Covid-19 Disrupts ‘Single-Story’ Research into Language Education

Maggie Kubanyiova 

 August 2020 

 In her popular TED talk, the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warned against telling single stories about people, communities or social phenomena, noting that such narratives rob people of their dignity, limit our understandings, and make us vulnerable in the face of disconcerting tendencies of othering in our societies. Language is almost always misused as a proxy for this othering and language education, and therefore language education research, almost always has an ethical role to play in exposing multiple narratives 

 Language is almost always misused as a proxy for this othering and language education, and therefore language education research, almost always has an ethical role to play in exposing multiple narratives. 

The tectonic plates of the larger domain of applied linguistics have been shifting for some time now towards more nuanced, ecological and multi-perspectival understandings, most notably documented in the field of second language acquisition (Douglas Fir Group, 2016; Duff & Byrnes, 2019). These and other efforts have been pursued with the aim to make research on language learning and teaching more responsive to the complex and changing political, social and linguistic realities of people’s interactions and more attuned to the fine-grained detail of how they negotiate their meaning-making resources and identities as they learn and use additional languages. Sadly, however, large sections of our inquiry have often been complicit in circulating numerous ‘single-story’ narratives about almost any aspect of its remit, be it language, language learners, language teachers, or even purposes, contexts, speech communities and peoples.  

The world is far from emerging at the other end of the pandemic and there is huge uncertainty about the full consequences of individuals’ and communities’ prolonged physical, social, mental, economic or symbolic isolation. But thanks to global research and documentation efforts well under way, we are beginning to see a decisive role of language and multilingual practices in mass mobilisation efforts (Language on the Move, 2020), dramatic changes and creative adjustments in how we navigate distanced – but still deeply social and inclusive – interactions (PanMeMic, 2020 Swanwick et al., in press), and the renewed awareness of the complexity and social urgency of language teachers’ work (CLER, 2020)In other words, the contours of the new landscape likely to shape language teachers’ and their students’ lives in the foreseeable future are beginning to emerge. And this much is clear: The new vantage point has made singlestory research into language education untenable.  

Covid-19 narratives show, for instance, that relying on erroneous assumptions of linguistic homogeneity is not just dangerous metaphorically, but can have genuinely life-threatening consequences. It prevents those who do not share the assumed common language from accessing vital information and services, endangering their lives and those of others.  Language research, especially that which is rooted in sociolinguistic and critical perspectives, has always been in the business of distinguishing between language ideologies and socio-political nation-building projects on the one hand and the grassroots meaning making practices of people in specific social settings on the other. Future inquiry into language learning and teaching might need to do more to make it its business too.  

Similarly, global reports from the ground are awash with evidence of language educators going to extraordinary lengths to meet the communication needs of their multilingual deaf and hearing, minority ethnic, immigrant students or those from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds with no access to digital technologies. This is often in settings that had not only been materially unprepared to support such learners, but which had never acknowledged such diverse communication needs in the first place, leaving language teachers to blaze a trail where a detailed roadmap would have long been expected (CLER, 2020)Language education scholarship must strive to contribute to that roadmap. 

 With their actions, language teachers around the globe have shown that they are in the business of according all students their dignity. They do so because by being language teachers, they do not stop being parents, siblings, partners, children to their elderly parents, carers, activists, community volunteers, multilingual users, inventors, artists, neighbours. Instead, they fully draw on these identities and community bonds as sources of their motivation, activism and, if necessary, their dissent. 

 The outbreak has put spotlight on intimate connections between who language teachers are as professionals and their relationships across all spheres of their lives (CLER, 2020). As the pandemic disrupted established routines of language instruction, classroom interaction, assessment, and any sense of what we have come to understand as formal education, many language teachers have acted with clarity that has eluded much of educational policy debate around the globe and, if we are honest, much of research on language learning and teaching. With their actions, language teachers around the globe have shown that they are in the business of according all students their dignity. They do so because by being language teachers, they do not stop being parents, siblings, partners, children to their elderly parents, carers, activists, community volunteers, multilingual users, inventors, artists, neighbours. Instead, they fully draw on these identities and community bonds as sources of their motivation, activism and, if necessary, their dissent. The new educational landscape has blurred boundaries between schools and homes and this of course has its dangers if not carefully managed and supported. But it has also compelled us to see that pedagogical knowledge is enmeshed with personal and community wisdom more than we have cared to admit in our educational policy, research and practice. As we reflect on what the post-Covid future might look like for language education and for the preparation and professional development of language teachers, we would do well to treat this insight seriously.  

