In the classroom
Presentation at the Linguistics Summer School, Odense, Denmark, July, 1998.
Raphael Gamaroff (University of Fort Hare)
A major issue in modern multilingual societies, where an increasing number of learners, and even where the majority of learners, use English as a second, or additional, language, is the controversial distinction between English as a first language and English as a second language. It is argued in this article that the distinction is a valid one. The notions of “first language” and “second language” are better understood when compared with the notions of “native language” and “non-native language”. These four notions are difficult to unbundle because they are so heavily value-laden, and, accordingly, there is the danger that the distinctions between these notions could be interpreted as a form of linguistic apartheid. In spite of the sociopolitical difficulties, these distinctions do have linguistic and educational value.
The distinction between L1 and L2 has two descriptive connotations: (1) L1 is acquired before L2. L1 need not be the mother tongue, because the mother tongue may not end up as L1; (2) The L1 learner is stronger than the L2 learner, where the L2 learner is unlikely (the weak interpretation) or incapable (the strong interpretation) of reaching the L1 level (Musker and Nomvete 1996:65).
The L1/L2 dichotomy has given rise in South Africa to a “wide range of discriminatory language requirements and discriminatory assessment instruments” (Musker and Nomvete 1996:65). I first examine South African views on the issue and then relate them to views outside South Africa.
Young (1988:8) advocates that the “apartheid” labels of L1 and L2 be discarded (see also Young 1995). These labels imply for Young that black “natives” are not able to assimilate Western language and culture. Paikeday’s (1985:76) perspective below is similar to Young’s:
When theoretical linguists claim an innate facility for competence in a language on behalf of the native speaker,… it seems like a white South African’s claim that he [or she] can walk into a railway station in Pretoria any day, purchase a first-class ticket, get into any first-class coach, occupy a window seat, and travel all the way to Cape Town without getting thrown out at the first stop, as though a black or a coloured could not do it. Some competence. As everyone knows, apart from manmade restrictions, there just isn’t any rational evidence to bake up such claims to exclusivity of the need for separateness of consideration.
Since the democratic elections of 1994 the actual context of this story is no longer applicable, but the destructive ethos it attempts to describe is no less relevant today, namely the attempt to keep certain racial, ethnic and linguistic groups in their positivistic place. For planners of new policies of language education in South Africa “the separation between first and second language is based on a positivistic construct of language” (Human Sciences Research Council 1996:103). What might explain the unpopularity of these labels among some South African researchers is that they regard “positivism” and apartheid as kissing cousins!
In support of Young’s rejection of the “apartheid” labels of L1 and L2, others argue that it is discriminatory (in the worst sense) to compare levels of proficiency between L1 and L2 learners (African National Congress 1992; Forrest 1994; Burroughs, Vieyra-King and Witthaus 1996:77). These authors object to the social meaning attached to the labels of L1 and L2 to different levels (Rampton 1990). Makoni (1995:27) uses the metaphors of language “boundaries” and “boxes” to explain his opposition to labels that create insiders and outsiders:
Paradoxically, in South Africa and indeed even more so in South Africa, the boundaries conceptualisation of language which creates insiders and outsiders is also typical of colonialist and neo-apartheid discourses…The “boxing” of African speech forms into different languages is reinforced by state, legal and educational pressures.
Makoni’s context is the top-down bureaucratic division of South Africa’s many linguistic communities into 11 official separate official “languages”. His main argument is that the multilingual situation in South Africa is a type of multilingualism as seen through the spectacles of a monolingual. Such a view, for Makoni, is not truly monolingual, but poly-monolingual. This view commodifies language. Although Makoni describes the L1/L2 distinction as a “commodification of language” issue, he would probably also regard it as an imposition, as the “boxing in” of speech forms. Young maintains that the labels “L1 and “L2” segregates “English into separate learning ‘boxes'” and asks: “While the ESL [English as a second language] label is in keeping with international trends in most countries where English is taught and learned, is it not perhaps time that we, in South Africa, begin to consider how socially and politically divisive it is to continue using the ESL label?” (Young 1988:8).
