Wednesday, November 13, 2013

There was a new bird in the tree this morning. It's about twice as big as the little brown ones that hop around and chirp, and instead is darkly colored with thin streaks of white on its back and wings. It puffed out its cheeks and sang a little as I listened. This morning is cold in Indiana, twenty-two degrees as I write. In a half hour I need to get dressed and get on my bike and head to school. Most mornings during the week I'm at the Oral English Proficiency Program working with the same eight students, one at a time, one hour per week, individually on pronunciation and other speaking skills. Even more than teaching writing I enjoy this work, in part because it's one-on-one and more often than not the students are motivated. Not that any of these students, graduate students, can't speak English, as all of them are more than fluent (and quite far advanced in their respective fields), however the purpose of the program and my work with them is to make sure that they are ready to teach undergraduates. If you are lecturing to a hundred people, say a hundred freshman (since tenured professors rarely teach introductory classes) it's more efficient to make sure the instructor is an effective teacher than it is to make sure that the students are skilled learners. In terms of the work itself, there is a fine line between helping someone become a better communicator and telling someone how to speak and behave, the former approach as a more collaborative process and the latter as a top down imposition that at the end of the day, is less likely to help a person speak well.

Thus the job is one part tutor, communicating the nuances of why English sounds like it does, working with students to develop their ears, bringing attention to lingering grammar issues, intonation, etc; one part therapist working to build trust, since tinkering with the way another speaks can  quickly turn into an counter-productive self-consciousness; and one part detective, working with a student, particularly students who have had to take the course more than once, trying to figure out exactly what little idiosyncratic hitches are holding them back. By this I mean it is rare that a person is not able to make particular sounds given proper instruction and intensive practice, however there is so much more to the choice and voice of how we sound than a mechanical knowledge of where to put our tongue or which word to stress. 

Yesterday I was speaking with one of these students about speaking English in Korea. She talked about the perception that if your English is "native like" (I put this in quotes because the term "native" indicates that there is such a thing when it comes to language acquisition. For example English is spoken fluently in many countries in the world, such as India and Jamaica, however the variety of English is radically different than the variety spoken in the United States. So as, in the field of World Englishes using the term "native" is to suggest that one variety of English is more authentic than another.) and she went on to say that to use the American variety of English is to indicate that you have had excessive schooling and opportunity and in short, is interpreted as a kind of showing off. So as, to speak like an American is actually not a desirable quality at times. We wondered together how her preferences to be, and be seen at any given time were shaping the words coming out of her mouth.

This reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend from Japan over the summer. We were talking about identity in other languages and she told me that she was suspicious of  people, born and raised in Japan, who spoke English, like somebody who was born and raised in the United States. She couldn't relate, and saw it as the person casting off their "home" (not her word, but it's the one I'm going to use) identity in order to fit in. In fact, she continued, there were certain words and ways that she kept distinct from the American variety because she enjoyed her status as an outsider. We talked about that. We talked about if there was a difference between the status of men and women in this regard, that maybe a Japanese woman can enjoy a higher status in the United States because she is Japanese but a Japanese man may not. Anyway, it was interesting. My point is not so much about Korea or Japan or the United States, but that there are certain aspects of our identities that sometimes keep us from getting with whatever program certain interest groups are encouraging us to get with. And I admit, the word identity is awfully ambiguous but it will have to be a place holder for the time being. Or a more English centric example, that just because one was born and raised in Boston doesn't mean that a person necessarily speaks with a thick New England accent. Studies (not cited here) have shown that the voices we adopt and choose to speak with are more in relation to who we relate to and model ourselves after than our geographic location.

My interest in this idea relates to the OEPP, discovering these little social context issues that solidify our preferences, so that I might better understand and help my students develop competencies on level with being effective teaching assistants (nice huh? can you tell that I've been doing some serious graduate school writing lately?), but my interest in the relationship of identity to learning also relates to the writing classroom. Because reading and writing is something we all know how to do and something that we've been doing our entire lives, to teach writing is to come against these solidified identifies (that manifest as "voice") that may or may not be helpful to learning other varieties of writing. Voices want more of themselves. Others to talk to and be heard by and listen, always projecting in some direction.