Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Leung's "convivial communication", Davidson's passing theory and the norm of ELF

"convivial communication" paper

Professor Constant Leung was one of the speakers at the colloquium "Multilingual Turn", one of the most enlightening (and entertaining) events in AAAL 2012 (Boston).

One of his papers that was cited in the colloquium was "Convivial communication: recontextualizing communicative competence", one of the dozens of significant papers in applied linguistics I've been failing to read or even notice. As the colloquium was very interesting, I took an opportunity to read this paper.

Here's bibliographical information of the paper.

Convivial communication: recontextualizing communicative competence

Constant Leung
International Journal of Applied Linguistics
Volume 15, Issue 2, pages 119-144, June 2005

Article first published online: 29 JUN 2005
DOI: 10.1111/j.1473-4192.2005.00084.x

Here's abstract.

The advent of the concept of communicative competence in English Language Teaching (ELT) over thirty years ago signalled a shift from grammar-based pedagogy to Communicative Language Teaching. It was generally accepted that, in addition to grammar rules, language teaching needed to take account of social context and social rules of use. The concept of communicative competence, initially developed for ethnographic research, appeared to offer an intellectual basis for pedagogic broadening. The transfer of this concept from research to language teaching has, however, produced abstracted contexts and idealized social rules of use based on (English language) native-speakerness. Drawing on recent work in the fields of World Englishes, English as a lingua franca and Second Language Acquisition, this article argues that it is imperative for ELT to take notice of real-world social, cultural and language developments in contemporary conditions and to re-engage with a set of reformulated ethnographic sensitivities and sensibilities.

The gist of the paper is best expressed in the concluding remark on the last part of the last page.

The objectification and reification of curriculum knowledge largely based on native-speaker idealizations and the reduction of the social to mean classroom interaction have effectively insulated the concept of communicative competence from the developments in English and the myriad ways in which it is now understood and used in different contexts. Theoretically as well as pedagogically, there is every reason to reconnect with the social world if the concept of communicative competence is to mean anything more than a textbook simulacrum of Englishes in the world. (Leung, 2005, p. 139)

The 'objectification and reification' is evident and prevalent in the mainstream of ELT literature, and this was produced by the interpretation and operationalization deemed necessary for the standartized curriculum.

The interpretations and operationalization of the concept of communicative competence over the past thirty years or so, as evidenced by the mainstream of ELT literature, have psychologized and reified the social dimension. (Leung, 2005, p. 138)

However, this is a great deviation from the spirit of Dell Hymes, one of the very first proponents of the concept of communicative competence.

[Ethnography of communication] would approach language neither as an abstracted form nor as an abstract correlate of a community, but as situated in the flux and pattern of communicative events. It would study communicative form and function in integral relation to each other. (Hymes 1994: 12) [Quoted in Leung, 2005, p. 122]

Hymes (1994) Towards ethnographies of communication.
In J. Maybin (ed.), Language and literacy in social practice.
Clevedon: Multilingual Matters,
in association with the Open University. 11-22.

Our task in applied linguistics, then, is to re-define the concept of communicative competence so that the complex realities of the use of English as a lingua franca (ELF) or English as an international language (EIL). Leung states:

Under contemporary conditions, it seems absolutely necessary for the concept of communicative competence to attend to both the standard and local Englishes, and to tune in to both established and emergent forms and norms of use. Through the adoption of different sets of intellectual sensitivities and sensibilities, such as the ones suggested by Roberts et al. (2001), we can begin to de-reify culture-, context- and time-bound notions of linguistic correctness, social and cultural appropriateness, real-life feasibility and possibility in a convivial mood. (Leung, 2005, p. 139)

Roberts, C., M. Byram, A. Barro, S. Jordan and B. Street (2001)
Language learners as ethnographers.
Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

The task starts with our realization of the nature of idealization of the native speaker model.

Thus, in so far as one may wish to refer to native speakers as a reference point for a specific curriculum, they have to be specified in terms of a whole range of attributes such as social/community position, context and modality of language use, gender, age and so on. So while there are clearly native speakers of English (as there are native speakers of other languages), there isn’t a universal model of native speakers’ use of language. (Leung, 2005, pp. 130)

So there isn’t a unified and bounded phenomenon called English, except in the sense of English being a set of codified lexical and grammatical resources which can be exploited and used for speech and writing or, as Widdowson (2003: 51) calls it, “a virtual language”. (Leung, 2005, pp. 130-131)

Widdowson (2003)
Defining issues in English language teaching.
Oxford University Press.

