In his 2018 article, Li Wei seeks “to develop Translanguaging as a theory of language”. Along the way, he highlights the contributions that Translanguaging makes to debates about the “Language and Thought” and the “Modularity of Mind” hypotheses and tries to bridge “the artificial and ideological divides between the so-called sociocultural and the cognitive approaches to Translanguaging practices.”
After the Introduction, Section 2 outlines the principles which guide his “practical theory of language for Applied Linguistics”. They’re based on Mao’s interpretation of Confucius and Marx’s dialectical materialism (sic). Here are the main points, with short comments:
1 The process of theorization involves a perpetual cycle of practice-theory-practice.
Amen to that.
2 The criterion for assessing rival theories of the same phenomena is “descriptive adequacy”. The key measures of descriptive adequacy are “richness and depth“.
No definitions of the constructs “richness” or “depth” are offered, no indication is given of how they might be operationalized, and no explanation of this assertion is given.
3 “Accuracy” cannot serve as a criterion for theory assessment: “no one description of an actual practice is necessarily more accurate than another because description is the observer–analyst’s subjective understanding and interpretation of the practice or phenomenon that they are observing“.
No definition is given of the term “accuracy” and no discussion is offered of how theoretical constructs used in practical theory (such as “languaging”, “resemiotization” and “body dynamics”) can be operationalised.
4 Descriptions involve the observer including “all that has been observed, not just selective segments of the data”.
No explanation of how an observer can describe “all that has been observed” is offered.
5 The main objective of a practical theory is not to offer predictions or solutions but interpretations that can be used to observe, interpret, and understand other practices and phenomena.
No justification for this bizarre assertion is offered.
6 Questions are formulated on the basis of the description and as part of the observer–analyst’s interpretation process. Since interpretation is experiential and understanding is dialogic, these questions are therefore ideologically and experientially sensitive.
No explanation of what this means is offered.
7 A theory should provide a principled choice between competing interpretations that inform and enhance future practice, and the principles are related to the consequentialities of alternative interpretations.
No explanation of exactly what “principles” are involved is offered, and no indicators for measuring “consequentialties” are mentioned.
8. An important assessment of the value of a practical theory is the extent to which it can ask new and different questions on both the practice under investigation and other existing theories about the practice. Yes indeed.
Section 3 is headed “The Practice”.
Li Wei explains that he’s primarily concerned with the language practices of multilingual language users, and goes on to give samples of conversations between multilingual speakers. The analysis of the transcripts is perfunctory and provides little support for the assertion that the speakers are not “mixing languages”, but rather using “New Chinglish” (Li 2016a), which includes
ordinary English utterances being re-appropriated with entirely different meanings for communication between Chinese users of English as well as creations of words and expressions that adhere broadly to the morphological rules of English but with Chinese twists and meanings.
His examples are intended to challenge the “myth of a pure form of a language” and to argue that talking about people having different languages must be replaced by an understanding of a more complex interweaving of languages and language varieties, where boundaries between languages and concepts such as native, foreign, indigenous, minority languages are “constantly reassessed and challenged”.
Section 4 is on Translanguaging
Li Wei starts from Becker’s (1991) notion of Languaging, which suggests that there is no such thing as Language, but rather, only “continual languaging, an activity of human beings in the world “(p. 34). Language should not be regarded ‘as an accomplished fact, but as in the process of being made’ (p. 242). Li Wei also refers to work from ‘ecological psychology’, which seees languaging as ‘an assemblage of diverse material, biological, semiotic and cognitive properties and capacities which languaging agents orchestrate in real-time and across a diversity of timescales’ (Thibault 2017: 82). Such work challenges ‘the code view’ of language, urges us to ‘grant languaging a primacy over what is languaged’, and to see language as ‘a multi-scalar organization of processes that enables the bodily and the situated to interact with situation-transcending cultural-historical dynamics and practices’ (Thibault 2017: 78). The divides between the linguistic, the paralinguistic, and the extralinguistic dimensions of human communication are thus “nonsensical”. So language learning should be viewed not as acquiring language, but rather as a process where novices “adapt their bodies and brains to the languaging activity that surrounds them’, and in doing so, ‘participate in cultural worlds and learn that they can get things done with others in accordance with the culturally promoted norms and values’ (Thibault 2017: 76). Li Wei concludes “For me, language learning is a process of embodied participation and resemiotization (see see also McDermott and Roth 1978; McDermott et al. 1978; Dore and McDermott 1982; and Gallagher and Zahavi 2012)”.
Next, Li Wei explains that he added the Trans prefix to Languaging in order to not only have a term that captures multilingual language users’ fluid and dynamic practices, but also to put forward two further arguments:
1) Multilinguals do not think unilingually in a politically named linguistic entity, even when they are in a ‘monolingual mode’ and producing one namable language only for a specific stretch of speech or text.
2) Human beings think beyond language and thinking requires the use of a variety of cognitive, semiotic, and modal resources of which language in its conventional sense of speech and writing is only one.
