Representing Ethnographic Research as Drama

This month we published Interpretations – An Ethnographic Drama by Adrian Blackledge and Angela Creese. In this post the authors explain why they chose to present their research as a play script.

Interpretations – An Ethnographic Drama is an outcome of a large, team linguistic ethnographic research project, Translation and Translanguaging: Investigating linguistic and cultural transformations in superdiverse wards in four UK cities (TLANG). As part of the research project we conducted ethnographic observations in an Advice and Advocacy service in a Chinese community centre in a city in the Midlands of England. We were interested in people’s communicative practices in a context where clients needed help to negotiate bureaucratic systems related to welfare benefits, health, education, insurance, immigration status, and so on.

Following comprehensive analysis of data, we produced a rich, detailed research report. However, we were not convinced that academic writing alone was adequate for the task of representation of social practice. Although we are thoroughly invested in the tradition of writing ethnography, we recognise a need to reach beyond its limitations. With this in mind, we chose to represent the life of the Advice and Advocacy service as Interpretations – An Ethnographic Drama, which takes an arts-based approach to the representation of research outcomes.

In linguistic ethnography we typically observe, and ultimately explain, the lives of others. But we wanted to move beyond explanation of cultural life, which can be reductive. We chose to represent the social practices of the Chinese community centre as ethnographic drama because it is a form which by definition resists explanation. It was not our intention to explain or make meaningful the lives of Chinese or Chinese-heritage people in the UK. We were instead concerned with all aspects of communication.

The community centre proved to be a rich site at which to observe the communicative practices with which advice workers render the world more just for their clients. We peered into the hidden spaces where, day after day, mediation, translation, and interpretation enable those with limited capital to gain access to resources which are otherwise elusive, and often out of reach. Through ethnographic drama we did not attempt to explain these cultural practices, but we made them visible.

Ethnographic drama enables us to show the complexities of interactions in which Advice and Advocacy workers are essential figures who keep the city moving. Beyond making social space more habitable, they have the potential to make life better for those who come to them for help. In our observation of the advisors’ practice, more than anything we see people concerned to improve the lives of their clients. In the nooks and crannies of social life they keep the superdiverse city moving. In showing the world rather than telling it, ethnographic drama offers a representation of social life that has the potential to enhance, heighten, and expand understanding, and to bring ethnography to wider audiences.

We are very grateful to Mutlilingual Matters for their generosity and vision in enabling us to take off creatively, turning field notes, transcripts, and other ethnographic material into drama that shows communicative practice in an often-concealed part of social life in the superdiverse city.

For more information about this book please see our website

If you found this interesting, you might also like the authors’ previous book, Voices of a City Market

The Unique Challenges of Language Education in South Africa

This month we published Assessing Academic Literacy in a Multilingual Society edited by Albert Weideman, John Read and Theo du Plessis. In this post the editors describe the unique challenges of language education in South Africa and the value the book will hold for a wider audience.

How do language testers respond to the challenges of education in an environment that is in transition, and in many respects unprepared for change? The short answer is that they do so as language testers in most environments would: as responsibly as they can, using the professional tools at their disposal.

South Africa is not alone in respect of the challenges thrown up by rapid massification of higher education since the last decade of the previous century. South Africa’s transition, however, was different from the challenges of massification elsewhere: it was complicated by the difficulties to move from an unjust system to a constitutional democracy. Its past considerably inhibited what needed to be remedied. That was not the only complication: there was also the constitutionally enshrined multilingual character of the country. A third difficulty lay in the degree of preparedness of new students arriving at university to handle the demands of academic language. How, in such a case, does one first identify, and then provide opportunities for language development to those who need it most? Once again, South Africa is not alone in noting that too low a level of academic literacy may be detrimental for the successful completion of a degree. Enough challenges, one would say, for a whole lifetime of work if you’re an applied linguist.

