Thursday, February 23, 2012

Breaking down Language

On a somewhat unrelated note, I’m currently taking a class entitled “ The Multilingual Subject”. One of the readings we have been discussing and relating to personal experience is Mikhail Bakhtin’s “The Problem of Speech Genres”. What he means by “speech genres” is simply the mode in which one speaks to certain people or in certain situations (as in the difference between language in a scholarly journal as opposed to speaking with a small child). And, of course, this got me thinking about the particular speech genre that is present in our ESL class, the way in which both Taylor and I speak. So, here it goes.

I think this speech genre is characterized by a lot of talking, but not a lot of content. Actually, there is content, but most is lost in the process of crossing language barriers. If anything, the main mode of communication (versus language) would be sign language, gestures, and drawings. There is also a lot of swapping, both in terms of language, but also in culture. This swapping often leads to “Spanglish” or “Franglais” type situations; most sentences come out a mixture of both languages. However, instead of the typical frustration that occurs in other multilingual settings (like my more formal French class) this particular genre is far more light-hearted than that. This is possibly because of the fact that comprehension can be so difficult on both sides of the divide, or maybe because my poorly executed drawings are one of the mainstays of our communicative techniques, but I feel like we are always on the verge of laughter. This laughter extends to the linguistic front as well; on a mechanical level we, the teachers, often can’t accurately produce the sounds of their language, and the same applies to them. For us, we constantly mess up the length of our vowels, for them the fricatives appear to pose problems. Spatial and cultural aspects need to be taken into consideration as well. In a typical formal classroom setting, the teacher is the “head”, they stand at the front with all eyes directed toward them, they instruct from a privileged position, there’s an automatic level of inequality inherent in this spatial relationship. In the context of our classroom, we may have begun the year in a similar fashion, but overtime we have migrated to sitting interspersed amongst our students, implying more equal positioning, as well as making the experience more of a dialogue as opposed to a monologue. Also, I think there is an underlying tension between speaking simply (which we would normally do with children) and portraying the respect we automatically have for people significantly older than us.

-Kelsey Rivers, HCET Intern

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