TESOL at 41, SIT at 42

World Learning International Center, Brattleboro, Vermont

SIT celebrated its 40th anniversary a couple years ago. A year TESOL Quarterlylater TESOL, a professional association of English language teachers, did the same. Both organizations honored their founders, continued their leadership, and restated their missions as nonprofit entities.

One thing TESOL did was ask the editor of their A. Suresh Canagarajahscholarly journal to make a statement about the status of the field of English language teaching. The article by A. Suresh Canagarajah (right), from March 2006, is a useful snapshot of this time in the profession’s history.

My own view of the profession comes from attending conferences of language teachers for many years. Listening to alumni, attending presentations, even gleaning from participants of my own presentations, I also have a sense of the profession, but from a different perspective than a scholar’s.

That said there is one thing I really like about the article and another I question. This like and dislike comes from the editor’s speaking clearly and directly to my values, identity, and experience, among the most basic parts of who I understand myself to be.

In Canagarajah’s (2006) assessment of the state of the profession, what I find missing is expansion of Larsen-Freeman’s (1999) hope that SLA theorists move away from territoriality toward pluralism. A step beyond even that, in fact, is my own hope that pluralistic SLA theorists would begin to acknowledge the language-learning field beyond the teaching of English to speakers of other languages. European inclusion of multiple languages into research of second language acquisition (SLA) seems to be present in scholarly writings published by IATEFL and its regional affiliates, but not those published by TESOL. Interestingly, academic writing published by language affiliates of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (Spanish and Portuguese, French, German, etc.) borrow readily from TESOL-focused SLA research. That is, the language learning they wish to enhance does not bind their study of SLA or vice versa. Pluralism, effective communication, and global perspectives are where I live and work, everyday.

Reflecting geography and history, Europe and the United States are moving in different directions. Europe is well positioned to excel in theories’ applications to the learning of any language, but is slowed by traditions of research methods, publication strictures, and teacher consumption. The U.S. is held back by its English-only debate and cannot accelerate in spite of the significant percentage of resident foreign language speakers, centuries of non-English speaking immigration, and willful ignorance of the French and Spanish speakers across its national borders.

There are other models, thank goodness. I think of Ontario (Canada), India, Singapore, and, more recently, Britain, as having public policies informed by their English Nextcitizens speaking – and needing to study – more than one language. Likewise, their public discourses consider multiple languages a normal and desirable thing. While I don’t have first-hand knowledge of academic research related to SLA in these places, I expect it is moving in inclusive and pluralistic directions. Inspired by Graddol’s English Next (2006), I find his research and predictions consistent with my own sense of the place of English in the world. I would like to watch this phenomenon more closely and welcome comments and challenges from peers.

Similarly, Canagarajah’s survey of the field at forty includes World Englishes. For me this signals a journey in the right direction. Taking a step above the learning of English to examine its place in the world is a good move. I’m glad he included it (and that he credits Brown (1999) with his mention in the 25th anniversary survey).

Tibetans learn Chinese. Mayans learn Spanish. Kurds learn Arabic, Turkish, or Farsi. Consider the Karin, Chechnians, and Ainu. What is the value of also speaking English for members of these groups? They must learn the dominant regional language to participate effectively in their region or nation. It’s expedient, if distasteful. For them to also learn English enables them to interact directly with the rest of the world. It is as important for the world to hear their story without the intermediacy of their region’s dominant language. World Englishes also invites monolingual English speakers to hear voices other than their own. Adding English benefits everyone. When it happens – if it happens – it will come not a moment too soon.

I’m glad someone of his personal history investigates the teaching and learning of English. While Canagarajah concludes with the importance of the journey and not its destination – who would disagree? – I prefer a focus on identity. If language is for self-expression, then surely identity formed in one language and expressed in another enhances speaker and listener, writer and reader. If in English, the whole world benefits.

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