A quarter of a century on, we have now taken stock of the professional response of applied linguists to its transition, and this book is the outcome. The responses of our applied linguists may in certain respects be different from those in other environments, so it is a pity that the international language testing community still knows too little about how these challenges have been tackled. Indeed, the format and content of the innovative solutions of South African applied linguists to these large-scale language problems are noteworthy. Described in Assessing Academic Literacy in a Multilingual Society, their solutions offer several new insights into how they set about designing them, and are well worth a look.

Unsurprisingly, in an effort to identify and tackle the challenges early, the professional attention of language testers soon turned to the education sector that feeds into higher education: the school system. Here, too, there are language solutions that will interest a wider audience. Fortunately, the professional efforts of applied linguists in South Africa have been well recorded, though thus far mostly locally. This book offers a selection of the most significant innovations in conceptualization and design for the attention of a global readership.

In compiling a volume about language assessment at university level, co-editor John Read was the first international scholar to notice the lack of attention to the designs described in this book, and he was also the first to propose putting all of this together. His diligence and professional approach are evident in the content of the book.

We would welcome enquiries and discussion with colleagues. If you have an observation or an idea to share, please contact the corresponding editor, Albert Weideman:

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like The Linguistic Landscape of Post-Apartheid South Africa by Liesel Hibbert.

Does Complexity Research Have To Be Complicated?

We recently published Complexity Perspectives on Researching Language Learner and Teacher Psychology edited by Richard J. Sampson and Richard S. Pinner. In this post the editors explain how their conviction that complexity should be simple inspired the book.

What makes learners and teachers in additional language classrooms tick? How does this ticking change over time? And in what ways does the ticking coalesce with that of others? In a nutshell, this volume looks at how we can explore such questions. Of course, the ‘ticking’ is psychology, and we are talking about how people have been researching the dynamics of L2 learner and teacher psychology through the lens of complexity thinking.

One of the points of departure for this book was an encounter we had at a café in Toyama, Japan, a number of years ago. Before heading to a symposium at the local university, over coffee we started discussing complexity, and a tendency in published work towards being overly-technical and elitist. Both of us had written books in which we approached our own research from a complexity perspective, and we thought, “If we could do it, surely it can’t be that complicated!” We also shared our observations of discussions with various colleagues, through which we had noticed consternation at the mere mention of ‘complexity’. Not only fellow teachers but also researchers seemed to find complexity research horrifying, alienating, confounding.

Complexity is ubiquitous in everyday life, not least of all in our classrooms as we engage with our students in learning, teaching and researching. Complexity perspectives understand that it is through co-adaptive interactions over time that novel phenomena emerge, phenomena that could not have been predicted based on consideration of any one element alone and out of context. These ways of thinking provide a set of tools to describe in a more contextualized and dynamic fashion things observed in our practice for a long time. They also furnish a reminder of why research that reduces and separates has little relevance for those of us who interact with real people in real classroom environments. Yet, there seemed a danger of complexity being lost as an academic fad. We were keenly aware that there needed to be more research using complexity perspectives to look at what goes on inside the language learning classroom.

To this end, we decided to organize a symposium on complexity at the biennial Psychology of Language Learning conference which was to be held the following year in Tokyo. Our idea was that ‘complexity should be simple’, and we were out to show the world (or the few people we predicted might come to our symposium) the usefulness of this way of thinking and doing research. Amidst inviting speakers, one colleague suggested that an edited volume along the same lines might be well received.

We wrote a call for chapter proposals, and spent a good part of the conference chatting with people to encourage them to add to our collection. We asked our contributors to open a window on how they use complexity in real research. We wanted them to show readers what the complexity paradigm offers, how it is useful for making sense of the lived realities of the psychological and social human-beings in our classrooms. The authors who have contributed to this volume have done an incredible job of doing just this, looking at a variety of psychological dimensions. And what we noticed, both through the enthusiastic participation of the many who ended up attending our humble symposium, and in the weeks and months following as we crafted this collection together, was an atmosphere along the lines of, “It’s high time for this!” We hope you agree!

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Research Methods for Complexity Theory in Applied Linguistics by Phil Hiver and Ali H. Al-Hoorie.