The first point refers to Fodor’s (1975) seminal work The Language of Thought. Li Wei offers no summary of Fodor’s “Language of Thought” hypothesis and no discussion of it. So the reader might not know that this language of thought is usually referred to as “Mentalese“, and that very technical, but animated discussions about whether or not Mentalese exists, and if it does, how it works, have been going on for the last 40+ years among philosophers, cognitive scientists and linguists. Without any proper introduction, Li Wei simply states: “there seems to be a confusion between the hypothesis that thinking takes place in a Language of Thought (Fodor 1975) — in other words, thought possesses a language-like or compositional structure — and that we think in the named language we speak. The latter seems more intuitive and commonsensical”. In my opinion, he doesn’t make it clear why the latter view causes a problem, why, that is, “it cannot address the question of how bilingual and multilingual language users think without referencing notions of the L1, ‘native’ or ‘dominant’ language”, and he doesn’t clearly explain how Fodor’s Language of Thought hypothesis solves the problem. All he says is
If we followed the argument that we think in the language we speak, then we think in our own idiolect, not a named language. But the language-of-thought must be independent of these idiolects, and that is the point of Fodor’s theory. We do not think in Arabic, Chinese, English, Russian, or Spanish; we think beyond the artificial boundaries of named languages in the language-of-thought”.
I fail to see how this cursory discussion does anything to support the claim that Translanguaging Theory makes any worthwhile contribution to the debate that has followed Fodor’s Language of thought hypothesis.
As for the second argument, this concerns “the question of what is going on when bilingual and multilingual language users are engaged in multilingual conversations”. Li Wei finds it hard to imagine that they shift their frame of mind so frequently in one conversational episode let alone one utterance. He claims that we do not think in a specific, named language separately, and cites Fodor (1983) to resolve the problem. Li Wei reports Fodor’s Modularity of Mind hypothesis as claiming that the human mind consists of a series of modules which are “encapsulated with distinctive information and for distinct functions”. Language is one of these modules. As Gregg has pointed out to me (see the comment below) “Fodor did not think that the mind is made up of modules; he spent a good deal of time arguing against that idea (see e.g. his “The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way”), the so-called Massive Modularity hypothesis. For Fodor, the mind contains modules; big difference” (my emphases). Worse, Li Wei says that Fodor’s hypothesis “has somehow been understood to mean” something that, in fact, Fodor did not say or imply, namely that “the language and other human cognitive processes are anatomically and/or functionally distinct”. Li Wei does not cite any researcher who somehow came to understand Fodor’s argument about modular mind in that way, but simply asserts that in research design, “the so-called linguistic and non-linguistic cognitive processes” have been assessed separately. He goes on to triumphantly dismantle this obviously erroneous assertion and to claim it as evidence for the usefulness of his theory.
Section 5: Translanguaging Space and Translanguaging Instict
“The act of Translanguaging creates a social space for the language user by bringing to- gether different dimensions of their personal history, experience, and environment; their attitude, belief, and ideology; their cognitive and physical capacity, into one coordinated and meaningful performance (Li 2011a: 1223)”. This Translanguaging Space has transformative power because “it is forever evolving and combines and generates new identities, values and practices”. It underscores multilinguals’ creativity, “their abilities to push and break boundaries between named language and between language varieties, and to flout norms of behaviour including linguistic behaviour, and criticality —the ability to use evidence to question, problematize, and articulate views (Li 2011a,b; Li and Zhu 2013)”.
A Translanguaging Space shares elements of the vision of Thirdspace articulated by Soja (1996) as “a space of extraordinary openness, a place of critical exchange where the geographical imagination can be expanded to encompass a multiplicity of perspectives that have heretofore been considered by the epistemological referees to be incompatible and uncombinable”. Soja proposes that it is possible to generate new knowledge and discourses in a Thirdspace. A Translanguaging Space acts as a Thirdspace which does not merely encompass a mixture or hybridity of first and second languages; instead it invigorates languaging with new possibilities from ‘a site of creativity and power’, as bell hooks (1990: 152) says. Going beyond language refers to trans- forming the present, to intervening by reinscribing our human, historical com- monality in the act of Translanguaging” (Li Wei, 2018, p. 24).
As an example of the practical implications of Translanguaging Space, Li Wei cites García and Li’s (2014), vision “where teachers and students can go between and beyond socially constructed language and educational systems, structures and practices to engage diverse multiple meaning-making systems and subjectivities, to generate new configurations of language and education practices, and to challenge and transform old understandings and structures”. Stirring stuff.
Li Wei’s construct of a Translanguaging Instinct (Li 2016b) draws on the arguments for an ‘Interactional Instinct’, a biologically based drive for infants and children to attach, bond, and affiliate with conspecifics in an attempt to become like them (Lee et al. 2009; Joaquin and Schumann 2013).
This natural drive provides neural structures that entrain children acquiring their languages to the faces, voices, and body movements of caregivers. It also determines the relative success of older adolescents and adults in learning additional languages later in life due to the variability of individual aptitude and motivation as well as environmental conditions”.
Le Wei extends this idea in what he calls a Translanguaging Instinct (Li 2016b) “to emphasize the salience of mediated interaction in everyday life in the 21st century, the multisensory and multi- modal process of language learning and language use”. The Translanguaging Instinct drives humans to go beyond narrowly defined linguistic cues and transcend culturally defined language boundaries to achieve effective communication. Li Wei suggests that, pace the Minimalist programme (sic!), a “Principle of Abundance” is in operation in human communication. Human beings draw on as many different sensory, modal, cognitive, and semiotic resources to interpret meaning intentions, and they read these multiple cues in a coordinated manner rather than singularly.
