Why Don’t Policy Makers Listen to Experts (particularly Applied Linguists)?
What Language Means to Inclusive Education
What Language Means to Inclusive Education
„I am horrified about migrant families who do not use German at home. I can’t understand this. Not speaking German is detrimental to their children’s language development. I know that you hold a differing view, but at this point, I do not agree with you.“ During a family dinner we came to talk about language in Austrian schools. This is how my mother introduced the topic of language use at home. It is not an unusual topic, even at family dinners. Language has come to be intensively debated in public, political and scientific discourse. Moreover, all participants of this particular dinner are rather close to the institution where education is organised, i.e. school – my mother and myself being former teachers, the children being students now and my husband having a (less recent) 12-year-experience of schooling.
We all observe the spectacular and non-linear language development
of our neighbors, who newly arrived in Austria in 2016. And via voluntary activities we have been learning a lot about the efforts people make in order to manage their own or their children’s education in a new country with a new language regime. In our neighbor’s life, this meant adapting from a Dari/Farsi/Arabic- to a German-dominated regime.
At this particular dinner, our children did their best in responding to their grandmother’s above-mentioned statement about German at home („It is good for families to use the languages they feel most comfortable with“) and I added an unrealistic case in order to illustrate the absurdity of a German-only language policy at home („Imagine families coming from far and not knowing German, arriving in Austria and speaking German with their children!“) This did not change anything about my mother’s position.
After the dinner my elder daughter was wondering „Why doesn’t she believe you? You are the linguist! Even your own mother doesn’t believe your expertise.“ I interpreted this as an allusion to the fact that together with many linguists I have been openly criticizing Austria’s exclusionary language education policy which separates children according to their competences in German (for 2018 see http://www.verbal.at/fileadmin/user_upload/20180113_SN_Regierung.pdf , further statements see: www.verbal.at; sprachenrechte.at; www.oedaf.at).
The linguists’ arguments in this discussion remained widely unheard by the policy makers. My daughter finished by asking „Why aren’t you heard? Nobody would mistrust physicists. What is wrong with you?“
Reversing the question, I will ask why it is so difficult to communicate linguistic expertise about inclusive education and try to give three tentative answers in the background of my research experience:
There are no simple answers. What holds true for scientific results in general has particularly accompanied linguistics for decades: Experts seem to take serious risks when putting their language-related results into communicable formulas – even within the field. Let’s look at the apparently simple research result that „the development of competence in a second language (L2) is partially a function of the type of competence already developed in L1 at the time when intensive exposure to L2 begins“ (Cummins 1979, 117).
This frequently debated and misunderstood statement was brought about by the educationalist Jim Cummins at the end of the 1970s. On its way into Austrian (and other) schools, it has undergone oversimplification, and turned into the normative device that L2-learning shall best be based upon a highly developed L1. The topos of the L1 basis developed into a simple and understandable formula that nowadays has come to serve several goals such as explaining why L2 teaching is a difficult enterprise and possibly doomed to produce meager results. „They do not even know their L1, how shall they learn the L2?“ Justifications like these may have a terrible impact on pedagogical practice. Moreover, they are based on misleading oversimplification, as
many criticisms have been busy to show: „What does “knowing“ a language mean? What does “a language” itself mean and what impact does the answer have on multilinguals?” What about variation, registers or partial competences? Oversimplifications like “L1-knowledge as a prerequisite for L2-development” disregard the complexity of multilingualism and the impossibility to define the kind of L1 knowledge needed. At the end, they disempower language users.
The interesting thing is that this simplification of the so-called Interdependence Hypothesis has never been correct since the Hypothesis has always been part of a wider and much more complex theory about language in education: „if optimal development of a minority language child’s cognitive and academic potential is a goal, then the school program must aim to promote an additive form of bilingualism involving literacy in both L1 and L2“ (Cummins 1979). The Interdependence Hypothesis is part of a more general theory about language in education which has been significantly modified within the last decades on the basis of empirical research (Cummins, Jim 2016: Reflections on Cummins (1980), “The Cross-Lingual Dimensions of Language Proficiency: Implications for Bilindugal Education and the Optimal Age Issue.” TESOL Quarterly 50 (4), 940-944; Gogolin, Ingrid & Neumann, Ursula 2009 (eds.): Streitfall Zweisprachigkeit. The Bilingualism Controversy. VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.). The hypothesis of a certain level needed in L1 (threshold-hypothesis) was left behind. The focus is on the interrelationship of L1 and L2, strenghening the position that L1 is not detrimental to L2 and that L1 can even be highly beneficial if literacy is developed in it. Empirical research has confirmed the important function of L1 literacy for the benefits of multilingualism: Parents read books to their young children or children learn to read and write in their L1 at school, the L1 is taught to them – there are many ways towards the type of multilingualism that Cummins calls „additive“. This scientific research goes far beyond the simple formula of L1 as being a prerequisite for L2. A particular L1-knowledge is beneficial for L2. The ways towards this knowledge are varied and context-dependent. However, one can simply conclude that not using German at home in a country with a German-based language regime like Austria is not detrimental to the children’s L2-develpment (without mentioning all the other potentially positive consequences related to wellbeing, inter-generational communication etc.).