Can Learning a Foreign Language in School Really Make you a Better Writer in Your First Language?

This month we published Cross-Linguistic Transfer of Writing Strategies by Karen Forbes. In this post the author explains the inspiration behind the book.

-I’m really bad at languages.

-What makes you say that? You speak English really well, so you’re already a really good language learner!

-No, but English doesn’t count, it’s not a language like French is. It doesn’t have, like, verbs and tenses and stuff like French does.

The above conversation is one I had many years ago with a new Year 7 student when I was teaching languages in a secondary school in England and it has always stuck with me. It’s just one example from the many conversations and experiences I’ve had over the years as a language learner, teacher and then researcher which have really made me reflect on the position of ‘language’ more broadly within the school curriculum. There’s something interesting here about this student’s perception and awareness of language – if he doesn’t view his mother tongue as a ‘language’, then it may be difficult for him to make connections with other languages. There is then a related question about the respective approaches and priorities of first language and foreign language teachers in schools.

These two subject areas are often based in separate departments and the teachers will understandably take very different approaches to teaching their respective languages. Yet, given that both have a shared focus on developing important language skills, there are perhaps opportunities to encourage more joined-up thinking and collaboration between language teachers. We tend to think more about how students draw on their first language as a resource in the foreign language classroom (or indeed, how the first language may even hinder foreign language learning), but how can the skills and strategies explicitly developed in the foreign language classroom, in turn, help learners in their first language?

These are some of the key questions which formed the starting point for the research study at the heart of this book. It focuses on language learning strategies and, in particular, the development of writing strategies. It explores how even beginner or low proficiency adolescent language learners can develop effective skills and strategies in the foreign classroom which can also positively influence writing in other languages, including their first language. At a theoretical level, it is hoped that this book will shed light on our understanding of the construct of cross-linguistic transfer between a learner’s first language and foreign language writing strategies. However, pedagogical implications are also important here and, as such, a step-by-step guide is provided for developing and implementing a cross-linguistic programme of language learning strategy instruction.

Karen Forbes
Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Crosslinguistic Influence and Distinctive Patterns of Language Learning edited by Anne Golden, Scott Jarvis and Kari Tenfjord. 

DMC Theory and Long-Term Motivation

We recently published Directed Motivational Currents and Language Education by Christine Muir. In this post the author introduces and explains DMC theory and the lessons we can learn from it. 

It’s not always easy to stay motivated. During these unprecedented times, as we face up to the continuation and consequences of the global pandemic, it may be more important than ever to look to the future and continue working towards achieving our long-term goals. However, for many, it may also be more difficult than ever to be able to do so. In some respects, it feels like a strange time to be discussing such a uniquely positive and energising motivational construct as directed motivational currents (DMCs). A motivational experience characterised by the feeling of being wholly caught up and carried forwards by a current of motivation in a seemingly effortless process of goal pursuit. 

A little while ago I was invited to give the keynote talk at the fourth annual Languages, Texts and Society conference. In discussing the content of my talk with the organisers – LTS is both run by and organised for postgraduate and early career researchers (PGRs) – I was asked exactly this ‘million-dollar question’: perhaps, the organisers asked, you could include ‘some thoughts on fostering individual DMCs, especially in the context of PGRs trying to operate in the current climate. I appreciate it might be unfair to put you on the spot, but perhaps we can work down from that idea’. So, hardly any pressure at all…

The area of DMC theory that has continued to be the most compelling for me personally has, however, been rooted in exactly this issue: is it possible to translate the underpinning principles of DMC theory into sound pedagogic practice? Is it possible to design our instruction in such a way that students might experience this distinct type of motivational outpouring?

None of the attendees of the LTS conference were, to my knowledge, currently experiencing a DMC, yet we reflected together on lessons DMC theory might provide to help reinvigorate flagging motivational reserves. For example, we discussed the relevance of self concordant goals, goals that tap directly into the core of who we really are, and the eudaimonic wellbeing we can feel in striving to achieve them (the experience of which is a hallmark of all DMC experiences). We discussed the importance of affirmative feedback, a structural feature of DMCs key to maintaining the current of motivation over time, and so therefore of looking backwards as well as forwards to recognise how far we’ve already come in our goal striving.