In the meantime, the Translanguaging Instinct highlights the gaps between meaning, what is connected to forms of the language and other signs, and message, what is actually inferred by hearers and readers, and leaves open spaces for all the other cognitive and semiotic systems that interact with linguistic semiosis to come into play (Li Wei, 2018, p. 26).
Li Wei’s discussion of the implications of the idea of the Translanguaging Instinct might have been written by an MA student of psycholinguistics. Below is a summary, mostly consisting of quotes.
Human beings “rely on different resources differentially during their lives. In first language acquisition, infants naturally draw meaning from a combination of sound, image, and action, and the sound–meaning mapping in word learning crucially involves image and action. The resources needed for literacy acquisition are called upon later”.
“In bilingual first language acquisition, the child additionally learns to associate the target word with a specific context or addressee as well as contexts and addressees where either language is acceptable, giving rise to the possibility of code- switching”.
“In second language acquisition in adolescence and adulthood, some resources become less available, for example resources required for tonal discrimination, while others can be enhanced by experience and become more salient in language learning and use, for example resources required for analysing and comparing syntactic structures and pragmatic functions of specific expressions. As people become more involved in complex communicative tasks and demanding environments, the natural tendency to combine multiple resources drives them to look for more cues and exploit different resources. They will also learn to use different resources for different purposes, resulting in functional differentiation of different linguistic resources (e.g. accent, writing) and between linguistic and other cognitive and semiotic resources. Crucially, the innate capacity to exploit multiple resources will not be diminished over time; in fact it is enhanced with experience. Critical analytic skills are developed in terms of understanding the relationship between the parts (specific sets of skills, such as counting; drawing; singing) and the whole (multi-competence (Cook 1992; Cook and Li 2016) and the capacity for coordination between the skills subsets) to functionally differentiate the different resources required for different tasks“.
One consequence of the Translanguaging perspective on bilingualism and multilingualism research is making the comparison between L1 and L2 acquisition purely in terms of attainment insignificant. Instead, questions should be asked as to what resources are needed, available, and being exploited for specific learning task throughout the lifespan and life course? Why are some resources not available at certain times? What do language users do when some resources become difficult to access? How do language users combine the available resources differentially for specific tasks? In seeking answers to these questions, the multisensory, multimodal, and multilingual nature of human learning and interaction is at the centre of the Translanguaging Instinct idea” (Li Wei, 2018, pp 24-25).
There’s hardly anything I disagree with in all this, apart from the dubious, forced connection made between all this elementary stuff and the “Translangaguing perspective”.
So what is the Translanguaging theory of language? Despite endorsing the view that there is no such thing as language, and that the divides between the linguistic, the paralinguistic, and the extralinguistic dimensions of human communication are nonsensical, the theory amounts to the claim that language is a muultilingual, multisemiotic, multisensory, and multimodal resource for sense-and meaning-making.
The appendages about Translanguaging Space and a Translanguaging Instinct have little to do with a theory of language. The first is a blown-up recommendation for promoting language learning outside the classroom, and the second is a claim about language learning itself, to the effect that an innate instinct drives humans to go beyond narrowly defined linguistic cues and transcend culturally defined language boundaries to achieve effective communication. Stripped of its academic obcurantism and the wholly unsatisfactory discussion of Fodor’s Language of Thought and his work on the modularity of mind, both bits of fluff strike me as being as inoffensive as they are unoriginal.
What is a theory? I’ve dealt with this in Jordan (2004) and also in many posts. A theory is generally regarded as being an attempt to explain phenomena. Researchers working on a theory use observational data to support and test it. Furthermore, it’s generally recognised that, pace Li Wei, we can’t just observe the world: all observation is “theory-laden”; as Popper (1972) puts it, there’s no way we can talk about something sensed and not interpreted. Even in everyday life we don’t – can’t – just “observe”, and those committed to a scientific approach to language learning recognize that researchers observe guided by a problem they want to solve: research is fundamentally concerned with problem-solving, and it benefits from a clear focus in a well-defined domain. Here’s an example of how this applies to theories of language:
Chomskian theory claims that, strictly speaking, the mind does not know languages but grammars; ‘the notion “language” itself is derivative and relatively unimportant’ (Chomsky, 1980, p. 126). “The English Language” or “the French Language” means language as a social phenomenon – a collection of utterances. What the individual mind knows is not a language in this sense, but a grammar with the parameters set to particular values. Language is another epiphenomenon: the psychological reality is the grammar that a speaker knows, not a language (Cook, 1994: 480).
And here’s Gregg (1996)
… “language” does not refer to a natural kind, and hence does not constitute an object for scientific investigation. The scientific study of language or language acquisition requires the narrowing down of the domain of investigation, a carving of nature at its joints, as Plato put it. From such a perspective, modularity makes eminent sense (Gregg, 1996, p. 1).
