June 2003 — Volume 7, Number 1
The Foreign Language Educator in Society: Toward a Critical Pedagogy
Timothy G. Reagan and Terry A. Osborn (2002)
Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers
Pp. xiv + 185
Foreign language education in the United States has produced limited success. Despite innovations and improvements in language education methodology and equipment, foreign language educators still face what must seem like an insurmountable challenge. In part, the monolingual mindset of many Americans buttresses the challenge with low expectations and limited support. Arguing that educators must take a different approach, Timothy G. Reagan and Terry A. Osborn propose adopting a critical pedagogical approach, which involves the teacher dealing not only with classroom issues but also with the different cultural and social issues that present and buttress the challenges.
This book for language educators, both practitioners and those preparing to become teachers, begins with an unsparing look at the current situation in foreign language education. The problem is that people are not learning foreign languages in the schools and colleges. The authors describe this problem by guiding the reader through the issues facing foreign language educators. The issues begin in the classroom with the teacher and the students and progress through social, national, and international concerns. With the problems, the authors propose an approach to teaching that involves changing ideas about learning, contextualizing the classroom through social activism, and maintaining a world view.
The book is divided into nine chapters. The first chapter raises questions about foreign language education that the authors address in the next six chapters, which work outward from the classroom to the society in general before the final chapter concludes the book with a general proposal for language educators. Each chapter includes questions for reflection and discussion, focus on the classroom, and notes.
The opening chapter, When Methodology Fails, provides an account of the failure of foreign language education and why this situation persists in American schools. The authors identify two important causes among the several causes discussed: lack of support and the social expectation of failure. The lack of support comes primarily in two forms: the curriculum does not provide enough hours of instruction for a student to reach even minimal proficiency, and lack of external support in the form of language clubs and extracurricular activities. This lack of support could easily relate to the fact that failure to learn a foreign language is acceptable, if not expected, in American society where the very term “foreign” labels the process as other, outside of the normal or accepted desired goals. The chapter concludes with a strong case for the need for language learning for both cultural and world knowledge as well as cognitive growth.
In chapter two, From Reflective Practice to Emancipatory Knowledge in Foreign Language Education, teaching is examined as a reflective growth process. The foreign language teacher’s knowledge base is described along with the real-world tasks and decision-making teachers engage in. Next, three types of reflective practices are explained: reflection-for-practice, reflection-on-practice, and reflection-in-practice. The three types of reflection occur before, after, and during classroom instruction with reflection-in-practice the key distinguishing quality of an experienced and effective teacher. From this exposition, the authors discuss the role of school historically in the U.S. and how education is intrinsically a political activity and thus should involve more than teachers and schools. It should involve all “the functions of business, education, vocational training, religion, correction and welfare” (p. 29) in a systems approach to solving educational problems.
The chapter entitled Whose Language is Real? Language Variation and Language Legitimacy explores questions of legitimacy raised by three languages: African American Vernacular English (AAVE), or Ebonics, American Sign Language, and Esperanto. Each is a legitimate language. Although they meet linguistic criteria as languages, and all languages are linguistically equal, social, political, or cultural issues may lead to downgrading them. The resultant downgrading can impair student performance either through ignoring the students’ cultural communities or marking the languages as minority languages with the attendant loss of power and prestige. Consequently, the authors urge a change in attitude toward legitimate minority languages with the accompanying changes in practices.
Chapter four, Constructivist Epistemology and Foreign Language Teaching and Learning, demonstrates a pedagogical change concerning how teachers think about learning. Constructivist learning theory is an epistemology that assumes individuals construct their learning. Working from this assumption, learning is unique to each individual and involves an active reshaping of knowledge. Constructivism does not provide a methodology for teaching. However, teachers who view learning as a constructive process will shape their curriculum in order to challenge learners to actively build concepts and correct misunderstandings. Probably the best argument for a constructivist theory of learning is that it enables teachers to empower students to take control of their learning.
