Does language represent freedom or limitation?

I’m an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher, which means I teach people who speak other languages how to speak English. Just as the acronym implies, my students already speak a first language, as they are nearly always immigrants or visiting students from other countries. I’ve taught everywhere from false beginners – meaning that my students can say little more than “Hello” and “America” and “McDonald’s – I’m lovin’ it!” (okay, maybe not that last one) – up through students at the proficiency level, who are essentially refining their pronunciation and expanding their suite of linguistic tools (their personal lexicon, if you will) for use in America or in environments where English adds advantage and distinction.

It’s interesting to think of this idea of “advantage” vis-à-vis language learning, because I think it’s one of the first and strongest arguments made for newcomers to this country to learn English as soon as possible through all-English educational opportunities. This, in fact, is the argument for programming in public school like Sheltered English or Structured English Immersion, both of which employ an all-English, all the time environment in which students are meant to learn in the same way that children acquire their first language, that is, in a linguistic environment in which they are constantly exposed to meaningful language use guided by native speakers (teachers, sometimes other students). (A minor point to be sure here: first, there is a difference between sheltered instruction/structured immersion and language submersion, in that the former provides what is called scaffolding to learners (academic supports from teachers), whereas the latter depicts the classic “sink-or-swim” approach to education.

This may sound great, not to mention natural and logical, and you can see some of the arguments for such an approach (and against bilingual education) at places like ProEnglish.org. However, if you look deeper, a lot of the purported benefits come with a very high price. In a subtractive language learning environment, where students (ELLs, or English Language Learners, in the U.S.) are discouraged from using their home language, students still suffer delayed or “permanently” limited development of higher-level English language skills and academic literacy, isolation from their English-speaking peers as well as from their first culture, community, and family, contributing to the possibility of socioaffective problems of being unable to cope and adapt. In addition, parents of ELLs who speak English with limitations are less able to support their children’s studies and participate in the educational community that schooling originally was meant to be. Similar outcomes occurred during the 1800s in our country when Native American children were educated through “civilizing” boarding schools and policies, which aimed at assimilating Native American children into mainstream Anglo society while contributing to the “divide-and-conquer” side effect of separating Native children from their families linguistically and culturally. Finally, it has been found in real schools that SEI and other models imply inferior quality of academic instruction, work, and achievement for ELLs in contrast to that of their native English-speaking peers, thus ironically reinforcing their struggles to access opportunity in this country.

There are many more complicating arguments relating to English education in this country, including the theories of John Ogbu about voluntary versus “castelike” minorities, discussions about social class and Bordieu’s notion of cultural capital, academic literacy and family educational background, and others, but for now, I aim not to articulate the reasons why the U.S. should choose one model of language education for ELLs (though I suppose you could guess which side I come down on), but rather to explore a more abstract philosophical point: Does language free, or limit, us by its nature?

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I haven’t yet read Wittgenstein, whom I know philosophized about language in his work. I confess that as a linguist, I studied more phonemes (a discrete unit of sound in a language) than philosophy when it comes to language. Still, I have some starting questions I hope to answer in my work. They include the following:

  1. a) Is the fact that language is an arbitrary system which, while dynamic, reflects less the individual’s language use and more the individual’s employment of a predetermined system of understandings, an implicit limitation on the freedom of communication?
  2. Do we only have the range of concepts available to us as recognizable categories encapsulated in the language(s) we speak, or are we able to think “outside” our language? (I actually have an answer for this already, based on the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis, which was disproven in the 1980s.) Still, how does our language influence how we conceive of and embrace the world?
  3. When I teach false beginners, we can say very little to each other; the same is true when I try to speak French with a native speaker. What if all of us are, in fact, non-native speakers of language? Put another way, is it possible that language, as an approximation of meaning based on given circumstances and associations, is itself a limitation on our potential for communication? And how would we ever know, or find an alternative given our societal definitions and this particular moment on the evolutionary staircase?

If all of these questions have some merit – meaning, none are easily answered because they each contain some truths and contingencies – then it might be a decent argument against the idea that teaching anyone a second language equates to freeing them. What we might admit is that contrary to such thoughts, this act constitutes in fact adding a different set of liberations and constraints, overlaying them and finding concentricities with the first. Just as in society we can be seen as both free and enslaved, perhaps it is also the case that our language brings us into a social space and yet tears away the freedom inherent to the expansiveness of language-less thought and existence.

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