However, in my opinion, humble gestures from the side of the native speaker is not a solution at all. The statement that the English of the native speaker (whoever it may be) is not the norm may be regarded by some conservative minds as the loss of the objectives in ELT, or hailed by some nationalists as the unconditioned approval of the English they are using (however it is regarded by other speakers of English in the world). I believe we need a better understanding of 'language' and 'norm' in general. For that purpose, I'll present Davidson's theory of language and an idea about the norm of English as a lingua franca.

Davidson's 'passing theory'

Donald Davidson (1917-2003) first caught my attention when Chomsky in New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind (2000) quoted him at some length and then argued that his conclusion was wrong. From experience, I knew that what Chomsky quotes to criticize is worthy of attention.

Of Davidson's works, the following produces one of the most interesting and controversial arguments.

Davidson, D. (2001). 'A nice derangement of epitaphs.'
In A. P. Martinich (Ed.) The philosophy of language.
(pp. 473-483) Oxford: Oxford University Press.

In the paper, Davidson introduces the distinction between prior theory and passing theory. Prior theory is what ordinary people generally regard as a "language": a code system that its native speakers share, more or less, completely, plus some other shared nonlinguistic knowledge -- Davidson uses the term "theory" because "prior theory" is regarded as a systematic method of interpretation that can be used recursively.

Davidson argues that in the case of malapropism, for example, the interpreter understands the speaker's message despite the prior theory; the interpreter disregards the literal meaning of the speaker's malapropism and gets the meaning 'correctly' (that's why the interpreter laughs with understanding). You can extend this argument with cases of understanding new words (those that the interpreter does not know) or 'foreigner's' utterances that greatly deviate from conventional uses of the native speaker. We somehow manage the situation and reach what 'passes' as the interpretation of the intended meaning in communication.

Davidson argues, then, that what is, more or less, shared between the speaker and the interpreter in communication is not the prior theory (or simply a 'language'), but the passing theory -- a tentative method of interpretation of the utterance being processed.

What must be shared for communication to succeed is the passing theory. For the passing theory is the one the interpreter actually uses to interpret an utterance, and it is the theory the speaker intends the interpreter to use. Only if these coincide is understanding complete. (Of course, there are degrees of success in communication; much may be right although something is wrong. This matter of degree is irrelevant to my argument.) (Davidson, 2001, p. 480)

Davidson regards the success of communication not as an entirely linguistic achievement (as the code model suggests), but as a general problem-solving in the real world.

we should realize that we have abandoned not only the ordinary notion of a language, but we have erased the boundary between knowing a language and knowing our way around in the world generally. (Davidson, 2001, p. 482)

Davidson then argues that it is not that we first acquire and share a 'language' completely and then succeed in communication.

We must give up the idea of a clearly defined shared structure which language-users acquire and then apply to cases. (Davidson, 2001, p. 483)

Davidson then says something that may be relevant to language teaching. Teachers may teach a 'language' (a shared code-system) but they are not able to teach how to communicate, at least in a standardized or regularized way, for the passing theory --something you need in the process of communication-- can be so ephemeral and transient to be standardized or regularized.

There is no more chance of regularizing, or teaching, this process than there is of regularizing or teaching the process of creating new theories to cope with new data in any field -- for that is what this process involves. (Davidson, 2001, pp. 482-483)

The norm of English as a lingua franca

Overall, I may concur with Chomsky that Davidson's argument is too radical, but I do believe one of his points has some relevance to linguistics and applied linguistics; a 'language' as a completely shared system of code is not always used in communication. We manage communication with the passing theory, and the use of the passing theory may be a source of language change. Despite, or in the lack of, the prior theory, people utter in different ways and what passes more often than not spread to be established (or not).

When we introduce time-dimension in the study of language (remember that the current standard linguistics is mostly synchronic and disregards the changes along with the passage of time), it becomes difficult for us to see language in a fixed state. Language changes in the passage of time either in microscopic or macroscopic terms. Besides, when a particular 'language' (whatever it may mean) is used by an ever increasing number of users, the changes are amplified. The 'language' becomes more dynamic and complex in its nature.

This is the dilemma of English as a lingua franca; it is hardly stable, so difficult to idealize specifically, so multifaceted, plastic and susceptible to change. How can something so evanescent and diverse be the norm or objective of language education?

My response is to slightly modify the conventional idea of the norm. The norm should not be regarded as a fixed end product, but as an orientation in the processes that learners are to go through. The norm of English as a lingua franca (ELF) is not a product that learners are to have, but a process that learners are to be in. ELF is not a matter of possession but a matter of being in the world.

This kind of process argument is something I've been struggling with (Related post: "Where is Self, and what is it?" No, it's rather "How is Self?": Luhmann's theory of autopoiesis. I wonder if I should read Whitehead's Process and reality (I've never read his works so far).

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