Both Chomsky and Gregg see the need to narrow the domain of any chosen investigation in order to study it more carefully. So they want to go beyond the common-sense view of language as a way of expressing one’s thoughts and feelings (not, most agree, following Fodor, to be confused with thinking itself) and of communicating with others, to a careful description of its core parts and then to an explanation of how we learn them. Now you might disagree, in several ways. You might reject Chomsky’s theory and prefer, for example, Nick Ellis’ usage-based theory (see, for example Ellis, 2002), which embraces the idea of language as a socially constructed epiphenomenon, and claims that it’s learned through social engagement where all sorts of inputs from the environment are processed in the mind by very general learning mechanisms, such as the power law of practice. But Ellis recognises the need to provide some description of what’s learned and I defy most readers to make sense of Ellis’ ongoing efforts to describe a “construction grammar”. Or you might take a more bottom-up research stance and decide to just feel your way – observe some particular behaviour, turning over and developing ideas and move slowly up to a generalization. But even then, you need SOME idea of what you’re looking for. Gregg (1993) gives a typically eloquent discussion of the futility of attempts to base research on “observation”.
Or you might, like Li Wei, adopt the following strategy:
1. Skip the tiresome step of offering a coherent definition of the key theoretical construct and content yourself with the repeated vague assertion that language is “a resource for sense-and meaning-making”,
2. Rely on the accepted way of talking about parts of language by those you accuse of reducing language to a code,
3. Focus on attacking the political naming of languages, re-hashing obviously erroneous views about L1s, l2s, etc. and developing the view that language is a muultilingual, multisemiotic, multisensory, and multimodal resource.
If so, you abandon any serious attempt at theory construction, resort to a string of assertions dressed up in academic clothes and call it a “theory of practice”. Even then, Li Wei doesn’t actually say what he takes a theory of practice to be. He equates theory construction with “knowledge construction”, without saying what he means by “knowledge”. Popper (1972) adopts a realist epistemology and explains what he means by “objective knowledge” (accepting that all observation is theory-laden). In contrast, we have to infer what Li Wei means by knowledge through the reason he gives for dismissing “accuracy” as a criterion for theory assessment, viz., as already quoted above, “no one description of an actual practice is necessarily more accurate than another because description is the observer–analyst’s subjective understanding and interpretation of the practice or phenomenon that they are observing”. This amounts to a relativist epistemology where objective knowledge is jettisoned and “descriptive adequacy” replaces it, to be measured by “richness and depth”, which are nowhere defined.
How do we measure the richness and depth of competing “descriptions”? For example we have (1) Li Wei’s descriptions of conversational exchanges among his research participants, and (2) Schmidt and Frota’s (1986) description of an adult learner of Portuguese. The two descriptions of the learners’ utterances serve different purposes, they don’t amount to competing arguments, but how do we assess the descriptions and the analyses? How about: “I prefer (2) because the description of the weather outside was richer”. Are these two “descriptions” not better assessed by criteria such as their coherence and their success in supporting the hypothesis that informs their observations? Schmidt and Frota are addressing a problem about what separates input from intake (the hypothesis being that “noticing” is required), while Li Wei is addressing the problem of how we interpret code-switching, and his hypothsis is that it’s not a matter of calling on separately stored knowledge about 2 rigidly different named languages. Is Li Wei seriously suggesting that different subjective accounts of the observations of language practice by different observers is best assessed by undefined notions of richness and depth?
The poverty of Li Wei’s criteria for assessing a “practical theory” is compounded by his absurd claim that researchers who act as observers must describe “all that has been observed, not just selective segments of the data”. “All that has been observed”? Really?
But wait a minute! There’s another criterion! “A theory should provide a principled choice between competing interpretations that inform and enhance future practice, and the principles are related to the consequentialities of alternative interpretations”. As noted, we’re not told what the “principles” are, and no indicators for measuring “consequentialties” are mentioned. Still, it’s more promising that the other criteria. And, of course, it’s taken from a well-respected criterion used by scientists anchored in a realist epistemology: ceteris paribus, the more a theory leads to the practical solution of problems, the better it is.
Finally, the good bits. I applaud Li Wei’s attempt, bad as I judge it to be, to bridge the gap between psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic work on SLA. And, as I’ve already said in my post Multilingualism, Translanguaging and Theories of SLA, there are things we can agree on. ELT practice should recognise that teaching is informed by the monolingual fallacy, the native speaker fallacy and the subtractive fallacy (Phillipson, 2018). The ways in which English is privileged in education systems is a disgrace, and policies that strengthen linguistic diversity are needed to counteract linguistic imperialism. Translanguaging is to be supported in as much as it affirms bilinguals’ fluent languaging practices and aims to legitimise hybrid language uses. ELT must generate translanguaging spaces where practices which explore the full range of users’ repertoires in creative and transformative ways are encouraged.
Cook, V. J. (1993). Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition. Macmillan.
Ellis, N. (2002). Frequency effects in language processing: A Review with Implications for Theories of Implicit and Explicit Language Acquisition. Studies in SLA, 24,2, 143-188.
Gregg, K.R. (1993). Taking Explanation seriously; or, let a couple of flowers bloom. Applied Linguistics 14, 3, 276-294.
Gregg, K. R. (2004). Explanatory Adequacy and Theories of Second Language Acquisition. Applied Linguistics 25, 4, 538-542.
Jordan, G. (2004). Theory Construction in SLA. Benjamins.
Li Wei (2018) Translanguaging as a Practical Theory of Language. Applied Linguistics, 39, 1, 9 – 30.
Phillipson, R. (2018) Linguistic Imperialism. Downloadable from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/31837620_Linguistic_Imperialism_
Popper, K. R. (1972). Objective Knowledge. Oxford University Press.
