a capital C), or even big and small languages, Modern Languages and Community Languages, Standard and Vernacular, but they can be seen as reflected and embodied in the practices of everyday life.

But focusing on the goings on and the daily rituals of performing languages does not mean abandoning the more profound and spiritual aspects of languaging. Rather, it fixes and focuses languages onto something more tangible, it materialises and gives shape and purpose to the languaging efforts by providing a locus for personal memories, feelings and desires.

Giving attention to the ordinary and the materiality of cultures gives us an alternative way to think about the crisis of identity in Modern Languages. The materiality of cultures bypasses and maybe even bridges the current division in Modern Languages between a language pedagogy that focuses on instrumental objectives and another that focuses on transcendental aims, either the ‘learning’ of a language or the ‘studying’ of a language (as Simon Coffey put it in this Debate). A third way that proposes to echo the methodological and epistemological decolonising project of the discipline that Alison Phipps proposed a few weeks ago in Debate 1 on Language Education Activism. She urged us to go beyond the citing in publications and to listen to how language is performed and how the world is pronounced. And then, to tell the tales of what has happened. This is a different way of going about language learning and language study, one that prioritises the everyday over the constructed and artificially contrived culture of the Other. So, reinforcing the dichotomy between language and culture, abstract cultures and concrete languages, learning and studying only exacerbates the problem. It reinforces the division between language and culture, fact and fiction, academic subjects and professional ones.

Instead, as Allison Phipps (in Debate 1) and Derek Hird (in this Debate) urges us to do, we should look at the common representations of culture around us. Indeed, we would do well to look at how languages are taking shape in the different corners of our lives. Languages should not be seen as just a way of ‘accessing’ a reified, bounded and pre-defined abstract culture (i.e.. Modern Languages), someone else’s reality, ie ‘the Other’, but the worlds-in-action and the world-making we engage with to understand our presents, our biographies and our futures.

I believe then that what we have collectively overseen is, as Derek Hird mentioned, a scrupulous ethnographic approach to languages that allow us to take a distance from the pre-packaged versions of culture and to deconstruct it. He urges us to teach the Modern Language student to become more reflective and critical, and to unlearn cultures, as the anthropologist would say, ‘to make the familiar strange’. This implies a recognition that language learning is indeed not only knowledge, but also doing and participating; a performative act, a self-conscious participation, an exercise of placing oneself in the mundane, and even banal of another culture. Such an exercise is not only a way of exercising pragmatism but it is also a way to engage critically in meaning-making.

So far, language pedagogy has concerned itself about embedding language learners and languages into cultures to make them more authentic, relevant and worthwhile.

So, if we had to give a name and an identity to such approach to Modern Languages, we may do well to pull our forces together: both academics and language professionals, and as Hird has pleaded, make Modern Languages a more desirable subject. One, I would like to add, that managed to combine the abstract, the material and the performative into a coherent whole. One that constructed a new identity for Modern Languages that was not a luxury item to be treasured in a library shelf with no use or life to it, but ‘(Modern) Languages’ that allowed us to inhabit and act in the ordinary and the immediate. Indeed, we need to acknowledge that if we do not want Languages to be completely exiled from contemporary life and education, we should make sure that we don’t keep them locked up or abandoned in academic journals, academic departments and double-blinded refereed articles, language textbooks, language classrooms, or the occasional experiences of the privileged sojourn abroad. Rather, (Modern) Language places should be democratised, and belong to everyone and be made by everyone in the worlds we engage in and pronounce. Languages should no longer be a generic manufactured world, a straightjacket that paralyzes us and takes away languagers’ freedom of movement and speech! We should move away from using our Modern Language ‘spaces’ for celebrating exotic cultures and seeing languages as static bodies of knowledge contained in grammars and dictionaries and reified language activities located in some far-away land.

Instead, like our favourite pair of blue jeans, modern languages should not be made- to-measure haut couture, but aim to be the ordinary item of clothing that we shape with our bodies, a comfortable second skin that blends with our daily life and lifestyle. Modern Languages should not feel strange and distant, but rather a common empowering feeling that makes us feel at ease with our identities, our voices, and our bodies. Languaging should make us confident to embody our most immediate reality. It is in the ordinary, then, where we should look for the extraordinary. Ordinary invisible clothes that allow us to subvert language practices that make visible our own familiar and beautifully special multilingual worlds.