Next, Critical Curriculum Development in the Foreign Language Classroom proposes an interdisciplinary approach to language teaching. To achieve this interdisciplinary approach, a critical language curriculum would be developed around problem posing that could work well in incorporating other disciplines. This problem posing would enable foreign language educators to teach culture through investigating relevant issues and concerns that would involve understanding the target culture and the first language culture.
Reagan and Osborn discuss curriculum issues in chapter 6, Foreign Language Teaching as Social Activism. The chapter advocates for teachers engaging students in building their understanding of the world and challenging their notions of foreignness. One means for teachers to achieve this goal can be through curriculum nullification, recalling ideas from _Teaching as a Subversive Activity_ (1969), which acknowledges the fact that teachers can support or subvert any part of the curriculum once they shut the door to their classroom. Through curriculum nullification teachers can effectively enhance sociopolitical awareness as part of the language education of their students.
Language Rights as Human Rights: Social and Political Implications is the next chapter. This chapter discusses sociopolitical issues in three situations: the Kurds, Estonia, and the deaf. The situations include: a people unable to use their language in the country they live in, that is, the Kurds in Turkey; the demands for bilingualism in Estonia and resistance from some Russian citizens; and the fact that if deafness is considered a disability, the deaf are treated better than if the deaf use of sign language is considered as a minority language. The need for understanding these or related situations is based on the need for students to become aware that language rights are one part of human rights.
In the next to last chapter, the authors consider language-planning issues in Language Policy in International Perspective. They describe in detail language planning issues in South Africa, with an abundance of languages spoken there and how the government tries to make an equitable plan. Next, the fate of the Irish language, which serves a symbolic, more than a communicative function is examined. They conclude the chapter by calling for more examination of language planning issues related to the language being taught in order to raise issues related to social awareness and language variety.
In the last chapter, Toward a Critical Foreign Language Pedagogy, the writers conclude by advocating for an approach to foreign language pedagogy that involves a wider perspective on language education. They argue that the foreign language classroom is a good place to engage students in learning about the metalinguistics of human language. The language classroom should be a venue for teaching more about the social and political aspects of the language and society in order to “challenge oppression” (p. 137) and prepare “for life in a democratic society.”(p. 138)
The book is well researched and clearly presents a perspective that both new teachers and practitioners should be aware of. Unlike some critical pedagogy writings, the book is written in an accessible manner. It addresses with clarity and consideration constructivist thinking and critical pedagogy as a means to increase language and social awareness for teachers and through them, to their students. It does a particularly good job of examining the social issues related to teaching a foreign language.
However, while there is much discussion of social and political issues related to language planning and policy, they are not clearly related, except in general terms, to the classroom, making the focus of the book sometimes elusive. In two of the later chapters in the book, the pedagogical discussions are brief and consist primarily of raising student awareness. While these may fit with the goals of some teacher educators who would use the book, I think student teachers would feel a little short-changed by the examples chosen and the general pedagogical considerations. Admittedly, the questions for discussion seek to encourage further discussion of issues raised in the chapters and do a good job of it. However, along this line, some of the issues raised such as legitimate languages, language planning, and language rights were discussed through examples that in a sense would seem to distance teachers from immediate concerns. For example, how the Irish language situation applies outside of Ireland seems hard to grasp. Some chapters contain very interesting discussions of language issues and sociopolitical concerns, but beyond being aware of them, it is not clear how they relate to attempts by language educators to improve instruction, which the authors made an issue of in earlier chapters.
English language teachers and teacher educators will find some of the language issues of interest since the growth of English often accompanies a loss of power or prestige of other languages. The book does provide some fine discussions, but I would venture that the theme of oppression as the basis for an expanded methodology will prove limiting for those not committed to critical pedagogy. For those interested in critical pedagogy, however, this book offers a useful summary of much of the theory with some practical applications.
Postman, N. & Weingartner, C. (1969). Teaching as a subversive activity. New York, NY: Dell Publishing Company, Inc.
John M. Graney
Santa Fe Community College
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