The field of Educational Linguistics, as I see it, is rich in complexities and filled with interesting insights and possibilities. However, something that I have tried to come to terms with recently is how the discipline resists to deal with the inversion of the field’s main query, i.e. the inversion of the question of English learning. For instance, what responsibility do privileged ESL teachers whose first language is English have in developing a second language themselves? Is this learning necessary to empathize with the progress of students?
Recent terminology used to describe language phenomena in large urban areas, which some refer to as “metrolingualism,” has been challenging what we define as language, how we sustain the meaning of multilingualism through specific ideological practices. For instance, to what extent can we claim that we speak one English, one Spanish, one German, one Swahili, one Hebrew, etc.? How does our language "react" as we transit through the many “universes” we inhabit (church, workplace, markets, etc.)? And finally, what would the repercussions for L2 literacy be departing from this layered theoretical focus?
What stands out as fascinating to me is how slippery meanings are across cultural spaces, which begs the question, are language education professionals — researchers and teachers alike — working with the same definition of language? If not, if we indeed work in approximations of meaning constantly disambiguated by dialogue, how can we maintain a common goal when defining the type of progressive second language education that we hope for?
Globalization has required greater mobility from us. The technology that has accompanied and enabled this mobility — namely the blending of the virtual and the physical spaces — pushes us towards confronting cultural realities brought about our innate differences at a rate not observed before. In the realms of education, translingualism, metrolingualism, linguicism, etc. have become commonplace terms that were born as we needed to find a common understanding of what difference provoked in us. As researchers strived to make sense of complex phenomena, it became clear that these very phenomena were entangled with researchers’ position at a personal level. These newly realized differences — things that in the past might have otherwise gone unnoticed — influence how we define belonging to the various communities through which we transit. And these communities and our very act of trafficking through them generate new linguistic expressions that reflect our ever-evolving circumstances and relationships. Thus, the recognition of our linguistic biodiversity can tell us much about differences within what would be considered the same language.
Yet, the many varieties of any language, say English, Spanish, Portuguese, etc. do exist as complete histories within themselves. The problem is our realization of these histories, which to the human senses cannot be completely accessible in their totality. At the precise moment that we theorize language history, of course, we risk closing their meaning by classifying them. We start talking about variation, which implies that we can, at certain point, identify an origin. But this search for “the origin” ultimately closes us off from acknowledging the stochastic nature of language development, the fact that its causes may be unknowable. This is to say, language diversity is rooted in probability. The act of measuring and categorizing language for a specific purpose ultimately denies our cognition of the probabilistic nature of language itself. And as we categorize language as we see and hear it, we begin attributing histories to it, which unavoidably disavows in our models outliers that do not fit the mold.
I am not suggesting that due to our limited senses we should not attempt to grasp what the universe is in its totality. We have created machines to attempt a transcendence of those realities that we are unable to see. But what I am thinking about here is how representing our experience affects the lives of others in meaningful ways, as we allow ourselves to get lost in the soup of signs that we create to reach beyond ourselves.
This brings me back to dialogue and its function. If meaning is highly subjective — and why not to say speculative? — how can we go beyond the paralysis that describing the momentary systems of semiotic chain as a linguistic phenomenon entails? How do we avoid paralysis in our theoretical underpinnings of our description of language, especially what diverse speakers produce through a language other than their first? How do we leave the door open for a definition of language that remains focused on variety rather than on variation? In other words, how do we understand a particular language phenomenon attuned with our human ability to be creative?
Finding new ways to describe phenomena are useful, but they don't come without a caveat: the presupposition that we all view and define language in the same way. For instance, translanguaging has been useful in educational contexts. But this term, as many others, is often restricted to the examination of non-dominant to dominant language relations. When we invoke the term transligualism, as it appears in L2 literature, we are often referring to the learning of English as a goal by speakers of other languages. For example, metrolingualism, by default, ignores ruralingualism on the account of a belief in monolingualism. Yet, haven’t we always been “multi” to different groups at different instances? And haven't modernity and its philosophers framed us as a singularity, especially if we take into account the ideology of the modern nation state?
Ideology is, of course, inescapable from us as a species; it has evolutionarily allowed us to function and develop as a society. If we don't assume things, if we don't group a series of cognitive steps into a single decision to do something, we would risk inertia. We would be incapable of moving anywhere, for we would be thinking about every step we were to take. So we simplify. To leave my house and walk to my car, I need to assume that I have the correct key. I need to assume that I am able to open and close the door, that my car is not wired to explode upon me putting the key in the ignition, that my skills to drive are still there, etc.
Ultimately, being ethical in one’s research involves recognizing the ideologies that guides us. Thus, when selecting and dealing with data, we ought to bear in mind that our personal histories do count and no method is capable of minimizing this truth. Who we are and where we have been cannot be divorced from our attempts at objectivity when accounting for a particular phenomenon as we see it. It is not a matter of valuing things as relative, but rather relationally. What methods do is to conceal, more or less, the “eye” of the researcher.
In a recent web article discussing the value of pop-science, the author observes that until modernity, histories were important to scientists. This was so because histories/stories spoke to the variety (of people) in a way that randomized trials and the scientific method çouldn't. This is not to say that modernity’s scientific method is “wrong.” Yet, the openness to patients’ histories, which some disdainfully refer to as “literary” work, does confirm the guilt of the scientific community in shunning authors that have communicated to the public at large the stories behind their “data.” One could even ask, what is the difference between subjects’ stories and data? Isn't everything data?
There are costs associated with the recognition of storytelling in the so-called “hard” sciences. Carl Sagan, for example, was denied tenure in Harvard perhaps because of his overt popularity as a TV personality. Oliver Sacks is judged by many a critic a literary author rather than a scientist. Michio Kaku and Brian Greene have popularized quantum mechanics, and some argue that the way that these scientists have articulated theoretical physics somehow can make the public understand legitimate science as one would science fiction.
The list goes on.
It is well to us, folks invested in researching and providing insights into language and learning, to disclose the ethics of our work. And we need to do so with the necessary humility to recognize the limitations of our senses and the methods that we use, indeed, our very imagination. We need to do so to transcend these shortcomings of social science research. We have nothing to prove but the uniqueness of the stories that our experiments tell and how they can advance the lives of others. It is time to take the outliers into consideration in an attempt to understand what makes them fall out of the process of analysis, what makes them unfit to count. For as mathematicians will recognize, there is no rigid mathematical definition of what makes up an outlier. Outliers depend on context and how distribution and means of measurement occur. Determining whether an observation counts as an outlier is a subjective exercise. Sometimes this exercise makes more sense than other instances given the conditions of our analyses.
While I think that the emerging redefinitions of linguistic phenomena are exciting — translingualism, metrolingualism, etc. — I often wonder about these terms and the ideologies that guide their description a priori. Ultimately, how this “thing” we frame a linguistic system as such, and under what circumstances we frame it, and we understand it as a system, i.e. repetition, predictability, etc., can tell us much about our creativity. And the slippage that occurs, those outliers, may be an interesting entry point for working from the edge of our knowledge.
What does not fit matters. It matters a lot.