Language Ideologies in the Wild: Science of Learning

So, I thought I’d write a post giving some examples of how these language ideologies appear unquestioned, using examples form the book I listened to. This is not meant to be a post bashing this book, which has lots of useful information about incorporating the science of learning into college classrooms. I’m just using examples from this book because it is the most recent example I’ve encountered of a very common pattern. So, what are these unquestioned assumptions about language learning?

Language learning as memorizing vocabulary.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, studies looking at ways to remember information include memorizing vocabulary in language learning, and the example in this book was how learners remembered more vocabulary using interleaving techniques than massed ones. While vocabulary is obviously an important component of language, and looking at the ability to memorize isolated vocabulary words certainly tells us something, going from memorizing vocabulary to language learning relies heavily on the ideology that we learn languages by learning words isolated from their social contexts. This ignores our ability to use context to understand new words, or communicate without understanding all of the words, or circumlocute, all of which are also important aspects of actually using the languages we are learning.

Language learning as gaining explicit grammatical knowledge.

This wasn’t an example from a particular study, but from the author’s description of his hobby of language learning, which he described as memorizing vocabulary and studying grammatical structures. This is essentially a summary of the folklinguistic idea that we learn vocabulary and then learn grammatical structures and put them together. Being able to name and explicitly understand grammatical structures is certainly learning something, but I would consider it learning about language rather than learning to use language. After all, research on language learning is pretty clear that explicit grammatical knowledge doesn’t necessarily transfer to the ability to implicitly use it. People are also able to use grammar implicitly without being able to explicitly name the rules. Finally, using language to communicate can occur without following normative grammar rules.

Language learning as pronunciation knowledge.

Language learning as an anti-social activity.

This was actually part of a joke the author made, where he said that one of his hobbies was learning new languages, and made an aside quip along the lines of “you may be more socially engaged than me”. At this point, I think I actually gasped, because what could possibly be more socially engaging than a hobby that allows you to communicate with more people? Even if you are reading a book or watching a movie by yourself, you are still engaging with the ideas created in that book or movie! As it turns out, the author’s hobby was learning the formal properties of language (e.g. vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation) using books or a computer application. In this case, it makes sense why he considers it anti-social, but it’s also indicative of his language ideologies, where language learning is viewed as the explicit knowledge of the formal properties of language. This is in line with the other examples given in the book, of memorizing vocabulary, learning explicit grammatical structures, and producing correct pronunciation. While I doubt that the author would say that using the language with other people isn’t language learning, it’s an unquestioned ideology that this mastery of the formal properties is a precursor to actually using the language. To be clear, I’m not knocking his hobby (I also enjoy learning about languages), just the generalization of it to mean language learning.

So, where is the social?

Indeed, if I had to sum up the unquestioned language ideologies represented in this book, and in the science of learning literature generally, it is their assumption that language is formal properties, and not a social activity (that mediates and is mediated by these properties). The implication is that language learning means mastering these formal properties, and so applying the science of learning to language learning means looking at learning these formal properties. Now, if you are explicitly committed to folklinguistic or formal language ideologies that makes sense, and we simply have an ideological disagreement. However, my concern is the way in which these language ideologies are taken for granted by people who I think have simply never considered or been exposed to, alternative language ideologies. If we consider language learning a social activity, what can we learn from the science of learning?

A glimmer of hope!

I want to conclude with one example from the book that does recognize the social nature of language learning, and where the author draws upon his own experience in France to explain why “speaking a language” doesn’t guarantee your ability to do things such as paying a cab in the language. This distinction is also why I think this book is an example of what happens when language ideologies are not addressed or questioned, rather than an explicit ideological commitment to folklinguistic theories of language. This was a study looking at the development of intercultural competence in a French class (definitely a social aspect of language) and how when learners used prediction (a science of learning technique) to explain what was going to happen in a film clip focused on a culturally salient interaction, their ability to respond in culturally appropriate ways increased (even if they got the initial prediction wrong). While the book represents this as moving from “retaining knowledge” to “applying knowledge” (holding on to the folklinguistic language ideologies), those of us who prefer more functional language ideologies that recognize the social context could also use this technique, and simply consider it for “language learning”.

Have you spotted any language ideologies in yourself or the wild recently? Where and what are they? Do you think they are part of an explicit ideological commitment, or just unexamined assumptions about language?


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