DMC theory certainly cannot offer a ‘magic bullet’. Yet, the positioning of DMCs as representing a perfect form of long-term approach motivation facilitates not only the potential for pedagogic innovation via intensive group projects (one area of focus in Directed Motivational Currents and Language Education), but also a framework able to facilitate the investigation of other aspects of long-term motivation. Long-term motivation is a broad, fascinating and important area of scholarship that has, to date, received remarkably scant research attention.

The empirical findings presented in Directed Motivational Currents and Language Education, and the areas for future research foregrounded – for example links with study abroad, and the emergent evidence indicating potential lasting positive effects from DMC experiences – give strong support for the argument that this is an area of research with a significant amount to offer.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Motivational Dynamics in Language Learning edited by Zoltán Dörnyei, Peter D. MacIntyre and Alastair Henry.

Small Stories: A Research Methodology To Work With Migrant Young People and Children

This month we published The Multilingual Adolescent Experience by Malgorzata Machowska-Kosciak. In this post the author explains ‘small stories’ as a research methodology.

‘Small stories’ as a methodological framework enable prioritizing children’s and young people’s lived experience; it is placing their voice at the very forefront of a research process. Not only does it facilitate expression of migrant children’s voices but also facilitates incorporating their authentic lived experiences in the educational research. It brings together Laura Lundy’s model (2007) as it provides young people and children with affordances to express their views (Space), facilitates the expression of their views (Voice), creates opportunities for their voices to be listened to (Audience) and have their views acted upon (Influence). Thus, it goes hand in hand with the Children’s Rights framework.

What are “Small Stories”?

The term “small story” was first coined by Alexandra Georgakopoulou and is defined as “Small incidents that may (or may not) have happened, mentioned to back up or elaborate on an argumentative point occurring in an ongoing conversation” (2007:5).

Small stories that are presented in this book are more than narratives as they are combinations of saying–doing–being–valuing and believing. They become safe spaces where children’s identity work takes place.

Children’s small stories presented in the book were often constructed by co-participants (including the researcher), but more frequently they were spontaneously initiated by the young participants. Threads from these stories were very important to children as fragments of these stories recurrently appeared in their narratives, whenever the chance to talk about them occurred. They included events from the distant past “dead relatives” or more recent past “ I talk with more grown-up voice”, or were concerned with retrospective accounts of different situations “going to the pub”, generalizations “they have only one dance”, assessments of or justifications for particular behaviours “pack of lies” or choices. They sometimes signalled what role children were playing within the particular group (peers, heritage schools), how they positioned themselves within that group and, most importantly, how they exercised their agency, the choices they made and the plans they had for their future, thus, their own voice is central in the research process and the researcher becomes the new apprentice in the discovery process.

For more information about this book please see our website

If you found this interesting, you might also like Learning and Not Learning in the Heritage Language Classroom by Kimberly Adilia Helmer.

Behind the Books: Language, Culture and Identity in Two Chinese Community Schools

Sara Ganassin speaks to Prue Holmes about her new book Language, Culture and Identity in Two Chinese Community Schools: More than One Way of Being Chinese?.

Language, Culture and Identity in Two Chinese Community Schools is available now on our website. Enter the code BTB30 at the checkout to get 30% off!

Why Do We Create Prescriptive Boundaries for Language?

We recently published Language Prescription edited by Don Chapman and Jacob D. Rawlins. In this post the editors explain why we create prescriptive boundaries and whether or not this is a problem.

Most people have some opinion on how language should be used. Language blogs, comment sections, letters to the editor, and daily interactions among people show a deep concern for evaluating, commenting on, and prescribing language. Part of the urge to define a “correct” or “standard” language lies in the fact that language is intertwined with our identity and experience; as humans, we can’t help evaluating and assigning moral judgment on how language is used.