In the classroom
The tendency in NQF thinking is that L2 levels should be based on the L1 paradigm (Alexander 1996:105), and so one should calibrate levels of L1 or native proficiency to determine as precisely as possible what L2 learners are to aspire to (Alexander 1996:106).
This does not mean that L1 and L2 teaching syllabuses should be the same (Alexander 1996:105). Indeed there are very good reasons for keeping L1 and L2 syllabuses apart. The term “apart” in the South African context is thick with negative connotations. If syllabuses must be kept apart, does this mean that L1 and L2 learners must be kept apart in the language classroom? From a practical point of view the idea of separate syllabuses means separate classrooms. Barkhuizen (1991) goes even further by advocating not only separate L1 and L2 classrooms but separate L1 and L2 (ESL) Departments. Barkhuizen (1991:30) states: “The different aims of the second and first language syllabuses and the different approaches used to achieve these aims provide a further rationale for the establishment of an independent ESL Department.” Thus, Barkhuizen takes for granted that there should be separate L1 and L2 classrooms.
No one would dispute that English teaching involves two different kinds of methodology: L1 and L2 methodology. But I don’t think it is necessary or pedagogically sound to (1) divide teachers into L1 teachers and L2 teachers and to go even further by (2) erecting Departmental boundaries between them. One must not forget, however, that most English teachers in South Africa are not “native” speakers of English, and would therefore have difficulty in teaching English as a First Language. Native speakers of English, on the other hand, could teach both English as First and as a Second Language.
Whether we call second-language learning situations by another name, we still have to specifically design learning materials to cater for these second-language situations (Musker and Nomvete 1996:67), and the only feasible way to do so is, I believe, in a separate space such as a classroom (Peirce 1991). Barkhuizen had a change of heart by jettisoning not only the idea of separate English Departments, which was the main thrust of his previous article (1991) but also the idea of separate L1 and L2 syllabuses in favour of “multicultural settings” (Barkhuizen 1992, 1996).
Owing to the political changes in South Africa, what was acceptable in 1991 became unacceptable a year later, and so Barkhuizen met the new challenge of “what needs to be done” (Barkhuizen 1992) under a different political and educational dispensation. The idea of separate L1 and L2 syllabuses is a good one, so is the idea of multicultural settings. It seems that it is difficult to have both because it would mean that the idea of multicultural settings would be relegated to “social” language while the idea of separate L1 and L2 classrooms would hog “academic” language, which would exacerbate the racial-ethnic divide in countries throughout the world.
In the South African political climate the labels “first” and “second” language are becoming increasingly unpopular. Also terms such as “native” language (which in South Africa meant “black”) and “mother” tongue, which feminist movements find sexually discriminatory, are also problematic. James (1994:192) lumps together “native speakerism”, sexism and racism. In the last few paragraphs of this section I discuss briefly a few non-South African views on the topic. . The “whole mystique of a native speaker” (Kachru 1982:vii) who uses his/her mother tongue implies five things, which have been hotly contested (Rampton 1990):
1. A particular language is inherited through birth into a particular social group.
2. If you inherit a language, you can speak it well.
3. One is or isn’t a native/mother-tongue speaker.
4. a native speaker has a comprehensive grasp of the inherited language.
5. Being a citizen of a country is analogous to being a native speaker of one mother tongue.
(Christopherson (1973) was among the first researchers to question these notions mentioned by Rampton).
Rampton (1990) suggests that the following terms replace “native”, “mother tongue”, “first language” and “second language” (See also Leung, Harris and Rampton 1997):
1. Language expertise, i.e. the level of proficiency. An important issue in assessing expertise would be the models of language ability that one would use to decide what is an acceptable or minimum level of expertise. But this is not a new issue, even if the terminology is new.
