The dead end of a railway line. Photo: VaikooveryHall et al (2011, pp.4-14) list ten 'dead ends'; mistaken ways of thinking about languages, their uses and their users. Some of these dead ends are integral to public discourse about language in the UK (and elsewhere). Specifically, that:
- some groups of people don't use their language properly
- languages exist independently of users and uses
- a nation has, or should have, one language
- languages get contaminated by influence from other languages
- some people speak their language without an accent
- written language is superior to spoken language
'Dead end' thinking about language makes no sense linguistically, but is alive and well in my workplace; a UK university where I support international students with English as an additional language. In confronting these dead ends, I face some difficult questions.
One question relates to students who speak a variety of English which is not well understood here (and have difficulty understanding local varieties of English too). I have tried to help some of these students develop an awareness of local pronunciation so that (a) they can understand it better and (b) – if they choose – can adopt it to a certain extent (depending on a range of variables such as age, motivation and cross-linguistic influence from their own variety of English and the other languages they speak) in order to become better understood locally.
I’ve found this approach is productive in terms of their listening skills, but not always in terms of their pronunciation. I am also aware of the possible dangers of suggesting that students change their own pronunciation. Firstly, such changes may not be possible (because of cognitive, social and linguistic variables such as the ones mentioned above). Secondly, my students may begin to feel worse about their English and be therefore less likely to want to use English in class or socially (linguistic insecurity). Thirdly, the responsibility of local students to work towards mutual understanding by broadening their own awareness of different varieties of English, and by monitoring their own talk for intelligibility, is downplayed.
Dead end, dead shot. Photo: Dave CrokerThese difficult questions require sensitive discussion with each individual student I see – raising their awareness of their own and others' varieties of English, and of how understanding is achieved in multilingual environment(s). I also need to find ways of letting my students know about the prevalence of 'dead end' thinking about language, and how this thinking relates to how they may be either judged and/or have certain identities assigned to them by their teachers and peers.
The institution-specific effects of Hall et al's (2011) dead end thinking on international students in UK universities, and possible solutions to the problems that arise as a result of this thinking, are in need of more research. Without such small-scale 'real world' research, 'language support' services risk reinforcing dead end thinking, thus damaging the prospects of the very students they have been set up to help, as well as failing to take the opportunity to help local students benefit from their 'internationalised' Higher Education experience.
Hall, C. J., Smith, P. H. & Wicaksono, R. (2011). Mapping applied linguistics: A guide for students and practitioners. London and New York: Routledge