Thoughts on Language and Power

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Teaching TESOL requires a critical awareness of the power structures, institutional expectations, and societal norms that shape perceptions of the English language. These perceptions often envision English as a monolithic, dominant language that can be assessed based on how authentic the speaker sounds.  Particularly in the field of TESOL, this expectation privileges NES and marginalizes NNES because it values “authentic sound” over intelligibility and comprehensibility, promotes the facade that being a NES implies proficiency in the English language, and it “gives the impression…that there is linguistic unity in the world” (Celce-Murcia ,Brinton, and Snow, 2014, p. 587).  By recognizing how these perceptions about the English language shape institutional practices, educators can work to facilitate students in negotiating between their identity and intelligibility. Specifically when teaching English as an international language, “teachers must be taught to think globally but act locally”, meaning that teachers need to be aware of how English operates both in the world at large and within the country or city that they are teaching (Celce-Murcia, Brinton, and Snow, 2014, p. 67).  For example, if I, a NES, were teaching English in India, I would need to acknowledge not only how English functions within the inner circle (i.e. USA, UK) but more specifically recognize the history and varieties of use of English in India. It is also important to understand how these perceptions shape assessments of English language leaners and teachers. If the institutional expectation is to sound like an authentic NES speaker, what does that suggest about the “ownership” of the English language?  How do these expectations discriminate against NNES learners and teachers?  How NNES perceive themselves in terms of linguistic proficiency is often reflective in their instructional practices, meaning that if a NNES teacher does not believe they are proficient in English (based on the normative standards) they will be less likely to use English in the classroom. 

To help NES understand their privilege and NNES to understand their identity as English speakers, it is necessary to view the constructs of “NES” and “NNES” as non-discrete and on a continuum.  Instead of promoting English as the dominant language in which proficiency is assessed based on the authentic sound of the speaker, it is necessary to critique “the relationship between power and language” and bring recognition to the advantages of being a NNES, such as the ability to negotiate between multiple languages and contextual meanings (593). Considering the issues of the politics of English is critical when teaching TESOL, both in relation to NES and NNES.  Without this awareness, teachers will continue to employ instructional practices that preserve mono-centric perceptions about the English language, perpetuating an educational system that discriminates against NNES and falsely promotes English as the dominant language.  As Moore (2011) articulates, “Words don’t just convey meaning: they are a force”. Therefore, particularly in the field of TESOL, it is necessary to hold space for and gain an awareness of the power of language.

Avery Lussier

References:

Celce-Murcia, M., Brinton, D., Snow, M. (2014). Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language. Boston, MA: National Geographic Learning.

Moore, T. (2011). The Power of Language. Resurgence and Ecologist, Issue 264. Retrieved from: http://www.resurgence.org/magazine/article3284-the-power-of-language.html

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