Vulnerabilities, Challenges and Risks in Applied Linguistics

We recently published Vulnerabilities, Challenges and Risks in Applied Linguistics edited by Clare Cunningham and Christopher J. Hall. In this post Clare explains how the book came about, as well as its main themes.

Our new edited book Vulnerabilities, Challenges and Risks in Applied Linguistics was born out of the 2018 BAAL meeting held at York St John University. The theme was Taking Risks in Applied Linguistics, chosen in recognition of the need for focused discussion of risk in applied linguistics, given rapid change and consequent uncertainty both in world affairs and in the discipline itself. As we worked more on the book, though, it became clear that the theme of ‘risk’ often spilled over into the semantically related fields of ‘vulnerabilities’ and ‘challenges’. In the end, the contributors all approach the concepts of vulnerability, challenge and risk in different ways, playing with the multiple and nuanced meanings of the words.

At various points in the collection, risk is construed as an individual matter – perhaps the potential physical or psychological risks taken in innovative or even dangerous research, such as Kate Barber’s. Risk-taking can also be face-threatening or offer the potential for reputational damage, perhaps in the classroom, as explored by Sal Consoli and Michael Hepworth. Within our discipline, it can be risky to approach one’s writing in truly innovative ways, as Hanna Ennser-Kananen and Taina Saarinen do in their chapter, taking a flight of the imagination in Finland. But risk-taking is also institutional, in curriculum policy developments such as Liana Konstantinidou and Ursula Lanvers’ chapter. The risks of taking positive action such as these can be set in contrast to the risks of inaction, of not moving with the times, as Ursula Lanvers’ work on language policy in Anglophone countries shows.

The concept of vulnerability runs alongside these risks throughout the book. Individual researchers and teachers in applied linguistics make themselves vulnerable through innovative research design producing groundbreaking work as a result. But following Judith Butler’s lead, there is a tendency throughout the collection to acknowledge the value and affordances of vulnerabilities in marginalised communities for kick-starting the action and the work that leads to social change, as seen as Helen Sauntson’s, Luz Murillo’s, John Bosco Conama’s and Kristin Snoddon and Erin Wilkinson’s chapter.

The challenges faced in our society and for applied linguistics are well known – a lack of resources and of political will for change to deal with societal ‘wicked problems’. Applied Linguistics as a discipline also has the challenge of throwing off some of the shackles of the past and there remains much work to do to ensure that all voices are heard equally and respected. Of course, it was impossible for this collection to address all of the significant challenges of the future we face as a society. We only briefly (in our introduction) discuss the way the world has been affected by the Covid-19 global pandemic, and the even more pressing challenge of the climate emergency but we have hope that, with the examples of some of the fine research and practices in this book, our discipline is ready to offer what it can to tackle the impact of some of these immense challenges.

Clare Cunningham

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Decolonising Multilingualism by Alison Phipps.

Part 1: Foreign Language Anxiety is Like Fresh Snow

This month we published New Insights into Language Anxiety edited by Christina Gkonou, Mark Daubney and Jean-Marc Dewaele. In the first of three posts, one from each of the editors, Jean-Marc introduces his theory on language anxiety being like fresh snow.

You may have noticed them: foreign language students hunched behind the broad backs of their comrades, avoiding eye contact with the teacher in order not to be picked to say something in front of everybody and reluctantly whispering their response to a teacher’s question when cornered. No questionnaire is needed to identify these students as suffering from Foreign Language Anxiety (FLA).

This complex phenomenon has been linked to a range of higher order personality traits (mainly Neuroticism-Emotional Stability, Introversion-Extraversion or Social Initiative, and – to a lesser extent – also Psychoticism, Conscientiousness, Openmindedness, Cultural Empathy) and a number of lower-order personality traits or psychological dimensions (Trait Emotional Intelligence, Perfectionism, Trait anxiety, Unwillingness to communicate, Risk-taking, Sociability and Self-efficacy) (Dewaele, 2017). These factors interact with a range of sociobiographical and situational variables and cause FLA in reading, writing, listening and – especially – speaking the foreign language (FL). It is important for teachers and students to realise that FLA is not a massive, granite-like, unmovable object blocking the path to communication in the FL. I’d rather compare it to a thick layer of fresh snow.

It is possible to dig through the snow, to ski over it and some comfort can be drawn from the knowledge that it will melt after a while. This turns the teacher into a (metaphorical) FL ski instructor for anxious students. Yes, the snow is slippery and there can be icy patches but there are techniques to avoid obstacles, to accelerate or to brake and to reach one’s destination unharmed. Everybody falls over at some point along the way, but the snow is soft and there is little risk of breaking a limb at low speed. The instructor and peers will help those whose skis got entangled and ended up looking at the cumuli in the blue sky. Back on their feet and feeling the rush of fresh pine-scented air, discovering the breath-taking mountain views, the memories of the fall will fade quickly. Finally, reaching the destination with the rest of the group will be exhilarating and the sense of achievement will boost self-confidence for future runs.

In other words, a FL teacher can create a classroom atmosphere where mutual trust exists between teachers and students and between the students themselves. Good teaching combined with respect, humour and kindness can create a strong sense of solidarity among students, which will be a potent antidote against FLA.

Dewaele et al. (2017) found that FL teachers’ behaviour had relatively little influence on British secondary school students’ average levels of FLA but that it was strongly linked to students’ FL enjoyment. FL students who enjoy themselves are thus more likely to overcome their fears, just like the beginner on ski slopes. Those still experiencing FLA can be cajoled into more active participation in FL tasks they can handle. The first slopes should not be too steep and too anxiety-provoking. These anxious students will learn that it is possible to control their FLA to the point that is ceases to have a debilitating influence on their performance.

Jean-Marc Dewaele

References

Dewaele, J.-M. (2017) Psychological dimensions and foreign language anxiety. In S. Loewen & M. Sato (Eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Instructed Second Language Acquisition. London: Routledge, pp. 433-450.

Dewaele, J.-M., Witney, J., Saito, K. & Dewaele, L. (2017) Foreign language enjoyment and anxiety in the FL classroom: The effect of teacher and learner variables. Language Teaching Research DOI: 10.1177/1362168817692161

Positive Psychology in SLAGkonou, C., Daubney, M. & Dewaele, J.-M. (eds.) (2017) New Insights into Language Anxiety: Theory, Research and Educational Implications. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

For more information about this book, please see our website and keep an eye out for parts two and three from Jean-Marc’s co-editors. If you found this interesting, you might also like Positive Psychology in SLA edited by Peter D. MacIntyre, Tammy Gregersen and Sarah Mercer.