#FLmultilingua 3: everyone is a language learner

Week 3 of #FLmultilingua had two foci:

  • language learning as creative art
  • creative arts in language learning

The creative arts section was not for me, although the theory of migratory aesthetics looks worth a closer look (see Essays | an essay | 2006 exhibition). The rest of the week was theory heavy; notes follow.

The capabilities approach: the freedom to achieve potential

Developed by Sen & Nussbaum, an evaluative framework to assess individuals’ well-being. Aims to develop an environment that promotes ‘humanly rich goals’ (Nussbaum, 2006).

The term well-being is interpreted in terms of the freedom to live the life that an individual has reason to value. The notion of reason to value is important, as individuals must be able to choose their own values and objectives upon reflection.

The notion of capabilities refers to the freedoms to achieve what individuals are actually able to do and to be, in other words their potential. The actual achievement, the practical realisation of one’s chosen way of life is defined as functioning. The conversion of capabilities into functioning is determined by agency, which is the ability of people to act and bring about change according to one’s own values and objectives (Sen, 1999).

Individuals’ agency, freedoms and achieved functionings are not perceived in isolation as they strengthen society and, at the same time, are affected by socio-political-economic-environmental and cultural constraints. Development is conceptualized as enhancing freedom and removing obstacles in order to foster human flourishing.

Sen leaves his approach deliberately open, without specifying what capabilities should count as valuable, as he believes that this process needs public consultation and public reasoning. Conversely, Nussbaum argues for a list of universal capabilities, to be underwritten by constitutions and underpinned by the question “What does a life worthy of human dignity require?” (Nussbaum, 2000: 14). She develops a provisional list consisting of ten capabilities, based on two overarching capabilities: practical reason and affiliation.

Education is considered a meta-capability as it enables individuals to nurture all the other capabilities they value. Nussbaum  advocates three main capabilities for human development: critical examinationaffiliation and narrative imagination.

Three central capabilities for education:

  • critical examination: linked to the capacity to reflective thinking and self-reflection; Socratic dialogue as a central tool to guide critical thinking logically
  • affiliation: the ability to perceive oneself as a member of a local group, but also as bond to all other human beings, tied to them by recognition, love and compassion
  • narrative imagination: a combination of the first two capabilities; the ability to take the perspective of others, both consciously and compassionately; this capability of empathy is cultivated through literature and the arts (Von Wright, 2002: 410)

The celebration of heterogeneity and diversity is central to the capability approach. Sen encourages intercultural dialogue that “celebrates the multiplicity of identities” (Crosbie, 2014: 92) and warns us against plural monoculturalism which poses obstacles to real intercultural dialogue.

The capabilities approach encourages educators to perceive language education beyond competency and skilled-based models, ie beyond the acquisition of skills to a more intercultural language education: “Skills and learning outcomes serve an instrumental dimension of education that follows neoliberal imperatives”.

Crosbie identifies 12 capabilities for language and intercultural studies (the capability L2 literacy and communication consists of the traditional language skills and sub-skills):

Multilingual and multimodal literacies in the classroom

What are the implications of linguistic diversity for educational practices? There followed a summary of Burcu et al (2014). Snippets:

  • until recently, children’s home languages have been at best overlooked or ignored; at worst, they have been treated as an impediment to the acquisition of the dominant language, something to be actively discouraged (the tosproget issue in Denmark)
  • in most western countries, linguistic diversity is increasingly the norm; greater mobility means that more and more pupils are in contact with a wide range of linguistic backgrounds, and may have hybrid, multiple and dynamic forms of identity
  • while the explicit role of education is to allow children to fully develop their potential, this does not usually extend to the wealth represented by the linguistic repertoires so many children have access to
  • the barriers created by an educational system that privileges the dominant language(s) while disregarding others can result in loss of the home language, disengagement and poor literacy outcomes

Non-verbal meaning-making strategies

Most of our everyday communication is translingual – we draw on a diversity of codes, not just language, inc body language, visuals… We use images, symbols and icons to make meaning in conversations and understand the world around us. We call these semiotic codes. In addition to that, our conversations never happen in an ‘empty space’. They are always embedded in a context (the environment, the speakers’ agenda etc) which provides meaning also.

How useful and ‘effective’ are such non-verbal meaning-making strategies? Do images easily translate cross-culturally or are visual strategies, like language, a more complicated medium of communication than we initially consider it to be?

Final thoughts

The thrust of the MOOC can be found in Alison’s statement at the end of her TED talk: “One language cannot explain the whole world”. Is anyone saying it can? And this is my issue: it’s all very lovely and well-meaning, another stick for white liberals to beat themselves with, but it’s felt increasingly one-sided as the weeks went on. Things are rather more complex than presented, and the migrant (as in refugee) narrative finally took over.

Updates: International Mother Language Day was in the UK largely another exercise in guilt (Bilingualism Matters’ Refugee languages welcome!) and in DK a chance to celebrate the dansk; news stories on the day included the Social Democrats’ proposal to remove the right to benefits from citizens who don’t speak Danish and the proposed banning of teaching in Arabic in private Muslim schools (both redacted as too depressing). See The Salzburg Statement for a Multilingual World (no Danish translation when I looked).

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