Language, social processes & silence

Presenting someone else’s research is a difficult and somewhat uncomfortable task (see “Manufacturing Silences: Migration, Marginalization, and L2 Anxiety“). Especially in the social sciences, such inquiry, often extended over several years of recurring contact with participants and other sources, is intimate and emotionally fraught.

Bonny Norton’s article “Social Identity, Investment, and Language Learning” (TESOL Quarterly 29, no. 1 [spring 1995]:9-31) expresses the outcome of years of interaction with female Canadian migrants that Norton had first met in a class she taught for ELLs. She interviewed five women and recorded private reflections that each had on how they negotiated awkward L1-L2 interactions and what effects language acquisition had on their private identities.

I often quote one of my former professors, Walter Brueggemann, who said, with some hyperbole, that “all scholarship is autobiography.” Given Norton’s clear social commitments and investment in language learners’ “right to speak” – perhaps dating back to days as an applied linguistics student at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where she studied apartheid’s oppressive language policies – it is clear that Norton’s Ph.D. study was infused with personal experience and the responsibilities of a public intellectual.

From the presentation and written comments, I gain two grace notes that I can carry as research continues.

The first is that questions about the place of language in social processes are valid and can awaken introspection into what some call a “hidden discrimination,” that of societal judgments about a person’s communication style and the even more secretive self-assessments when a person lacks native-speaker fluency.

Second, class comments suggest that discourse power dynamics are not always front and center in people’s minds. Research from Norton and others begin to suggest, while not explicitly, that H. Paul Grice’s cooperative principle does not hold in all situations.

Yet a number of classmates, for example, had questions about the power imbalance I mentioned between L2 Spanish learners and L2 English learners in intercambio exchanges. My speculation is that the L2 Spanish learners gain more conversation practice in Spanish based on a situational dominance that allows them to prioritize learning goals. Clearly, this assertion needs more evidence.

During the presentation and throughout ENGL 623 (“Second Language Acquisition”), I noticed how much I and others appreciate being able to hear and read authentic language-learner output. Clearly, I need to begin compiling examples of speech and written production to figure out what is going on with individual learners – including if social factors are influencing the acquisition process. I need raw data with which to work. Only by turning to L2 learners and their native-speaker interlocutors can we begin to address questions such as the query that one of my classmates submitted:

The women [in Norton’s study] mentioned time in which they were “silenced.” A lot of these silences were based on the women’s perceptions of others’ perceptions of them – customer mentioning accents, being “illegitimate speakers,” talking to doctors. Are these perceptions real? That is, is the other person really holding these perceptions or are they just perceived, or a little of both?

The question signals a potentially interesting exploration of L2 self-silencing, perhaps requiring both linguistic and therapeutic inputs.

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