Because language and identity are connected, we create prescriptive boundaries around our own form of the language. This not only helps us define and refine our own identities, but it also gives us a clear tool for distinguishing which people are connected with us by social group, education, race, nationality, and so on. The problem with this view of language is that it tends to be described in broad, binary terms that are applied not only to language, but to the people using the language. Language (and the people who use it) is either correct or incorrect, good or bad, and there is little room for allowing coequal language variations.

Many linguists have dismissed a prescriptive approach to language precisely because of this binary and limited approach to language. However, in the past couple of decades, an increasing number of linguists have begun to engage with language prescriptivism (as represented in usage guides, style manuals, public policies, and popular opinion) as an integral part of language use and development. This engagement leads to a deeper, more nuanced conversation about language, one that recognizes the importance of language to individual identity while still confronting the many binaries surrounding a prescriptive approach to language.

In the new volume Language Prescription, a group of international scholars address the individual and societal values we associate with language, examine the real effect of prescriptive approaches to language on government policies, and directly confront the binary of prescriptivism vs. descriptivism in language studies. This volume provides an important foundation for additional research into how people throughout the world evaluate and attempt to control language variants.

For more information about this book please see our website

If you found this interesting, you might also like Prescription and Tradition in Language edited by Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade and Carol Percy.

Q&A with Clare Mar-Molinero, Editor of “Researching Language in Superdiverse Urban Contexts”

We recently published Researching Language in Superdiverse Urban Contexts edited by Clare Mar-Molinero. In this post the editor answers some questions about her research and the inspiration behind the book.

How did you become interested in this field of study?

As a sociolinguist I’ve always been interested in multilingualism and its impact on society but initially I studied this through my interests in the Spanish-speaking world. More recently, however, and inspired by the work of people such as Jan Blommaert, Ben Rampton, Adrian Blackledge and Angela Creese, amongst many others, I started to think more about the impact of migration to urban centres particularly, and also realized that there was much to explore and investigate on my own doorstep in Southampton.

What was the initial inspiration for the book?

This book continues this focus on multilingualism, migration and urban contexts but shifts my emphasis to the research methods we use to explore these. A conference at the University of Southampton that I organized (funded by the MEITS/OWRI/AHRC) invited contributions and discussion round these themes and paved the foundations for the book’s chapters.

As you compiled your book, did anything in the research particularly surprise or intrigue you?

As the contributions developed it became very clear that there was a strong consensus and focus from all of us on the growing understanding of translanguaging, the importance of (self) reflexivity as researchers, the multi-modality of linguistic communication (and therefore the usefulness of linguistic landscapes) and the core role of the researcher-researched relationship.

What is your next research project?

I am hoping in the medium term to consolidate many years of working with Mexican academics (many as former PhD students) to put together a volume discussing language policies in Mexico – the role of global English, of neoliberal education policy (or the current AMLO regime’s claim to move away from this), the integration of returnee migrants and their language practices, the recognition (or not) of the indigenous languages, and how this all varies hugely across a very large and diverse country, with the ever-present dominating shadow of their US neighbor.

I also continue to have a strong urge to explore and research the challenges of multilingual practices in contemporary football: How is it managed? What issues does it present? What wider lessons does the phenomenon tell us about how multilinguals work together, etc etc. I have tried to study this with our local premiership team, with various false starts, as access for the researcher is difficult and often impossible, not helped by the constant changing circumstances of owners, players and managers, all of different nationalities, coming and going.

What books – either for work or for pleasure – are you reading at the moment?

I’ve indulged my love of magical realism and read Isabel Allende’s latest novel, A Long Petal of the Sea, which also centers round other of my passions: the Spanish Civil War and the Pinochet era in Chile. It turned out not to be one of her more magical realist novels, but gripping nonetheless. I’m also struggling to read Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, which should tick many of my interest boxes: travelling across the US, the scandal of the US immigrations treatment of Latin American migrant children, an interest in ‘soundscapes’, etc, etc. Despite many rave reviews, I’m finding it hard going, though, and maybe over self-conscious.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Learning and Using Languages in Ethnographic Research edited by Robert Gibb, Annabel Tremlett and Julien Danero Iglesias.