Sadly, the Covid-19 outbreak news stories have also been accompanied by international media reports of racist sentiment initially aimed at multilinguals of East Asian descent. Some of them were native to the lands in which the reports originated, while others were basing themselves in their temporary homes to experience language in its natural setting’, the stated goal of many language teacher and their student sojourners. The targeted incidents of linguistic xenophobia later transmuted into global rhetoric against the linguistic and ethnic Other as nation states or provinces endeavoured to ‘protect’ their borders from the virus. Routine and often racially-motivated equations of the virus with the peoples in public discourse with no regard for very real and dignity-shattering consequences for individuals in their communities are a grim reminder of the more painful side of being a language learner (Ennser-Kananen, 2016; Flores & Rosa, 2019) 

 the more stories are heard about what language means in people’s diverse lives, the more fortified our communities can become against intellectual shortcuts of prejudice that single stories about nations, regions, peoples or persons have enabled in our societies. 

 Language education researchers will need to continue to work with intent on further contextualising their research questions and in this way on systematic dismantling of dangerous stereotypes about what it means to be a language learner, teacher or user in any part of the world. This is not simply to make our research more interesting or original. It is because the more stories are heard about what language means in people’s diverse lives, the more fortified our communities can become against intellectual shortcuts of prejudice that single stories about nations, regions, peoples or persons have enabled in our societies.  

 Language matters and paying attention to or, in contrast, misunderstanding its role in society can quite literally save or endanger lives, preserve or crush human dignity. 

 The insights from past research and from the pandemic narratives are many (such as those about the societal, humanitarian, as well as pedagogical role of language educators in their diverse societies, about serious gaps in linguistic, symbolic and digital access despite the global discourse of super-connectivity, or about the complex ways in which distorted narratives of language competence and unequal language education provision perpetuate social disadvantage). They will need to find their way into our story telling. What may have sounded hyperbolic to some communities of language education researchers in any other times is a sobering reminder of the reality today: Language matters and paying attention to or, in contrast, misunderstanding its role in society can quite literally save or endanger lives, preserve or crush human dignity. It would be an unfortunate oversight to assume that our inquiry into language learning and teaching, whatever our specific research themes or angles, is exempt from reflecting on the consequences of this realisation. It quite simply isn’t.  

Douglas Fir Group. (2016). A transdisciplinary framework for SLA in a multilingual world. The Modern Language Journal, 100(s1), 19-47.  

Duff, P., & Byrnes, H. (2019). SLA across disciplinary borders: Introduction to the special issue. The Modern Language Journal, 103(Supplement 2019), 3-5.  

Ennser-Kananen, J. (2016). A pedagogy of pain: New directions for world language education. The Modern Language Journal, 100(2), 556-564.  

Flores, N., & Rosa, J. (2019). Bringing race into second language acquisition. The Modern Language Journal, 103(Supplement 2019), 145-151.  

Swanwick, R., Appau, O., Mantey, F. F., Fobi, D., Fobi, J., Offei, Y. N., & Oppong, A. M. (in press). The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on deaf people, children, and their families in Ghana. British Academy. 

 

This entry is an edited excerpt fromKubanyiova, M. (in press). Language teachers’ lives in the Far East: A post script for the post-Covid world. In Y. Kimura, L. Yang, & T.-Y. Kim (Eds.), Teacher motivation, autonomy and development in the Far East. New York: Springer. 

To see all narratives in Language Teachers’ Lives in Global Lockdown, please click here. 

To read Maggie’s chapter on future interdisciplinary directions in language teacher motivation research, please click one of the links below

Springer