If there are evidence-based and clear-cut scientific results, why aren’t they taken up in popular discourse? And why don’t policy makers listen to experts? The second tentative answer to this question would be that the phenomenon itself is particularly complex. And again, I would not claim that phenomena of other disciplines are less complex, but they are maybe less part of the everyday experience of individuals than is language. And they are perhaps less confronted with popular ideas. „May I draw my mother tongue, even if I do not know it?“ (Vetter, Eva 2018: The potential in resistance. Subject-related empirical research in the multilingual classroom. Link: https://www.ecml.at/Portals/1/documents/ECML-resources/PlurCur-EN-final.pdf?ver=2018-05-31-100118-647) This question, raised by a girl in a workshop where we worked on language portraits, made me think about my own ideas about mother tongue. After having read a big amount of literature on the ideological burden of „mother tongue“, I was nevertheless surprised by this question. With her question the girl ran counter a popular idea on “mother tongue” which I appeared to still have in mind, i.e. nativeness as something you have and feel close to. She articulated a difference between competence in and attachment to a language and questioned this construct. How do we define mother tongue? What is the L1 we talked about above? And we come back to the central question: What is language?
Working with young people (the way I had the chance to do) in the UniClub at the University of Vienna provides a perfect learning space for experts and I would say particularly for linguists. It made me understand in how far language is a construct with strong political, ideological, social and, of course, educational implications. A construct that helps us organize and understand our realities, but that – at the same time – also calls for radical de-construction when it obscures this same reality. This is the case when researchers understand that the label “language” is not helpful anymore and when concepts are discussed such as named languages versus linguistic practice, language repertoire, ideology, translanguaging, code-switching, monolingual and multilingual norms etc. The girl’s question made me realize that what is discussed in different disciplines is not a peripheral scientific debate in the ivory tower, but at the heart of the individuals’ experience with language. And what is even more: This deconstructing activity and the scientific openness associated with it are a necessary endeavor in order to understand language in education. They make us realize that individuals process the societal norms and ideologies quite differently. I came across a variety of strategies individuals adopt in order to cope with the new language regime in a new country: „I had to enclose English in a box to be able to concentrate on German“an adolescent explained his individual strategy to me. Many questions emerge in a space like this: What about those languages that are not part of this new regime? What about the many situations in which young people do not know where they will live their lives? In how far does this impact upon linguistic decisions? In how far does it make sense to invest in German if they could soon be made to leave the country? How do institutions react to these realities? Insecurity frequently accompanies young learners and influences their decisions. Categories like “language” or “L1”, “L2” are unable to capture what individuals live and experience. “In my family, my brother and I, we use English, whereas my mother uses Kurdish.” In this case of a girl even a practice-based category like “family language” collapses.
It makes sense to engage in this activity of deconstruction. Many young people share the same common experience: They recognize that having a good command of what they have learned to name German may be useless if their communicative partners use dialect. During the years of cooperation with the UniClub, it was possible to see the pupils’ development from the sometimes tremendously fast progress in German at the beginning towards the capacity to realize academic and highly demanding activities in this language some years later. We became witnesses of the intricate relationship between language learning and use, of the need for a safe context and for partners. The many individual stories articulate the diversity of situations, institutions and interactions in which language develops. But what can we take away from this enterprise beyond the fact that we have more questions than at the beginning and that the phenomenon is even more complex than we assumed?
Experiences in the field like the UniClub invite us to reflect upon, to modify and maybe to (re)create theories, hypotheses and assumptions. They help us to develop knowledge, here: knowledge on language. Do we also learn about inclusive education? In how far is knowing that traditional categories do not work and that individuals go their own ways helpful here?
Let me try a last tentative answer: The experience in the field can teach us that inclusion is not so much to be understood in terms of a verb. “To include” somebody or particular groups is not the right way to go. Instead, let us think about inclusion in terms of becoming inclusive.
Becoming an inclusive society and transforming education into an inclusive one means developing and hence changing the whole enterprise. We are just starting to realize how complex this can be and that single stories, simple formula and answers are not adequate. They are as inadequate as monolingual norms for the most intimate contexts such as communication within families.
I still do not know why policy makers don’t trust experts. The tentative answers have at least provided insights into some of the complexities at stake. They have strengthened the need for openness towards plurality and change. And from this I would like to conclude that inclusive education means to become different as a society/as a group/as the entire educational system. And this is what language can teach us.
by Eva Vetter
This story is part of Multinclude Inclusion Stories about how equity is implemented in different educational environments across the globe. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Author is Professor at the Center for Research into Language Teaching and Learning and Vice-head of Center for Teacher Education at the University of Vienna.