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A Podcast Narrative: Academics vs. Reality

Updated: Oct 5, 2020

When he invited me to join the podcast as a contributor, Jonathan recommended targeting for interviews with people who I had cited and admired from my previous research works. We were going to use this chance to learn more about the people we regularly cited. As my work is in the field of sociolinguistics, specifically the use of English in Asian contexts, my citations lean heavily on World Englishes (WE) and English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) research. In reaching out and interviewing some of the biggest names in the field, a narrative began to form. Given here is a breakdown of some of the common themes covered in the following interviews:

12. Aya Matsuda (Arizona State University)

14. Jennifer Jenkins (University of Southampton)

18. Mahboubeh Rakhshandehroo (Kyoto University of Foreign Studies)

24. Ahmar Mahboob (University of Sydney)

26. Annette Bradford (Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies (ICAS))

Unfortunately, providing a complete review of all the themes covered in these interviewees would take up too much space for a regular paper or blog post. If you are interested in any of the themes discussed, you are always able to download that episode and listen to the whole interview in its own context.

Coming first from the list, podcast number 12 was an interview with Dr. Aya Matsuda of Arizona State University. Probably my most cited author, her work in the field of World Englishes first inspired me to enter the field and also shaped the project that would eventually become my Ph.D. The field of WE studies was championed by Braj Kachru and Larry Smith, leading to the formation of the journal “World Englishes” in the early 1990s. Since then, a great deal of work has gone into not only identifying and describing English variety around the world but also advocating for a pluricetric view of the language, not controlled by distant geographical locations: while the history of the language in places other than the land of its birth was undeniably and inextricably linked to colonialism, the presence of the language around the world makes it a useful tool for anyone in those locations aiming to communicate internationally. To that end, Professor Matsuda had written, with Patricia Friedrich, in 2011 about the possibility of a WE curriculum blueprint, a paper I have since cited many times as I work to operationalize a pluricentric model of English language use.

We began the interview on the topic of ‘political correctness’ and how it was one of the things which drew me to the topic of WE: accepting other varieties and performance standards of English is not simply a nice, open-minded thing to do, it is the right thing to do and to respect all users of the language. We also spoke about the concept of code-switching in international communication using English. “People often assume that if it’s an international communication, English will be used...that happens often, but it doesn’t have to be that way: If there is another language that everyone happens to know, there is nothing wrong with using that language,”(12:25) said Professor Matsuda. This is a feature I have noticed with WE and ELF advocates: they are very ‘linguistically liberal’ as Edgar Schneider once described the ideology, they are very open to the inclusion and use of multiple languages and strategies to achieve the communication aim. At 15:32, Professor Matsuda said, “I tend to think of...expected proficiency as something that’s very context-dependent.” This is a liberal attitude to the language being used as it allows for lower proficiency language use to be entirely acceptable so long as a higher proficiency is not required: we don’t hold people to an unnecessarily high standard; we want to talk.

Although not spoken of explicitly, the implicit opinions of both interviewer and interviewee are the support for proficiency to be the key component of judging effective language use rather than whether the language is that person’s first language (L1). Such an approach includes refraining from using labels such as “L2” or “non-native” and adopting an L1/Lx distinction, with the latter referring to language learned after the age of three (more on this in an upcoming episode of the podcast with Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele).

In 2012, Dr. Matsuda published an edited volume, and in her own chapter suggested what form a teachable standard of WE might look like. From 20:27, we discussed the topic of “based criteria” for judging the correctness of varieties such as Japanese English. This was linked to the work of Professor Nobuyuki Hino, a WE researcher advocating for wider acceptance of localized varieties. His work on a Model of Japanese English (MJE) was also published in the Matsuda volume referenced above. The concept of a “Fill-in-the-country” English is at the core of WE research. Work such as that of Hino (Japan), Yang and Peng, You (China), Seong (Korea), and many others including Deterding and Kirkpatrick’s 2010 work to codify a transnational ASEAN variety of English, provide examples from this field of sociolinguistics.

