chapter  8
16 Pages

Conclusion: Language as a local practice

Everything happens locally. However global a practice may be, it still always happens locally.1 The notion of the local is not therefore confined to the nonglobal, as seems to be the case in various ways of thinking about the global and the local. When we talk of the global, we are referring to the apparent co-occurrence in different times and places of local practices. At one level, the local is just here and now, acknowledging that language always happens in relation to space and time. And yet, it is also far more than this: being local is not only about physical and temporal locality; it is also about the perspectives, the language ideologies, the local ways of knowing, through which language is viewed. The local should not be confused with the small, the traditional, the immutable, since it is also about change, movement and the production of space, the ways in which language practices, such as graffiti writing or talking in the city, create the space in which they happen. Locality is thus far more than context, and language as a local practice is very different from language use in context, which rests on the questionable assumption that languages are akin to tools employed in predefined spaces. Looking at language as a local practice implies that language is part of social and local activity, that both locality and language emerge from the activities engaged in. As David Scott (1999) suggests, there ought by now to be a number of

broad epistemological stances we can take more or less for granted across the social sciences: “positions are to be read as contingent, histories as local, subjects as constructed, and knowledge as enmeshed in power” (p. 4). For Scott, it is time to move on from debates about the modern and postmodern, the colonial and postcolonial. That we speak from particular, embedded social, cultural and political positions is surely now something we can accept without battling claims that there are positions outside discourse or ideology from which we can speak. This does not by any means suggest a hopeless relativism but rather a profound perspectivalism. We need to acknowledge this and move on. Likewise, and in a similar vein, we should now be able to take for granted that sweeping historical, or social, or anthropological, or educational perspectives without adequate attention to the local simply do

not reveal much. To claim that subjects somehow exist outside the forces that construct them, as some kind of preformed psychological entity with set characteristics and evolutionary orientations, is also to avoid the necessity to understand locality. Subjects are always a work in progress, a way of being in struggle. And finally, knowledge can never be abstracted from questions of power. These interlinked understandings have surely by now become fairly obvious statements about human life. Canagarajah (2008, p. ix) offers us a parallel set of assumptions that we

ought now to be able to accept about language: in the same way that positions may be read as contingent, so too language: grammars and structures of language, from this point of view, are always emergent rather predefined. Once we accept that language is a social practice, it becomes clear that it is not language form that governs the speakers of the language but rather the speakers that negotiate what possible language forms they want to use for what purpose. From this point of view, Canagarajah (2008) suggests, if we want to retain a notion such as competence, it refers not so much to the mastery of a grammar or sociolinguistic system, as to the strategic capacity to use diverse semiotic items across integrated media and modalities. Lastly, the notion of discrete, bounded languages becomes very dubious, since languages are always mixed, hybrid and drawing on multiple resources. We might therefore suggest that languages, like subjects, are always a work in progress (indeed subjects and languages are mutually constitutive), and that we cannot therefore understand language without taking particular language practices in particular locations into account. Thus, when Heryanto (2007) speaks of ‘language-free communities’ or

when, from an integrational linguistic perspective, Harris (1990) tells us that linguistics does not need to posit the existence of languages as separate and autonomous objects, or when linguistic anthropology draws our attention to the imperative of understanding local ideologies of language, we have clearly embarked on a different trajectory from many linguistic and applied linguistic frameworks, with their belief in the existence and describability of discrete languages, their positing of languages as systems that exist outside and beyond communicative acts, their location of language within the heads of people, and their use of disembodied texts to represent language use. Worth questioning, then, is this very focus on separate and distinguishable languages. When I talk of language as a local practice, I am talking of language, not of languages. Languages, as described by linguistics and applied linguistics, are inventions of the disciplines that make them (Makoni and Pennycook, 2007). So how can we go about exploring language diversity without positing the existence of languages? Ideas such as language ecology give us one way of looking at locality and

diversity of languages by placing languages within complex social, political and cultural environments. And yet, as I argued in Chapter 6, we should be wary of the political implications of the metaphors we use: the enumeration, objectification and biologization of languages within some versions of

