Monday, May 11, 2009

beyond logic: language and discourse

"A particular language, of a particular culture, in relation to a particular person with [her or] his particular history constitutes an implicit theory for that person . . . . [T]he observer [whether a cultural insider or an outsider] universally affects the data and becomes part of the data."
--Kenneth Lee Pike,
Linguistic Concepts

"Using subject position as a terministic screen in cross-boundary discourse permits analysis to operate kaleidoscopically, thereby permitting interpretation to be richly informed by the converging of dialectical perspectives."
--Jacqueline Jones Royster,
"When the First Voice You Hear Is Not Your Own"

When we come to language, to discourse even, too often our temptation is to assume (as with Aristotle) that we ourselves are objective with no need to change because of anyone else.  Or we may read something written by someone like Aristotle or Saint Paul translated into our own language so (dynamically equivalent to their Greek) that we begin to think they've written to us or have something to say that sounds like Nature or nature's God so that to deviate from that would make us natural deviants, or something.

Here are three anecdotes from my experience to begin to illustrate.  One's a boring linguistics study; another is a poignant story from my doctoral studies in rhetorics and feminisms; and the third is from my work in adult language learning:


We don't always say what we believe:

As a linguist, I have used on occasion a technique for teasing out preferences and prejudices of people towards languages and speakers of those languages. (The technical name is the "matched-guise procedure" as developed by Wallace Lambert and Richard Tucker to get at attitudes in Canada towards speakers of French and English respectively). In one case, I was interested in how learners of English as a foreign language (in their own countries) might have attitudes towards native speakers of English (outside the learners' own countries). So, on a direct questionnaire, I asked scores of EFL learners, "Where is the best English spoken?". When the vast majority of this group declared either "the U.K." or "the U.S.A." - then I played for them tapes of native speakers of English talking about a benign topic. And then the EFL learners rated the speakers they heard in terms of intelligence, friendliness, clarity of speech, and so forth. (The guise, or the trick, was this: The English speakers were actors I had hired to speak in various varieties of the language. They talked using American English, they talked using British English, and they talked using other Englishes as well.  These actors, by putting on the different Englishes, had managed to fool not only all the members of the British Club in Dallas but also all of the professional linguists who listened to tapes of the actors played at a nearby US university as well). Here's the other bit of detail; all of the EFL learners were ethnically Chinese (from China, from Taiwan, from British Hong Kong, from Singapore, from Malaysia, and from Brunei). They'd all read or been told by someone that the best English was spoken in the USA or the UK.  (Aristotle and Saint Paul were not the ones who wrote the facts about the location of the best English, but someone or another on the Voice of America or the BBC had discussed the nature of good English within earshot of the Chinese listeners - and hearing they had believed).  Not surprisingly, all of the EFL learners from former British colonies (Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei) declared that people in the UK used the best English. But to my great surprise, this same group unanimously and anonymously did not rate English speakers from the UK nearly as high as they rated speakers from the USA. In other words, those persons of Chinese ethnicity raised in and around British school systems (and more likely to listen to the BBC than to VOA) were predisposed to public praise of the "Queen's English." And yet privately they betrayed a preference for the American superpower style of the English language.

The observer, the listener, may say they believe one thing but will, at times, contradict their statements with a more profound, more deeply hidden belief.  What is "objective" for these observers?  And are they being honest in the first place, or more honest in the second instance of confession?

We often want the privilege of hearing authoritative canonical texts as applying to us, especially when they authorize us to speak about those "others" whom the same text silences naturally:

Just weeks into "Composition Theory," in my first semester of doctoral coursework at Texas Christian University, the prof assigned Jacqueline Jones Royster's, "When the First Voice You Hear is Not Your Own." The essay is a call to scholarly subjectivity, to willingness to use one's own voice (and voices) when speaking about one's scholarly interests.  It's also a call to those who study and speak about groups of people they themselves are not members of.  For example, a white male scholar may write with some authority about black women who may not be as scholarly.  Royster, the author of the essay, researches and teaches using various voices.  These voices include those of the (1) expert in her discipline and of (2) the subjects she studies in her discipline. Her discipline is English studies, with particular focuses in rhetoric, composition, and literacy studies.  One of Royster's books she has titled, Traces of a Stream:  Literacy and Social Change Among African American Women.  By now, you may have guessed she's a researching, published and teaching scholar.  And you may have realized she's African American, a woman in the stream of the group that she studies.  Well, in the course I was taking, the prof had asked the class to write a response to Royster's essay.  And the prof had asked me to read my response aloud to the class.  To respond to Royster's essay calling for subjectivity, I had written some of my own story.  And, at the end of my response, reading aloud unrehearsed as instructed, I began to become emotional, because I was (in part) acknowledging a mentor whose sexual orientation is different from my own and was acknowledging his passing after nine faithful years with his partner, who had two years prior, died of AIDS.  My mentor died of AIDS too, so I was trying to read what I'd written of the influence that this former boss of mine had had on me.   And how his partner's death and his own dying had figured, also, into his enduring influence.  I could hardly read as tears edged their way past the mop of my own fingers on my face.  But to my great surprise, another student in the class took great offense.  He'd read (he said) that discussions of homosexuality (when our class was reading on race) was inappropriate; that my reading of my own paper was maudlin; that the professor by calling on me did not know how to profess; and that, frankly, Jacqueline Jones Royster was sentimental, unobjective, and ironically exclusionary.  (The reactionary classmate marched off to the English Department chair and filed a formal complaint.  He also sent an email to Royster, demanding that she clarify how his white male voice was any less valid than hers.  Unfortunately, and this is one of the lessons for me in all of that:  the dominant white male had heard from someone - maybe Aristotle, maybe Saint Paul - that his voice was objective, and was to be heard.  But, of course, as much as Aristotle taught objectivity to his elite Greek male students, and even though Paul urged λογικὴ or "logike" of some of readers (first Jews then Greek), my classmate seems to have understood this as applying directly to himself.  The Nature of Reality as Written was firm, and firmly coldly objective - to think otherwise would require a change or a mess of changes within oneself.  (And it was too close to qualifying exams for that nonsense).


We can't always predict how much change (and how quickly and how sustained) our subjective experiences will effect.

Every once and a while, those of us working in the university level program for learning English as an additional language will meet remarkable learners.  "Sasha" is one of the remarkable ones.  Having studied no English prior to arriving in the USA from her Eastern European home, she needed only 6 weeks to become proficient enough in English to pursue a degree program full-time using that new language only.  For most people beginning in English, it takes from 9 to 12 months to do what Sasha did in a month and a half.  Sure, we experts in language learning and acquisition and teaching gave all the students our best.  But what made Sasha do remarkably and measurably better than her classmates?  She fell in love.  And she would only speak in English with her new friend (and would only correspond in English writing with him).  She fell in love with her textbooks and the multimedia surrounding them too.  She'd read books that had been translated, sometime variously translated, into English from her Eastern European language.  She'd compose poetry, in English, English as she was growing to know it.  She'd speak with a flawless American English accent the last time I saw her, four years later at her undergraduate graduation before she left again for home.  She was an adult human convert.  (I did my best to get my staff of instructors to get the other English students paying attention to Sasha and her learning.  Based on all of our expert learning and research about language acquisition and learning, how could we have predicted what she did and who she was?  What's love got to do with it?  There have been other Sasha's and not all with a first language that's IndoEuropean.  And it sometimes is love of music, and love of dance, and love of sports, as much as love of that boyfriend or girlfriend that seems part and parcel of the deep change.  But really, what's love got to do with it?)

1 comment:

Jane said...

So much food for thought - wonderful weaving of ideas thank you