Soon after the Matsuda interview, on podcast number 14, I interviewed Dr. Jennifer Jenkins, Emeritus Professor of the University of Southampton. Her work in ELF has become the standard by which others are judged, and her authority in the area is unquestionable. We began the interview referencing the discussion I had had with Professor Matsuda regarding the concept of ‘political correctness’ when it comes to WE and ELF. “I’m don’t know if you are asking me whether I agree with that, but I certainly do,”(2:27) she said; “This is an ideology that looks at the way the way a language is used and doesn’t say any particular group of its users is privileged and the only ones who define how it is used...what is acceptable and unacceptable.” Here again, we see a liberal attitude towards the use of English as a common tool of communication.

(Note: ‘Liberal’ here is used in the classic i.e. non-politicicized sense)

The comments made in podcast number 12 about Professor Nobuyuki Hino formed an interesting new connection, and one very much in the vein we were proposing when we founded the podcast (now journal). His former student and acquaintance of mine Dr. Mahboubeh Rakhshandehroo commented on the episode’s Facebook posting that she had studied with Professor Hino. Dr. Matsuda, who was also on the message thread, commented that it would be nice if Dr. Rakhshandehroo could put the podcast in touch with Professor Hino. This she did and, although Professor Hino has been too busy to schedule an interview at this time, we hope to add him to our interview list soon. However, having read some of Dr. Mahboubeh Rakhshandehroo’s work. I invited her to be our next guest on podcast number 18. The interview with Dr. Rakshanderoo covered her PhD research into EMI courses available for international students in Japan.

As we shall hear in the interview with Dr. Annette Bradford which was subsequent to this interview, EMI courses are generally tied to a university wanting to attract international students to their courses, as was the case with Dr. Rakhshanderoo, and so an increase in the number of EMI courses in a country tends to be causally connected to increased recruitment efforts. Her comment on this phenomenon was “more systemization and more support would be needed for the students considering that the number of graduate international students who are coming to study in the English medium in Japanese universities is increasing every year” (10:20) with me adding, reading from her paper, that “useful to send the message to universities that this support system still is not of the required quality” (11:10).

Here then is an example of the practical realities of English being used as an international language and a lingua franca in an Lx context - in the absence of the option of having international students in Japan (and other countries throughout the world) not having the necessary proficiency in the L1 local language, a mutual foreign language is required to operate as a lingua franca to achieve an academic (and economic) goal of the universities: they want to have more students on campus.

A short time later, on podcast number 24, Dr. Ahmar Mahboob, noted researcher in the field of the native/non-native English-speaking teacher (NEST/NNEST) dichotomy, responded to the email I had sent out in the first batch along with those to Aya Matsuda, Jennifer Jenkins, and others several months earlier. Having initially been too busy to respond, the end of the semester had freed up his time and he kindly offered to be interviewed about his, as yet unpublished, work for the Routledge Handbook of World Englishes. In a pre-interview, he mentioned his friendship with Professor Matsuda and his connections to Professor Jenkins, both personally and in his work - the WE community, it appears, is quite tight. Serenaded by the bird-song of the Australian bush, Professor Mahboob spoke extensively about his work to highlight the importance of semiotics when considering how language can negatively affect both physical and linguistic environments. The first part of the interview was a deconstruction of how languages are defined: “Why is it set up as a is not one or the other: language is both the system and the use” (5:28) said Professor Mahboob, addressing the intersection of sociology, psychology, and linguistics his work highlights. Instead of saying there is such a thing as human or non-human language, why not embrace the idea that all environmental systems have their own forms of communication or “symbols” as Professor Mahboob speaks of them (18:50).

Professor Mahboob, in answering my question about the definition of WE and ELF, cut to a deeper truth he held. “Only once you start breaking away from this engrained, essentially colonial, understanding of language and linguistics, which creates dichotomies and divisions, which create names of languages based on structural variation, rather than mutual intelligibility … ‘World Englishes’ is not just a study of languages, it’s actually a political statement which unifies Englishes even when they are very divergent: we can study how they contrast but we still see them as English” (6:05). While this is not a position all WE linguists would entirely agree with, it is as clear a statement of the work being done on the frontier of language research. We are all equal in our access to the language and to privilege one variety or class of users over another would be to undermine the pluralistic nature of the WE ideology.