language ecology render them natural objects rather than cultural artefacts. It may well be the case that linguistic diversity is crucial to humanity, but a diversity of language entities may not be its most important measure. At the very least, following Halliday (2002), we might want to take semiodiversity as seriously as glossodiversity, the possibility of a multiplicity of meanings within a language as seriously as a multiplicity of languages (Pennycook, 2004). We also need to think carefully about any idea that languages somehow adapt to the world, since, as I have been arguing, we need a more dynamic and active sense of language practices as part of human endeavours to create new worlds. This perspective takes into account the historical construction of languages,

both in terms of their political construction in relation to nations and in terms of their epistemological construction as autonomous objects. It no longer therefore postulates the existence, enumerability or separability of languages as part of its theoretical apparatus. An ecology of local language practices perspective would mean not that languages as entities exist in relation to each other, nor that languages adapt to physical environments, nor that languages are causally related to diversity; rather, it would mean that local language practices are a set of activities dynamically integrated across physical, social, mental and moral worlds. From this perspective, therefore, we are not trying to find a relationship between language and the world, language and mind, language and society, language and morality, language and the environment, but rather asking how it is they were ever separated (cf. Latour, 1999). An understanding of ecologies of local language practices gives us a way forward here, so that we are not tied to images of bounded languages and instead can see how language is used locally, in multiple ways, to do many things. In many ways, then, an understanding of the locality of languages has been

constrained by the particular emphases of language studies. The most common way in which language locality, or language in context, is conceived in linguistics operates more or less along the following lines: languages are lexicogrammatical systems held in place by a core which defines what they are. Languages are defined by their coherence as a system rather than by locality or by their speakers. Locality comes into play on the one hand in very broad geographic terms as part of the naming of languages (where locality is a mappable construct). Different social, cultural and geographical contexts, on the other hand, lead to variations from that core, which may be accorded the status of varieties in their own right (dialects, sociolects and so forth). It is this way of thinking that allows us to think of the global spread of English, for example, in terms of an entity called English – defined by its grammar and lexicon – that spreads and changes in different contexts. And yet, as I argued in earlier chapters, if we take seriously the idea that we can never step twice into the same river, if we start to rethink what it means to talk about things being ‘the same’ – the same language, the same text, the same discourse – then we can start to see that languages in general, and global Englishes in particular, do not have one point of origin but rather multiple,

co-present, global origins. Global Englishes are not what they are because English has spread and been adapted but because they share different histories. English has always been local. Viewing languages in terms of local practices, therefore, has major impli-

cations for how we think about languages in general. The historical and contemporary interests behind the long construction of things called languages oblige us to ask in whose interests we continue to divide language into these named entities. Significant here too are the ways in which the narrow purview of linguistics limits what we can say about language-related issues. As Blommaert (2005) remarks, “linguists have no monopoly over theories of language” (p. 35). For Blommaert, in order to overcome the ways in which an area of investigation such as Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) is hamstrung by its reliance on a particular version of linguistics (in this case systemic functional linguistics), we need to use a much broader frame of analysis incorporating at the very least ethnographic perspectives on language use. This means a shift, for example, from discourse analysis to ethnography in order to gain “a perspective on language as intrinsically tied to context and to human activity” (Blommaert, 2005, p. 233). Or, as he might have put it, this implies a shift from looking at languages and texts as bounded entities and focusing instead on language as a local practice. This view has many implications for applied linguistic domains such as

language testing (for a critical exploration, see Shohamy, 2001; 2006): Why is it, we might ask, that language tests such as the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) remain so desperately monolingual, so tied to a view that to test people who engage in complex ecologies of language practices, we can ask reductive questions in one language? At first glance, this question may seem bizarre: it is a test of English, after all. Yet the linguistics of communicative activity developed by Thorne and Lantolf (2007), which opens up ways for us to see how languages may be mediational tools to develop each other, as well as a broader questioning of languages as separable objects, suggests that a multilingual TOEFL may be a far more appropriate test (to the extent that testing can be appropriate) than a monolingual one. The point here is not of course that TOEFL should be offered in separate but discrete languages (Test of French, German, Japanese, Tsonga or Tagalog as foreign languages) but rather that to test language users in one narrow element of their linguistic repertoire while admitting of no leakage across the tight linguistic boundaries echoes a history of strange linguistic inventions. When we talk of ‘washback’ in testing, it is more common to think in terms of the curricular effects of evaluation, but more broadly we might consider washback in terms of the ‘collateral damage’ for language users, policy makers, citizens and educators of the strange notion that languages exist in separation from the world and each other and can be tested in isolation. Language education suffers similarly from such peculiar linguistic inventions.