Schmidt, R., & Frota, S. (1986). Developing basic conversational ability in a second language: A case study of an adult learner. In R. Day (Ed.), Talking to learn: Conversation in second language acquisition (pp. 237-369). Rowley, MA: Newbury House.
See Li Wei (2018) for the other references.
Hi, Geoff, and Happy New Year;
A couple of quick comments:
1) operationalization: Why should Li –or anyone–bother operartionalizing his terms? No one does it, at least no one outside of psychology.
2) Language of Thought: Li is probably right that the idea of ‘thinking in English (French, Swahili)’ is more intuitive than the idea of LOT. Fodor is quite clear that he finds the concept problematic (well, wrong). He points out that language is ambiguous where thought is not: the phrase ‘old men and women’ can mean either old men and old women or old men and (regardless of age) women; but if I think of old men and women I’m thinking of one or the other, not both.
3) modularity: Fodor definitely did not think that the mind is made up of modules; he spent a good deal of time arguing against that idea (see e.g. his “The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way”), the so-called Massive Modularity hypothesis. For Fodor, the mind contains modules; big difference. Fodor offers “Fodor’s First Law of the Nonexistence of Cognitive Science”: ‘The more global a cognitive process is, the less anybody understands it. VERY global processes, like analogical reasoning, aren’t understood at all.’
4) theory-ladenness of observation: A lot of pointless heavy weather is made about this. To quote Fodor again: “From the fact that meaningful observation (or other) terms are always embedded in a theory, it does not follow that the theory that a term is embedded in contributes to determining what it means.”
HNY to you.
Thanks for the important correction about Fodor’s modularity. I sensed as I was writing (too quickly, too late at night) that there was something wrong. I’ve changed the text.
I agree – of course – that Li Wei is probably right about the idea of ‘thinking in English (French, Swahili)’ being more intuitive than the idea of LOT; my point is that he didn’t explain why this is a problem, and he didn’t give a good account of Fodor’s LOT, which can be seen as a way of dealing with that problem. You give a good example of how Mentalese does that, altho I prefer “old Ducatis and Harleys”.
I’m surprised at your comment about operationalising terms; I’ll have to take a closer look.
As for the theory-ladenness of observation, you well know the big fight Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, Feyerabend et. al had about this, and that at the time it looked like a serious blow to commensurability and to Popper’s whole “naive falsification” view. I agree that everybody’s calmed down, and that we now know how to deal with it. But I think Fodor, in the quote you give, fails to appreciate the threat it posed, and rather glibly dismisses it. IMHO it’s important to recognise the point, which I did, slightly, I admit, to cover my back.
Thanks Geoff, I really liked your Theories section; in particular Step 2 in your characterisation of Li’s strategy – “2. Rely on the accepted way of talking about parts of language by those you accuse of reducing language to a code,”, witness Li’s paper’s use of a (prototypical fixed-code) dictionary of Chinglish!
Orman (2012) points out in his critique (of polylingualism) “Is it at all coherent to claim or imply the existence of a code for identifying and structurally analysing X-ish utterances while simultaneously denying the existence of X? ” (p. 95)
You point out the “absurd claim that researchers who act as observers must describe “all that has been observed, not just selective segments of the data”.” shows a confusion on Li’s part – it is about justifying what analysts should consider not that they should consider everything.
sorry forgot to ask is your point that Li Wei falsely equates theory construction to knowledge construction based on theory construction being a subset of knowledge construction? or something more? thx
Theory construction concerns how you go about making your theory and then the criteria for evaluation. What problem/s is it intended to solve? Is it explanatory? Is it testable by appeal to empirical evidence? Is it clear, coherent, consistent, economical (Occam’s Razor), broad in scope, useful, etc.?
I don’t know what knowledge construction refers to.
A couple of quotes that might be relevant:
1) The fact that observation is “theory-laden” seems to me an insignificant point which in no way tends to show that the process of confirming theories by observation is circular or nonobjective. Philosopher Thomas Nagel “The Last Word”
2) Fodor, “Modularity of Mind”: The traditional, fundamental, and decisive objection to association is that it is too stupid a relation to form the basis of a mental life. p.82
I was trying to find one of various comments I’ve seen from philosophers of science on the oddity of ‘operationalism’, but that will have to wait.
I hope you don’t think you have to persuade me that empirical observations can be trusted if they meet obvious, well-rehearsed requirements!
Many thanks for this commentary, Geoff, and a Happy New Year to you, too.
While I’m happy to be proven wrong on this, the issues with translanguaging (or at least translanguaging as presented here via Li Wei) seem to me to boil down to a number of blind spots.
But one of the most significant – and ironic – ones to me, at least for a theory (following García and Li, 2014), is the suggestion that:
“teachers and students can go between and beyond socially constructed language and educational systems, structures and practices to engage diverse multiple meaning-making systems and subjectivities, to generate new configurations of language and education practices, and to challenge and transform old understandings and structures”.
If anyone didn’t know any better, they would be forgiven for thinking that something that whenever something is “socially constructed” (such as “language and educational systems” are according to that extract), it means that it is malleable, flexible, easily changed and reshaped by any group of more or less like-minded individuals.
I’m sorry, but that is naive, egregious nonsense.
Highly complex industrialised societies – which pretty much accounts for every society worthy of the name now existing – may well be “socially constructed”, but that social construction is maintained by a vast machinery of state bureaucracy that is many orders of magnitude more powerful than any group of individuals.