2. Language affiliation, which is concerned with the affective relationship of a learner towards a language.
3. Language inheritance. Membership of an ethnic group does not automatically mean that the language of the ethnic group has been automatically inherited. In South Africa, one can change one’s “mother tongue” by entering another ethnic group or have a hybrid mother tongue, or “replacement” language. A replacement language is a language that becomes more dominant than the mother tongue, usually at an early age, but is seldom fully mastered, as in the case of, for example, some Coloured and Indian children in South Africa who are brought up on a hybrid of English and Afrikaans (in the case of Coloureds) or a hybrid of English and Indian languages or Afrikaans, and some Bantu speakers in South Africa who are brought up on a cocktail of two or more Bantu languages such as Tswana, Sepedi and Xhosa (and English). (See Gamaroff 1998).
Davies (1995:145) maintains: “In terms of ultimate attainment the post-pubertal second language learner may, exceptionally. attain native speaker levels of proficiency and therefore be indistinguishable from the native speaker.” Paikeday (1985) goes further by suggesting that the exception proves that there is no rule, i.e. that there is no native speaker. Undoubtedly there are exceptional cases that disprove the rule. But this is true of many categorisations. Medgyes (1992) suggests that the exceptions prove the rule, and that, therefore, native speakers of a language are – taking into account some exceptions, or as Quirk in Paikeday (1985:7) puts it the “fuzzy edges” – recognised as such. Paikeday (1985:11) plugs the argument that the exceptions do disprove the rule and consequently one can only legitimately speak of degrees of competence of language use, as one would about any other skill, e.g. rowing boats or mowing lawns.
Mother-tongue speakers (the language one uses in one’s early childhood) and first-language speakers (the language one knows best) are usually identifiable. There are exceptions where one can have (1) more than one first language (2) low competence in one’s mother tongue and (3) no first language, i.e. no language that one knows well, e.g. a “replacement” language, referred to earlier.
The “elitist” may argue that “not all members of a linguistic community are equal in linguistic knowledge” (Harris 1981:171) about their common native language, and so it is possible to have some native or L1 speakers who know more than others about the language. Harris counters that language qua language is indeterminate because knowledge as such is indeterminate. Accordingly, for Harris, there are no “job-secure” words (Harris 1981:175). But, if language (and ergo knowledge) is so insecure that one cannot define anything – approximately, to be sure; that is, if there is no native or L1 or L2 “bulls-eye” (Russell 1921:197-198 in Harris 1985:170) in language, there can be no truth at all – approximate to be sure. For McArthur (1998) Standard English is a “fuzzy sub-set of a very large set of Englishes” and Lass (1998) believes that English is changing as we speak it. In such a scenario, Standard English – and I would imagine the same applies to the notions of native, L1 and L2 “speakerism” – becomes, in the fuzzy-set theory of Lass, a sub-set of the fuzz that was.
L2, or ESL, is like all labels that distinguishes between those who have more and those who have less. It segregates – nationally and internationally. However, if the rest of the world finds the labels ESL and L2 useful, in spite of its shortcomings, couldn’t South Africans become part of the international community, which has had, and continues to have, its fair share of racial-ethnic-linguistic discrimination. Perhaps it might be better to use the label “primary” instead of “L1” and so get rid of the notion of “first language”. But if “L1” becomes a “primary” language, L2 could be seen as a “secondary” language, which, if not more discriminatory than “second” language, could belittle the notion of “second” language (L2). Perhaps, we could use “additional” language, because the counterpart of additional language is “main” language, which has a less discriminatory ring than “primary” language. One could opt for Rampton’s (1990) alternative set of terms mentioned above. I would think, though, that the traditional labels will be with us in South Africa (and the rest of the world) for a long time to come. For example, the Department of Linguistics of Stellenbosch University is hosting its 4th conference on Linguistics and the Language Professions in April 1999 on the theme of “second languages”.
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