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: albert.weideman@ufs.ac.za.

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
kf289@cam.ac.uk

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.

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!

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.

A Glimpse Into The Complexity of Identity and Interaction in Language Education

This month we published The Complexity of Identity and Interaction in Language Education edited by Nathanael Rudolph, Ali Fuad Selvi and Bedrettin Yazan. In this post Nathanael introduces the main themes of his book.

This book is premised on the idea that the dynamic negotiation of identity and community membership is a negotiation of positionality: of who individuals, and others around them, “are/are not,” and “can” and/or “should” be or become. Language education is inseparable from these negotiations, shaping and shaped by contextualized, sociohistorical notions of “truth,” “correctness,” “normativity,” “value,” and “change.” In other words, language education can impose, perpetuate, problematize, challenge, and reify dominant, essentialized, and idealized ways of being and belonging, which create, limit, and eliminate space for diversity.

Critical dialogue in language education (purportedly) seeks to account for the complexity of negotiated identity and interaction characterizing communities and classrooms therein, as well as to address manifested privilege-marginalization that stakeholders encounter in their negotiations of being and belonging. There is no doubt, however, that “criticality” is far from uniform, as it is also a site of ideological struggle over how diversity, (in)equity and inclusivity are imagined and attended to. There are competing conceptualizations of privilege-marginalization, for example: what they are, who experiences them and how, where, and why, and how inequity might be addressed. This is important to understand, as these differences affect the meaning scholars pour into (and how they interpret) terms and concepts relating to interaction, such as “translanguaging”: what it “is,” why and how it might be valued, and who can, should and does engage in it.

We have noticed that critical scholarship pertaining to language education generally concerns itself with problematizing essentialized and idealized nativeness in a particular language (e.g. English), and that such work generally explicitly and implicitly presumes that identity, experience, knowledge, and skills can and should be apprehended categorically (e.g. “native”/“non-native”; “local non-native”/ “non-local [other]”). The majority of such work is detached from broader communal negotiations of identity and interaction, and the transdisciplinary scholarship and social movements which have documented such negotiations, however, leaving a) the contextualized, sociohistorical, local-global origin and nature of such idealized nativeness partially or wholly unaccounted for and unaddressed, and b) the voices of individuals whose identities and experiences transcend such categories, marginalized or silenced.

In our call for proposals and throughout the editing process, we encouraged contributors to envision a criticality that is, “academically transdisciplinary, decentralized, sociohistorically contextualized and connected to the community in which it is situated, and for one that prompts individuals toward self-reflexive attention to positionality; to what frames our seeing (Lather, 1993)” (Rudolph, 2019a: 105). We couldn’t have been happier with, or more inspired by, what resulted.

In Chapter 1, for example, Syed Abdul Manan, Maya Khemlani David, Liaquat Ali Channa, and Francisco Perlas Dumanig, examine English-only language policies and practices in Pakistan, which neglect the pluri- and translingual complexity of society and marginalize the identities of teachers and students. Meike Wernicke (Chapter 2) explores how ‘nonfrancophone’ teachers of French in Canada negotiate personal-professional identity when wrestling with essentialized and idealized notions of nativeness in their workplaces. In Chapter 7, Naashia Mohamed shares a Maldivian teacher’s lived experiences negotiating positionality in the Maldives, during her transition from English teacher to a university instructor of Dhivehi, the national language. Naashia discusses how her participant, Hawwa, initially feels relegated to a second-class occupation, experiences a shift in how she views the role and value of Dhivehi and herself as a professional. April Salerno and Elena Andrei (Chapter 8) present a dialoguing framework for teachers and language teacher educators to explore their language identities and how those identities shape their language-teaching practices, with a focus on their experiences as self-described bilingual (Romanian and English) teacher educators. In Chapter 13, Sarah Hopkyns explores Emirati university students’ lived experiences negotiating positionality as speakers of Arabic and English within their families, schools, and in Emirati society at large.