Any teacher who leads their students down a path where they are encouraged, for example, “to challenge and transform old understandings and structures”, may end up with a group of students who all fail their final examinations.
Or perhaps, more likely still, their drive to encourage students “to challenge and transform old understandings and structures” in the classroom will be – largely unbeknownst to the teacher – be completely undermined by the student and/or their parents as they head off the private exam cramming evening school where they will be drilled ad nauseum in how to pass.
Any student naive enough to trust the teacher, and does not follow that extracurricular route, may well just fail. And the “socially constructed” outcome of that failure will almost certainly strongly determine the course of their working life on graduation (even if they go on to find other paths to success).
A “socially constructed” society only superficially appears to be one that can be easily changed at the local level, bottom up. But from the top-down, there is a vast amount of legal, economic, political, judicial power backing all of that up.
My point is not that change is not possible – but rather that is naive in the extreme to simply think change can be ushered in against every possible odd stacked against it, especially where it does not have the support and backing of the state or state-like actors (such as Wall Street financiers, Silicon Valley oligarchs, etc.).
As well as a significant issue, I also said it was an ironic one.
It’s ironic because while there is encouragement for language teachers “to challenge and transform old understandings and structures” in their classroom practice, there seems to be little evidence of translanguaging trying “to challenge and transform old understandings and structures” of disciplinary boundaries in academic settings.
As Mura alludes to, there seems to be an inconsistency between the conclusions reached by translanguaging and the research that it is both founded on and claims to be advancing beyond. (i.e. To argue that one can “push and break boundaries between named language and between language varieties” seems to be acknowledging the real presence of the thing translanguaging argues doesn’t exist – it does not seem clear whether this is a genuine contradiction or simply included as a way to connect to readers more familiar with SLA, Applied Linguistics, etc. )
And that inconsistency, I suggest, might well be a result of trying to explore translanguaging from within the (admittedly broad church of) SLA and Applied Linguistics, when, actually, perhaps what is needed for it to be coherent is for translanguaging to be truly transdisciplinary in its formation (something I suspect is fraught with theoretical and methodological dilemmas).
Thanks very much for this, Nick (I hope I remember your name correctly). Great stuff, as usual.
Thanks, Geoff – and yes, sorry, should have put my name (it is Nick, yes).
Nick’s discussion is about the difficulties of political change (“to challenge and transform old understandings and structures”), difficulties also appear in attempting linguistic change. When Li Wei gives the example of a Chinese Singoporean talking to a family friend the dialogue written down is a second order interpretation. The actual communicational event reported on is lost to its time and place (even if it is video recorded say, the recording (or trace) cannot be mistaken for the signs made in the original event).
In a similar way to what Lei Wei does to make sense of the original communicative event by writing down a trace of the event and interpreting it, named languages are a way for people to reduce the indeterminancies of first order language making;
so in addition to the political difficulty it is also difficult to see how we can do away with named languages. Certainly we can challenge what should be included in a named language but can we do without the category itself?
No we can’t, and despite all the stuff about doing away with talk of “languages” altogether in favour of talking about “languaging” (which reminds me of Larsen Freeman’s invitation to us to ban any talk of “input” in favour of “affordances”), Li Wei recognises that it doesn’t make any sense to outlaw references to English, French, etc..
His argument that naming languages is a political act is fine with me, and I think he’s right to point out that there are many – political – disputes about the contents of and demarcations between some languages.
Hi Mura (eflnotes).
That is an interesting take – would I be right in saying that the comment is influenced by (or at least takes into consideration) an Integrationist view of language and communication?
(It certainly seems to be the case here: “even if it is video recorded say, the recording (or trace) cannot be mistaken for the signs made in the original event)”).
If so, although Harris often refers to first and second order communication, he is keen to acknowledge that the distinction is somewhat artificial and that in practice (i.e. in actual communication) being able to distinguish one from another is almost certainly impossible.
But also, whether or not you have or haven’t, you may find the following interesting, from Roy Harris’s After Epistemology (2009, p. 74):
The integrationist reorientation of linguistics proposed to dispense with at least the following theoretical assumptions: (i) that the linguistic sign is arbitrary (Saussure’s premiere principe); (ii) that the linguistic sign is linear (Saussure’s second principe); (iii) that words have meanings; (iv) that grammar has rules; and (v) that there are languages. The last of the these, in spite of its paradoxical appearance, follows from the first four. For, in effect, to dispense with the first four assumptions is, precisely, to say that linguistics does not need to postulate the existence of languages as part of its theoretical apparatus. That assumption falls victim to Occam’s razor: entia non multiplicanda praeter necessitatem [“not to be multiplied beyond necessity”]
Dispensing with (v) is doubtless the most far-reaching of the epistemological implications of the integrationist position. There is no longer any need to postulate, as in the Classical model, that A and B must both know the same language in order to engage in verbal communication. The notion of ‘knowing the same language’ is treated by integrationists as a hangover from the traditional language myth, promoted mainly for political and educational reasons, but answering to no consistent features of verbal communication
At least to my knowledge, and I could be wrong, but it seems a little surprising how little Harris is referred to in discussions such as these, since I am pretty sure he was one of the earliest and most vocal critics of “code-based” (or “segregationist”) views of language (I only know of Alistair Pennycook and Mario Saraceni who seem to have referenced Harris in the context of applied linguistics, although there must undoubtedly be others).
