Towards an Emic Weltanschauung
Professor of Astronomy in Linguistics
The Δίς Λεγόμενον Centre for
Although ostensibly an etic reality, composed—trivially—as it is of walls, ceiling and floor, populated as it is not only by education artefacts but also by the human givens of teacher and learners, the language classroom has masqueraded as as etic a phenomenon as the moons of Jupiter for too long. Here, we bravely seize the long overdue opportunity to rewrite the socio-culturo-cognitive topology of the language classroom as what it really is: a shifting myriad of the qualia of a kaleidoscope of colours, as constructivist in its alpha as it is emic in its omega.
Consider first the ‘language’ that is to be taught. Too often framed simply as ‘English’, ‘Hungarian’, ‘Mandarin’ or ‘Linear B’, the construct of ‘a language’ has exceeded its sell-by date by several decades and now lies on the kitchen working surface, the dusty remnants of a crumbling once-organic bag of fruit and veg. Instead of defending, reproducing and disseminating some hegemonic monstrosity that is ‘the target language’, the language classroom should instead not embrace but actively teach—and test!—the dialectical variation that is implicit in any language worth being learnt. There is no English, there is no Hungarian; only millions of idiolects which shine in their own right as stars in the lingua-cosmos of the false gods of their respective ‘languages’.
If the myth of linguistic uniformity—the sorry and even less successful linguistic parody of that succession of post-Renaissance, Tudor-Stuart, politico-religious manoeuvrings, those ‘Acts’ of ‘Uniformity’ which were mere acts of un-iformity—shines out as a Pole Star in the alleged eticity of the language classroom, no less does the depiction of ‘teacher’ and ‘student’ as fixed points in pedagogical space serve to waft the whiff of effrontery nosewards to any interested observer.
There is no teacher; there is no learner.
Instead, two constellations of holistic identities interact, act and react in the waltz of classroom-based language learning. Yes, the ‘teacher’ may prototypically possess the floor, initiate questions, control, correct and police responses, but for every initiation-response-feedback sequence in any unit of classroom interaction, surely in the tech-rich, post-modern, individuated, differentiated and learner-attuned environment of the 21st century language classroom there is at least one unit of pairwork, classroom discussion, reflexive-reflective meta-cognition–directed activity played out within a flipped classroom MOOC-hosted pedagogic space. And to say this is to say much; and that much is to say this: that a dichotomous, objectified understanding of the complexes of ‘teacher’ and ‘students’ is a passé, past-it, and pasty notion, offensive to the mind as it is malevolent to the learner.
We continue, led onwards by the necessary dynamics of the nature of learning, beyond the rough and poorly sketched paraphernalia of pedagogical artefacts and materiality, beyond even the enacted and interweaving multiple identity complexes of the whole-person humans that inhabit the space, into that holy of holies, the Temple of Apollo, the Light Beyond the Veil: the mind of the language learner itself. Here, what objectivity can be perceived, let alone claimed, owned and labelled ‘empirical’? As think-aloud study after think-aloud study has proven, thoughtfully and loudly, the language learner herself has no clear understanding of what it is that she has just been learning. The nature of the cognitive representation of language learning eludes the prying eyes of the scientific method, secreting itself among the high and lofty places of the Land Lost to Empiricism. Whatever syllabus, method or approach is in play in the landscape of the already deconstructed ‘classroom’, whatever piece(s) of language are being enacted, by whatever mode, for whatever pedagogical and/or communicative purpose, there is no knowing whether this ‘unit of learning’ has been learnt, was already known, passed unnoticed, was misunderstood, or was forgotten immediately on presentation. Cast aside, theoreticians of language pedagogy, the false prophets of input, intake, uptake, representation, output and automaticity, cling instead to the shifting shadows and shuffling shapelettes of chaotic-in-their-complexity and cartwheeling-in-their-unclarity images and icons of the unpredictability that is the cognitive representation of the manifestation of the target language.
Now we see clearly: instead of a space populated by well understood roles acting in allegiance to some overlord of language pedagogy, the language classroom lays claim to a far more mysterious, magisterial reality that evades and escapes the grasping vanities of any analysis that might remotely smack of the etic. It is a space apart, unknown and, in its deepest realities, unknowable. And for this we are grateful: that the mystery and majesty of the journey of the language learner can and must remain an as-it-were nebulous plasma of shooting stars, briefly—and at best vaguely—spotted by chance at the farthest edge of the last corner of the uttermost periphery of the astronomer’s wobbling telescope. Continue in your Great and Noble Quest, language learner, and attend your ‘classes’, safe in the knowledge that neither you, nor anyone else, knows what you are doing.