"The whole movement of life is learning" (Krishnamurti). "To be an act of knowing, then, the adult literacy process must engage the learners in the constant problematizing of their existential situations" (Freire). "Once you learn to read, you will be forever free" (Douglass). "I can learn anything I have the desire to learn" (White, S.G.).

Monday, February 17, 2014

In defense of English

     How can a language be omnivorous?  Certainly the biology definition of the word doesn't fit.  Possibly the second definition ("taking in or using whatever is available") is what Janks meant. Or perhaps that the English language is somehow destroying the native languages in South Africa.  This must be it, since later in the writing English "poses a threat to other languages."  English is taking quite a bashing by an English teacher/teacher educator!
     Before we completely condemn English for all the terrible things it has done in South Africa let's think of some of the good things it still has going for it.  It is still the language of the international scientific community.  It allows discoveries and research to be shared and built upon around the globe. It acts as common means of communication and discourse between researchers the world over.  
     It is still the most common form of communication between non-English speakers everywhere.  It is nice to have a "common language" and especially nice to be a native speaker of it.  It is also the language of the majority of the great works of literature over the past century. But maybe that's because it has eaten all the other languages.
     I think my biases are equally as obvious as Janks' so it is probably time to move on.  "Meaning making" is the term I want to touch on next.  Is literacy the ability to make meaning out of texts?  What level of meaning making deems you literate?  Or is that a cognitive skill as opposed to a literacy skill?  I think we are treading on thin ice here.  Did Paulo Friere teach literacy to oppressed workers or did he teach them critical thinking and cognitive skills to read between the lines and see how power and other influences effect texts?  Maybe he did both.  Personally, I think we are stretching the definition of literacy to include those skills.  


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  2. *updated with correct pronouns re Janks – sorry for my patriarchal assumptions!*

    Hi Greg,

    I was also unsure of how English could be “omnivorous,” though it did bring to mind James Nicoll's quotation speaking to the language's ravenous appetite for new words: “We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffle their pockets for new vocabulary.” rifle

    However, I am pretty sure that Janks isn't speaking specifically against “English” but is using it as a proxy for colonialism and a discourse's power over a people. Before English, Dutch was the colonizing tongue in South Africa. If the Dutch had remained in power, then she might be writing about Dutch instead of English. All this I think speaks to her point that “language is fundamentally tied to questions of power.” For example, although English may be the dominant discourse of business at the present, it very well could be Mandarin or another language by the middle or end of this century.

    There's nothing wrong with having a standard language for communication. In US schools we teach 'standardized American English' (the US has no official language) while trying to honor our students' home dialects, because we recognize the need for a common tongue for clear communication. However, when the purpose of having an 'official' languages serves to shut out/oppress certain people by creating a “dominant discourse” that denies or limits access to power, then it becomes highly problematic. This is what I see happening in South Africa if less than 9% of the people speak English, yet it was being propagated as the dominant discourse, acting as a gatekeeper to education and other institutions of power and influence.

    How did other folks interpret this?

  3. Greg - let's remember that Janks is actually NOT bashing English. In fact her project gets criticized by the more extreme multiculturalism groups that only want to privilege the indigenous languages. On the other hand, her writing, like almost all of the texts we read in 650 are ideologically positioned to represent the voices of those who are otherwise rarely heard. Of course that makes them biased, but since almost all macro discourses about education are controlled by those in power (e.g., Gates Foundation, Arne Duncan...) those of us doing critical literacy work see this an important corrective. On the other hand, it does not mean we should only read against the mainstream texts! Dialogue is essential. but to have this, multiple sides need to be at the table, yes? :)

  4. Thanks dr. Muth and Seth. I especially liked Seth's calm response to my reactionary post. I guess I prefer to think of the actual English colonialists and subsequent racist leaders as the problem. I agree with dr. Muth that we need to have more sides at the table. I think too often we assume certain truths without examining the other sides of the story


Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on this post. Diverse opinions are welcomed.