For a start, the enumerative strategies based on the notions of second language acquisition, or English as a second language become highly questionable. This

is not, it should be said, merely to reiterate the point that ‘second’ may in fact refer to ‘third’ or ‘fourth’ but to ask instead what such arithmetical views of language development achieve in the first place. From the point of view outlined here, there is no good reason to separate and count languages in this way. The question to ask is what language education might look like if we no longer posited the existence of separate languages. As Busch and Schick (2007) show, it is quite possible to develop educational materials that challenge these language separations. Language policy can become a very different project from its current orientation towards choosing between languages to be used in particular domains, or debating whether one language threatens another. If language policy could focus on translingual language practices rather than language entities, far more progress might be made in domains such as language education. An understanding of English as a global language, not so much in terms of an entity that has spread but in terms of local language practices, offers important insights into the ways in which English is locally mobilized (Pennycook 2007a; 2007b). While bilingual education has often successfully challenged its monolingual

nemesis, it has also frequently operated with a vision of bilingualism that is little more than a pluralization of monolingualisms, that is to say, it takes as a given the epistemology of the ‘bi’, the separability and duality of two languages. “What would language education look like”, however, asks García (2007, p. xiii), “if we no longer posited the existence of separate languages? How would we teach bilingually in ways that reflect people’s use of language and not simply people as language users?” As she goes on to argue, “Translation of instructional material, offering the tests in the child’s language, bilingual teachers, bilingual pedagogy is not enough, for it is based on an invention and it rarely reflects the ways in which children communicate” (p. xiv). A problem in much of applied and sociolinguistics is that monolingualism has been decried as the great aberration, the foe against which we need to struggle, while bi-or multilingualism are the cornerstones of our preferred world. Now it is all very well to critique the blinkered monolingual lenses through which language may be viewed, but such critiques all too often fail to take into account the ways in which the emphasis on multilingualism reflects a pluralization of monolingualism. As Sonntag (2003), Canagarajah (2007), Heller and Duchêne (2007) and others remind us, it is no good campaigning for a more equitable world of languages if we fail to question the underlying linguistic epistemologies on which our arguments are based. Viewed, therefore, from a perspective of language as a local practice, the point is no longer to decry monolingualism and eulogize bi-and multilingualism, but rather to question the language epistemologies that allow for such divisions, singularisms and pluralizations. One way forward here lies in starting to understand language and language

education in terms of majority world local knowledge, in looking, as García suggests, at how children actually communicate, rather than regulating a form of pre-categorized bilingualism. If we start to reconsider language learning

not so much in terms of an arithmetic progression (learning an additional, a second language, becoming bilingual) but rather in terms of a much more dynamic conceptualization of transidiomatic practice (Jacquemet, 2005), we can see how language learning may involve communicative practices across different codes, channels and resources. Jørgensen’s (2008a) and Møller’s (2008) analysis of ‘polylingual languaging’ among children and adolescents in Denmark suggests that rather than asking if something is in one, two or more languages, it is more useful to consider mixed language resources or features that people draw on (see Chapter 5). Makoni and Makoni’s (2010) “plurilanguaging approach” similarly aims to “capture the dynamic and evolving relationship between English, other indigenous African languages and multiple open semiotic systems, from the point of view of the language users themselves” (p. 258). The concept of metrolingualism (Otsuji and Pennycook, 2010) addresses related issues with its focus on modern, urban interaction and the ways in which people of mixed backgrounds use, play with and negotiate identities through language. The translingual language practices of metrolingualism, polylingual languaging, or plurilanguaging are not the occasional language uses of exceptional communities but rather the everyday language practices of the majority world. We therefore need a way of taking into account the point that not only does

everything happen locally, but so too does its understanding: all local happenings are interpreted locally (though not of course through the same prism of locality). While we may be able to make some useful generalizations about languages, we also need to appreciate that local language practices are interpreted locally and thus have particular meanings related to other local practices. We also need to appreciate that language is a result of local interaction, not a prerequisite for it. That is to say, language emerges from social practice rather than being mobilized in order for social practices to happen. Language does not therefore happen outside the realm of practice; languages are not tools that are used in contexts; languages are not pre-given entities but the results of practice. To understand this we need ways of thinking about ecologies of local language practices, the ways in which different language resources are drawn on for different effects.