We hope readers are inspired by the volume! For those interested in exploring the themes more, please feel free to contact Nathanael Rudolph at nrudolph@kindai.ac.jp.

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.

Exploring Usage-Based Approaches to Language Learning

We recently published Usage-Based Dynamics in Second Language Development edited by Wander Lowie, Marije Michel, Audrey Rousse-Malpat, Merel Keijzer and Rasmus Steinkrauss. In this post Wander explains the inspiration behind the book.

To the best of our knowledge, there is no single theory in applied linguistics that denies the role of input for language learning. Without input, as a source of frequent systematicity and a rich variety of language exemplars, children will not acquire their mother tongue (L1) and adults will not learn a second language (L2). It is on these premises of frequency, systematicity, richness and variety that usage-based approaches attempt to explain the exciting path of language learning. In this book, we take these constructs as a starting point to explore the many avenues of usage-based approaches to language acquisition, with a focus on L2 learning. Grounded in complex dynamic systems theory (CDST), the different chapters showcase how second language researchers investigate language learning from many different angles using a variety of methods for lab-based studies, for classroom interventions and to explore language learning in the wild. The volume thus clearly shows the many different research questions that benefit from usage-based approaches to language learning.

The home of the editors, Groningen University in the Netherlands, has been a centre for CDST-inspired L2 research for quite some time, generating cutting-edge publications from such a CDST perspective. This book forms a natural contribution to this line of research while at the same time being a celebration of the legacy of Marjolijn Verspoor, who has been a driving force behind the Dynamic Usage-Based approach in second language acquisition (SLA) research. Contributors to the edited volume have all been fortunate enough to be influenced by Marjolijn in some way: from her source of inspiration as a theorist, via long-standing colleagues and fellow pioneers within CDST – starting in times when generativists ruled the field of linguistics – and mid-career faculty presenting state-of-the-art methodologies, to young researchers that were formed by her as MA students or graduated under her supervision, as well as language teaching colleagues in the department who, inspired by her, implemented usage-based pedagogy in their classrooms.

We are particularly proud that the edited collection covers the wide variety of usage-based work, painting the dynamic picture of this field of SLA research in all its facets and, moreover, by colleagues at different career stages. Authors studied different source and target languages (e.g., Chinese, English, French, Spanish, Russian), explored language learning in instructed settings of adolescents in high-school as well as young adults at university, or even naturalistic contexts beyond the confines of instruction, for example in social media. Using quantitative, qualitative and mixed-methods approaches, the research collected in this volume investigates both oral and written language development, both cross-sectionally but also adopting a longitudinal perspective where learners are followed over several years.

The result is a colourful illustration and celebration of the dynamic trajectory of usage-based research into second language development, building on the legacy of eminent scholars, such as Marjolijn Verspoor, while at the same time paving the way for a bright future of CDST-inspired classroom implementations.

For information, please contact Wander Lowie: w.m.lowie@rug.nl

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Profiling Learner Language as a Dynamic System edited by ZhaoHong Han.

Behind the Books: Learning and Not Learning in the Heritage Language Classroom

Kimberly Adilia Helmer speaks about her new book Learning and Not Learning in the Heritage Language Classroom with Mark Amengual.

Learning and Not Learning in the Heritage Language Classroom is available now on our website. Enter the code BTB30 at the checkout to get 30% off!

Behind the Books: Dual Language Bilingual Education

Kathryn I. Henderson and Deborah K. Palmer have produced a series of videos for our Behind the Books series in which they discuss a variety of issues raised in their recently-published book Dual Language Bilingual Education, including critical consciousness in dual language bilingual education, tensions between bilingual education and monolingual accountability systems and multiple and contradictory ideologies in dual language. You can watch the first video below and the rest can be found in the Behind the Books playlist on our YouTube channel.

Dual Language Bilingual Education is available now on our website. Get 30% off with code BTB30.