The Perks and Perils of Peer Interaction: Creating a Classroom Where Linguistic and Social Aims Align

This month we published (Re)defining Success in Language Learning by Katie A. Bernstein. In this post the author explains the “double obligations” of peer interaction at school and how they can be turned into double opportunities.

Interaction is a critical part of learning a new language. It provides input in the new language, as well as chances to practice producing that language. For young language learners (emergent bilinguals), peer interaction is particularly important to this learning.

Peer interaction is also where young children construct their social worlds, navigating friendships and identities as students and playmates. For emergent bilingual students, peer interaction is therefore what Shoshana Blum-Kulka and colleagues (2004) called a “double opportunity space”: a place to learn language and a place to create social relationships.

But, as I explore in my new book, (Re)Defining Success in Language Learning, those double opportunities also mean double obligations. For young emergent bilinguals, it is impossible to only use peer interaction for language learning without simultaneously having to attend to the social consequences of those interactions.

The story of four-year-old Kritika, one of the students at the center of the book, illustrates the tensions this double obligation can produce. Kritika was a Nepali speaker learning English in a US prekindergarten. At the start of school, she quickly earned a classroom identity as a competent and authoritative playmate and student. (To find out exactly how she used all her communicative resources to do this, you’ll have to check out the book!) However, across the school year, Kritika made many fewer gains in vocabulary and syntax than some of her less socially and academically successful peers. I found that, for Kritika, the double obligation of peer interaction produced a double bind: Maintaining a social identity as a competent student and playmate was, as Philp and Duchesne (2008) put it, “at cross purposes” with taking the kinds of linguistic risks in interaction that support language learning.

Other researchers have also noticed this double-obligation at work. Rymes and Pash (2001) noted it for a first grader in their study, Rene, who was from Costa Rica and learning English in a US school. When Rene arrived in the school, he carefully mimicked his peers’ actions to establish a social identity as a competent student. But Rene then avoided wrestling productively with content or tricky language, so as not to “blow his cover”. Cekaite (2017) noticed a similar pattern with seven-year-old, Nok, a Thai speaker learning Swedish in school in Sweden. Nok was willing to take language risks with teachers but tried to stick to language she was confident using when talking with classmates. This strategy helped her look competent, but it also meant missing out on language learning.

What role do teachers play in creating this double bind? While teachers aren’t the only socializing force in classrooms, they are powerful shapers of the status quo. In Kritika’s classroom, her teachers often made comments connecting English to other social skills. For instance, one day, when a young emergent bilingual student named Maiya grabbed a toy from an English speaker, the teacher explained to the toy-snatching victim: ‘Maiya doesn’t speak English too good yet, so we’re gonna help her. Say, “Here, let’s share.”’ While the teacher likely meant to help the English speaker build patience and empathy for his peer, her comment also served to equate language learning with struggling socially.

So, how can teachers create classrooms where struggling with language learning doesn’t equal social and academic struggle, but is considered productive and positive?

Two ways to start:

1) Elevate the status of language learning and multilingualism: Talk about how special it is that emergent bilingual students are on their way to knowing two (or more) languages. Ask them to teach some of their languages to the class. Validate and praise students for taking linguistic risks – both emergent bilingual students and students who try out what their emergent bilingual peers are teaching the class.

2) Model productive language struggle: Work on learning the languages of the students in your class. If you already know the home language of most of your students (say, Spanish), work on learning other languages (Maya, Mam, Arabic, Somali). Model legitimate not-knowing. Model being OK with discomfort. Ask students for help. Make public mistakes and be publicly proud when those mistakes lead to learning.

It is within teachers’ power to create a classroom where peer interaction is truly a double opportunity and linguistic and social aims aren’t “at cross purposes.” Creating such a space is one key piece of supporting emergent bilingual students’ learning.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Using Linguistically Appropriate Practice by Roma Chumak-Horbatsch.