Or certainly, he was (again as far as I can tell) to really and properly grasp the implications that followed from Firth’s (“Context of Situation”), Austin (“How to do things with words”), and others (especially Hymes, Garfinkel, and Gumperz).
(Also, to lay my cards on the table, I consider integrationism to be practically useful as well as ‘right’ on most things relating to language and communication).
Note – I used an HTML code for an indented paragraph but it does not seem to have worked – to be clear, this is the extract from Harris (2009,p. 74):
“The integrationist reorientation of linguistics proposed to dispense with at least the following theoretical assumptions: (i) that the linguistic sign is arbitrary (Saussure’s premiere principe); (ii) that the linguistic sign is linear (Saussure’s second principe); (iii) that words have meanings; (iv) that grammar has rules; and (v) that there are languages. The last of the these, in spite of its paradoxical appearance, follows from the first four. For, in effect, to dispense with the first four assumptions is, precisely, to say that linguistics does not need to postulate the existence of languages as part of its theoretical apparatus. That assumption falls victim to Occam’s razor: entia non multiplicanda praeter necessitatem [“not to be multiplied beyond necessity”]
Dispensing with (v) is doubtless the most far-reaching of the epistemological implications of the integrationist position. There is no longer any need to postulate, as in the Classical model, that A and B must both know the same language in order to engage in verbal communication. The notion of ‘knowing the same language’ is treated by integrationists as a hangover from the traditional language myth, promoted mainly for political and educational reasons, but answering to no consistent features of verbal communication”
Just out of (not a great deal of) curiosity, what is the ‘integrationist reorientation of linguistics’?
Yes those comments you refer to are from reading integrationism, in particular Dorthe Duncker’s in The Reflexivity of Language and Linguistic Inquiry: Integrational Linguistics in Practice (the subtitle is significant as I think she is the first one to deal convincingly with integrationism’s stance to “language data”)
Li Wei in his 2018 text indirectly references Nigel Love (via distributed cognition interpretations which if I recall Roy Harris was not a fan of?) who I believe first discussed the first order/second order framing. And Garcia (2009) references Sinfree Makoni and Alaistair Pennycock who were directly influenced by integrationism, so Roy Harris is an indirect presence in some translingualism work.
Without bogging down Geoff’s comments page on this post with integrationist talk some short posts below using Harris’ and integrationist’s works:
Re-reversing priorities in language teaching – https://nextcloud.englishup.me/sites/rethunk/priorities
Translanguaging – https://nextcloud.englishup.me/sites/rethunk/translanguaging
Assumption of progress in language teaching – https://nextcloud.englishup.me/sites/rethunk/progress
Relfexivity – https://nextcloud.englishup.me/sites/rethunk/reflexivity
Scriptism and language in schools – https://nextcloud.englishup.me/sites/rethunk/scriptism
Myths – https://nextcloud.englishup.me/sites/rethunk/myths
I have to say that I was going to ask the same question, Kevin.
Thanks to Mura and Nick, and I’ll follow up the links, but I find it all very obtuse. What is the point of all this stuff? How does it contribute to what we know? Where’s it going? What’s the agenda? Qua theory, I find it incoherent. If the agenda is political, which I take it to be, I can see nothing about it that is likely to improve the conditions of the oppressed. It strikes me as bullshit.
@Mura Hello again and thanks for the response – clearly you are very familiar with integrationist writing! (In my experience, this is not so very common).
And yes, as I mentioned earlier, it seems Harris is little referenced, which seems slightly surprising to me in some ways.
I don’t know that I would agree that Duncker is “the first one to deal convincingly with integrationism’s stance to “language data””, but yes, she does do that.
“Nigel Love … who I believe first discussed the first order/second order framing.”
Do you remember where you read or heard that? I don’t recall seeing that anywhere and was quite surprised by that – if you have a source I’d be keen to see that.
@Geoff and Kevin
It strikes me as bullshit.
Yes, I have to warn you (Geoff, at least, if not also Kevin) that integrationism is unlikely to have much appeal to you, but it may be helpful to know that you are not alone.
Along with “bullshit”, other very common reactions to integrationism, are “That’s all very interesting, but it isn’t linguistics”, “It sounds like joining a cult to me!”, but probably most often is “Oh, that sounds just like X” where “X” is a more widely known approach or theory.
A less common but more pragmatic response is, “Well, this is all very well, but how does one do an integrationist study?” (This is essentially Trask and Stockwell’s criticism in their entry for integrationism in Language and Linguistics: Key concepts).
… what is the ‘integrationist reorientation of linguistics’?
What is the point of all this stuff? How does it contribute to what we know? Where’s it going? What’s the agenda?
I’ll try and give a brief summary, but I suspect it will only confirm you in your suspicions (and besides, Mura may also disagree), but, here goes …
Roy Harris (1931-2015) was, amongst other things, an expert on and translator of Saussure’s General Course in Linguistics into English.
One line of criticism that Harris took against Saussure’s GCL was that it was an influential (and also emblematic) example of how the attempt to carve out linguistics as a discipline in academic institutions, one which was on the one hand distinct from psychology, and on the other, distinct from physiology, ended up creating a discipline that despite its name was in effect no longer concerned with language (at least language as seen as something fundamental to the lived experience of individuals).
