Irreducible differences and legitimacy gaps: Observations from the BLC colloquium

On Friday I had the pleasure of joining many colleagues and friends at UC Berkeley for the first and last sessions of a one-day colloquium organized by Claire Kramsch and Lihua Zhang, entitled “The legitimacy gap: Multilingual native language teachers in monolingual foreign language departments”. Inspired by the colloquium’s contention that native-speaking teachers of foreign, second, and heritage languages are both constrained and enabled by the fact that the words they teach may mean different things to themselves, to their students, and in the countries and communities where they are more broadly spoken, I resolved from the start to wear two blogging hats, and post this in two places. The first of these is the Berkeley Language Center’s Found in Translation, the blog I called home for several years of graduate study and postdoctoral work; the second is here, Multilingual Commons, one of my new online homes as I explore blogging language with faculty and staff at Yale. The post itself speaks in two formats too, as the first and last paragraphs are in prose; they try to contextualize and interpret what lies between, my real-time notes from the sessions, recorded and posted to Twitter in 140 character tweets, and then compiled as a Storify slideshow.

And here they are:

Looking over and rereading these pint-sized observations, I’m reminded of how this workshop could have gone on for days. From the distinction between the “authenticity” that native speaking teachers bring to the L2 classroom and the “legitimacy” that keeps them there, to the to the role of L3s (and L4s and L5s!) in the teaching of one’s L1, to issues of morality, political correctness and censorship in language teaching, to the need for translingual, transcultural competencies in the L2 classroom (and the implications of this for language departments that continue to reproduce a “one nation, one language” worldview), each topic could have been its own day, its own workshop.

Looking back, though, it seems fitting to me that the last tweet (“Does ‘happiness’ mean the same thing in English and Chinese? ‘Politically correct’ the same in English and French?”) has the last word. It came at a moment near the end of the colloquium when the meaning of “culture” in L2 learning was under question. Culture, not of the “food, fairs, and folklore” variety (a favorite characterization that I picked up from Kramsch), but culture as language, in the manner of linguistic relativity—the idea that the same words, even when translated directly between languages, can never mean the same thing, because the worlds, contexts, and experiences they index are necessarily different.

And it made even more sense to me that this was brought to bear upon the event’s central question of legitimacy, as I remembered the company I was in: among those present were the multilingual Japanese language teachers who had taught me the language as an undergraduate, and then taught me to teach it as a graduate student instructor–a student both privileged in his access to the academic resources and opportunities of the university, and struggling with questions of legitimacy as a non-native, non-ethnic, non-certified teacher of Japanese. Of all the words uttered on Friday, I think “native” has haunted me the most. And there it still sits, uncomfortably, in the colloquium’s title.

The fact of irreducible and (at least partially) unresolvable differences between meanings, cultures, and identities seemed to me to be both a source of joy, and a cause of angst animating this day’s discussion. Just as these differences give rise to persistent questions about legitimacy, they may also guarantee the need for genuine, complex, multilingual language instructors, whose conflicted subjectivities are every bit essential to what goes on in the classroom.

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