However, it was his comments starting at 27:07 in the podcast which drew my closest attention to how they referenced work done by others already interviewed. “[English-medium instruction] is extremely harmful and damaging the local ecologies” (27:29) he said, referring to the practice of teaching content-based courses in English rather than the most common language in that location. English medium instruction (EMI) and Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) courses are becoming increasingly popular in locations where English is a foreign language. These would also include ETPs discussed with Dr. Rakhshanderoo. “You know, English as a lingua franca is a different thing from English as a medium of instruction - that’s a horrible, horrible thing to do … I’ve actually been very vocal in my regret that we are going to set up a new journal called ‘English as a Medium of Instruction Journal’, EMI journal, and I don’t like the fact we are legitimizing all of this” (47:59). The broader criticism of these courses is generally focused on the quality of the teaching of the content when the students and even instructors of these courses are not first-language users of English: if math is taught in English, does the student gain the requisite knowledge about math and can the perform at the same grade level as a student learning it their first language? Professor Mahboob is going further to criticize the limiting factors of thinking about topics in locations distant from where English was first created but coding them in English.

(Although not on the topic of WE, we briefly spoke about the guest for podcast number 6, Professor Marc Helgesen, as Professor Mahboob’s advice at 28:28 in the interview reminded me of the advice we discussed in that interview about being mindful and being present - this discussion will also be continued in podcast number 28 with Luisa Zeilhofer)

The strident position taken by Professor Mahboob about EMI courses pushed me in only one direction for my next interviewee. On podcast number 26, I was joined by Dr. Annette Bradford, one of the foremost experts on EMI courses in Japan. Her volume of works from 2018 contained 18 articles on the past, present, and future of these courses in Japan, and Dr. Bradford was cited and quoted extensively in Mahboubeh Rakhshandehroo’s work we had discussed in podcast number 18. At about the 11 minute point, Dr. Bradford admitted that some of the problems that had plagued EMI courses in other countries, with questions being asked about the quality of instruction and both content and language goals not being met had also occurred to some extent in Japan. However, she believed that the slow rate of progress had actually assisted Japan in being able to learn from others’ mistakes: “As with anything in Japan, it changes slowly and I do believe Japan will get there” (12:20)

We addressed Professor Mahboob’s comments at 21:34 in the interview when I asked “Do you think there has been a negative effect on other taught courses in university by the push to having more English instruction?”. Dr. Bradford’s response was clear: “I don’t think so in the case of Japan because that would imply that there is more Englishization than is actually happening” she said, “If you want to study a certain topic in Japanese then you can still study that topic in Japanese and the English ones are sort of extra … I don’t think we are heading towards that domain loss.” Dr. Bradford then suggested the slower pace of development in the field of EMI in Japan, as noted above, as being one of the reasons why EMI has been less invasive than in other countries.

The narrative that emerged from these interconnected interviews is a phenomenon I have been experiencing for some time: the academic community, as typified by Matsuda, Jenkins and Mahboob, is way ahead of the general public and educational institutions, as addressed by Rahkshanderoo and Bradford, when it comes to liberal attitudes towards the issues of WE, ELF, and language ecology. ETPs such as EMI or CLIL courses are intended to improve the future prospects of students working in an increasingly internationalized global economy. While I personally believe they should be made optional, and not replace L1 content learning, I do not support the contention they are a “horrible, horrible thing to do” and journals including research connected to this field be canceled. Such an action would be impractical and unhelpful given the policy trajectory of institutions with ETPs and the stated rationale for their increasing adoption. More widely disseminated understanding of the issues of pluricentric global languages, perhaps by the inclusion of Lx English teaching materials. Although I fully respect Professor Mahboob’s position, I don’t think it is realistic to constrain a stream of ELT methodology by removing the outlet for the research being done in that particular field. I look forward to speaking with him in the future, either on the pod or in person, and discussing it further.

What can be seen from this example of five interviews is how a narrative is formed by listening to the views of different people in interconnected fields. While listeners may only download the most recent podcast, the questions asked and points discussed may have their DNA in interviews broadcast months earlier. We intend to keep finding and highlighting these links between our podcast content in order to encourage listeners to try interviews on topics they may not think they have an interest in, because there may be links between the topics of which the listeners were previously unaware. By encouraging wider listening, we are accomplishing the goal of the podcast project: bring people from different fields together to share our work and understand each other a little better each time.

Update: After writing this posting, Dr. Hino re-contacted me and we arranged an interview time. You can hear his interview on 10/21, podcast episode 31.

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