Quick Version of the Review of Li Wei’s (2018) Theory of Language

Li Wei (2018) seeks “to develop Translanguaging as a theory of language”.

Key Principles:

1 The process of theorization involves a perpetual cycle of practice-theory-practice.

2 The criterion for assessing rival theories of the same phenomena is “descriptive adequacy”.  The key measures of descriptive adequacy are “richness and depth“.

3 “Accuracy” cannot serve as a criterion for theory assessment because no one description of an actual practice is necessarily more accurate than another.

4 Descriptions involve the observer including “all that has been observed, not just selective segments of the data”.

5 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.

Section 3 is headed “The Practice”.

 Li Wei gives 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’s leans on 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) and on ‘ecological psychology’, which challenges ‘the code view’ of language, and sees 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). 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”.  Li Wei concludes “For me, language learning is a process of embodied participation and resemiotization.”  

Li Wei makes 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 is described very technically by Fodor so as to distinguish it fro named languages.

Li Wei 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”. Yes, it does, but why exactly this is a problem, (which it is!) and how Fodor’s Language of Thought hypothesis solves it (which many say it doesn’t) is not clearly explained.

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 misinterprets Fodor’s view of the modularity of mind. Pace Li Wei, Fodor does not claim that the human mind consists of a series of modules which are “encapsulated with distinctive information and for distinct functions”, and that “Language” is one of these modules. Gregg points out (see comment in unabridged version) that Fodor vigorously opposed the view 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, which is very different from the view Li Wei quite wrongly ascribes to him.

Li Wei goes on to say that Fodor’s hypothesis “has somehow been understood to mean” that “the language and other human cognitive processes are anatomically and/or functionally distinct”. Again, Fodor said no such thing. Li Wei does not cite any researcher who “somehow came to understand” Fodor’s argument about modular mind in such an erroneous way, and he does not clarify that Fodor made no such claim. Li Wei 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

This section contains inspirational sketches which add nothing to the theory of language.

Translanguaging Space

Li Wei suggests that the act of Translanguaging creates a social space for the language user “by bringing together 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; …. by underscoring  learners’  abilities to push and break boundaries between named language and between language varieties, and to flout norms of behaviour including linguistic behaviour, and criticality” (Li 2011a,b; Li and Zhu 2013)”.

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”.

Translanguaging Instinct

Li Wei’s construct of a Translanguaging Instinct (Li 2016b) uses 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.

Li Wei’s discussion of the implications of the idea of the Translanguaging Instinct use uncontroversial statements about language learning which have nothing relevant to add to the theory. 

Discussion

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.  

Theories

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.

Li Wei adopts 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.

He thus abandons any serious attempt at theory construction, resorts instead 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”. In contrast, Li Wei adopts 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”? 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?   

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.

References

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.

One thought on “Quick Version of the Review of Li Wei’s (2018) Theory of Language

  1. Just a quick note to say that this may be of interest on the topic of how translanguage might translate into classroom practice:

    Hirsu, L., Zacharias, S. & Futro, D. (2021). Translingual arts-based practices for language learners. ELT Journal, 75(1), pp. 22-32. doi:10.1093/elt/ccaa064

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