In other words, if the proper object of study for linguistics was langue, the system or code, then it was no longer really concerned with language (in the sense of a component of communication) because it either did not deal with communication at all, or, worse when it did deal with communication, it did so in the form of something like a circuit board (i.e. this one https://1.bp.blogspot.com/_jzCSo6L20eM/St_CTcBCutI/AAAAAAAAABc/8ESDNBOVq8c/s400/000495750.jpg).
Criticisms along more or less similar lines were made of Bloom (e.g. that the real meaning of ‘salt’ can be boiled down to NaCl), Chomsky (e.g. the ‘ideal’ speaker of a language), Lyons, and others. The key complaint being in essence that this meant that linguistics was studying not language, but an object of its own design and creation (which it was content to call ‘language’, as if this narrow focus could be taken to represent the whole and at any time and place). This leads to it typically “discovering facts about language” that its researchers had to have aready presupposed existed before they could discover it (whether they acknowledge this or not).
The outcome of this for Harris, at least as I understand it, is that by entitling linguists to determine what language ‘is’, resulted in language becoming far less central in importance to an indvidual’s lived experience as well as to different domains of knowledge (in contrast to some societies where language is / was seen as an absolutely vital component to all activities going on within them).
Therefore “the ‘integrationist reorientation of linguistics’” (and again, if Mura sees this he may disagree) is a programme to put language back at the centre of human activity so that language is not studied for its own sake, “as a thing”, but the ways in which language is fundamental to other domains – the practice of Linguistics, Science, Law, History, Art, Language Teaching, Writing and others.
Harris, sometimes with co-authors, wrote a series of books sketching out language issues in each of the domains that I’ve just now mentioned (i.e. Language, Science, Law, History, and Art), e.g. The Semantics of Science (2005).
I take this to be his setting out a programme for others to take up and explore in their own research.
It has been controversial, but personally, it works for me – I have found his way of thinking about language and communication immensely helpful in my practice as a language teacher.
And speaking of language teaching, you might be pleasantly surprised – or possibly anyway – by the following:
Harris, R. 2009. Implicit and Explicit Language Teaching. In. M. Toolan (Ed.). Language Teaching: Integrational Linguistic Approaches. London: Routledge, pp. 24-46.
hi Nick, I read it in Michael Toolans’ (2016) Stylistic iconicity and Love’s two orders of
language – http://pure-oai.bham.ac.uk/ws/portalfiles/portal/36974663/Toolan_Stylistic_iconicity_and_Love_s_two_orders_of_language.pdf but have also seen claim in paper’s by Peter Jones I believe.
None of this says anything about what integrationism does. How (and why) does it ‘put language back at the center of human activity’?
What might be an example of linguistics (of the wrong sort) ” ‘discovering facts about language’ that its researchers had to have already presupposed existed”?
@Mura – Thanks!
@Kevin Perhaps not, but the questions I was attempting to answer were:
1 [W]hat is the ‘integrationist reorientation of linguistics’?
2 What is the point of all this stuff?
3 How does it contribute to what we know?
4 Where’s it going?
5 What’s the agenda?
As briefly as I could manage it, I think it covers all of them except (3), but I avoided (3) as that would have required a quite different kind of explanation and would have made a long reply longer still.
Anyway, answering your latest second question first:
What might be an example of linguistics (of the wrong sort) ” ‘discovering facts about language’ that its researchers had to have already presupposed existed”?
The greater part of Chomsky’s work and influence on linguistics, as I think I already mentioned.
An example objected to is the taking up of terms for parts of speech such as Noun, Verb, Adverb, Adjective and treating them as ‘natural’ conceptual categories quite independently of their thousands’ of years long historical development (and change) in the description and teaching or understanding of grammar within the Western European tradition.
How (and why) does it ‘put language back at the center of human activity’?
In terms of why, well, in a very real sense, it is already there as arguably any ordinary language user’s lived experience ought to show.
In fact, if you don’t mind my saying, I’m quite surprised as a linguist that you would even ask “why” (but to be fair, I perhaps read too much into that).
As to how is another issue – in the previous reply to this one, I already mentioned that “I take this to be his setting out a programme for others to take up and explore in their own research” so the how is still being worked through.
That said, one clear example I’d recommend (if you are more rather than less curious) would be Hayley G. Davis’s Words: An Integrational Approach (which is 2001 I think; early 2000s at any rate).
There, her starting point is the lack of clarity and general unsatisfactoriness of how the word has been understood in linguistics. In fact, if I remember rightly, she points out how often linguists have to rely partly on their readers having a “common sense” understanding of what is meant by “a word” or “words” and partly on their own definitions created for their own various purposes.
She then sets about creating a quite extensive questionnaire that she then used in semi-structured interviews with something like 20 informants from a range of social and educational backgrounds, different ages, and so on. The questionnaire elicits reflective talk on the informants feelings about, intuitons regarding, and use and understanding of words of different kinds. Her discussion focuses on those responses.
In doing so, it first presents and then discusses words as they are understood from within the lived experience of individuals, integrated into their reflections on experience. It’s quite illuminating, I think, and certainly quite different from approaches involving, say, lexical bundles.
I don’t know if that has helped to clarify things a little, though I understand if that’s not the case.
Thanks for this. I’m itching to reply, but I hope Kevin will do so.