Kramsch on monolingualism in FL education

Is there still a place for culture in a multilingual FL education?” asks Claire Kramsch in her recent article in the new journal of Language Education and Multilingualism, Langscape. In her response she tackles the notions of symbolic and intercultural competence, multlingualism and translanguaging practices, and what she calls the “reinvention of monolingualism” as it affects foreign language (FL) education (Kramsch 2018: 23). The article is open access and is built, somewhat counter-intuitively, around recent debate about cultural heritage in US politics associated with the Charlottesville protest (August 2017). Here I focus only on culture in foreign language education and the link Kramsch makes between opposing forces driving globalisation and their consequences for FL teachers.

She begins with a traditional, humanist view of teaching foreign languages and culture:

Foreign language (FL) education has traditionally been about opening students’ minds to other ways of viewing the world by speaking the language of people who might see it differently from the way they see it [… B]y learning other people’s vocabularies, [FL learners] are also learning other ways of thinking, talking and writing about people, objects and events. In other words, learning a second and foreign language is also learning to ‘become a speaker of culture,’ to use Elinor Ochs’ felicitous phrase

Kramsch goes on to detail post-structuralist views of culture (Norton 2000, Canagarajah 2011), following the move away from “fixed social practices and artifacts” to create communities which are “too hybrid and too complex to have well-defined rules of behaviours.” In post-modern terms (Gee 1999, Makoni & Pennycook 2007), multilingualism can be seen as crystallising “culture wars” arising from clashes between “advocates of globalisation” and “defendants of national heritages and traditions” (Kramsch 2018: 19).

On one hand, globalisation brings with it the prospect of increased participation, sense of community, plurality of voices, and human agency. It makes space for people to be heard and to change the culture of their everyday lives. On the other hand, globalisation ushers in the instrumentalisation of language, a consumerist, touristic mindset, that goes hand in hand with greater competitivity, and ultimately, greater and more invisible power and control.

Kramsch claims that globalisation is giving rise to two contradictory forces: one, “the invention of multilingualism,” an “ideology of diversity” serving civil rights and minority languages, and the other, an attempt to convert multilingualism into a “global ‘monolingualism'” in the service of a “neoliberal economic world order that speaks multilingual forms of global English” (Kramsch 2018: 21).

Developing this idea of emerging multilingualism as a response to superdiversity, the author describes resistance in the form of two constrasting types of monolingualism. First we have “the old kind of nation-based monolingualism, based on the one language=one culture equivalence.”


Photo by Rex Pickar on Unsplash

Second comes “a new kind of multilingualism, one based not on the needs of citizens of nation-states, but on the corporate need for stereotypes, brands, and icons for consumers on the global market of symbolic and material commodities” (Kramsch 2018: 23). She cites the example of Quebec cheesemakers who exploit their francophone dimension to sell their products:

Between pride and profit, they “sell Canada” via linguistic and cultural stereotypes that fit in nicely with a global economy that speaks only one language – that of consumerism – and sells multilingualism as an exotic added value.

This brings us to FL education, because

Such monolingualism of the stereotype is particularly pervasive in FL education, where most textbooks and online teaching materials adopt a ‘tourist gaze’ that defeats the purpose of multilingualism (Kramsch & Vinall 2015). This tourist gaze flattens the foreign culture, and transforms it into the panoptic vision of the National Geographic. One can argue that such stereotypical representations of the foreign culture are in the very nature of the genre ‘textbook,’ together with its expectations of normativity, authenticity and alignment with the demands of the market.

After discussion of a transition from “learning a foreign language” to “being multilingual” and a reminder of the Douglas Fir Group manifesto as a framework for a transdisciplinary approach to second language acquisition (SLA) research, Kramsch claims that

If FL education is defined not only as the acquisition of a linguistic system, but as acquiring a different way of speaking, thinking and behaving, and a pathway to understanding real speakers in real time and real contexts of use, then it has to take into account the multilingual practices that have become the hallmark of people living in a network society

The author suggest that translingual practice is not a suitable replacement for symbolic or intercultural competence in FL education, despite its advantage of avoiding neoliberal connotations of ‘competence.’ Instead, she presents the following vision:

In our post-modern era of diversity, social and historical contingency, and symbolic power struggles, we can no longer teach stable monolingual cultures. If FL education is about opening students’ minds to other ways of viewing the world by speaking the language of people who might see it differently, then it is about making them not doubly monolingual, but ‘multilingual.’ Beyond the standard grammar and vocabulary they are mandated to teach, language teachers are seeking to help their young students find ways of dealing with incompatible worldviews, ambiguous speech acts, self-serving stereotypes, and the asymmetrical exercise of symbolic power. By modelling symbolic competence themselves, teachers can help their students become ‘multilingual’ in this expanded sense of the term.



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