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A Re-accentuation of Elements of the Liberal Approach

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    Whilst the instrumental approach to language teaching may be unsatisfactory in terms of thinking more critically about language use, the failure of the traditional liberal approach to develop communicative competence is also evident. Yet, even if the paradigm offers little towards a theory of learning, and towards creating social meaning, I do not want to dismiss the liberal tradition outright. The actual methodology of grammar and translation is not as reviled as it was during the heyday of communicative language teaching. There is increasingly a general recognition of the importance of explicit grammar teaching. Translation, in particular, is also seen as a new area to increase textual and stylistic awareness, particularly from a cultural point of view. It can open up areas of cross-cultural study in examining how language mediates underlying cultural values through, for instance, its use of vocabulary and metaphor (Byram, 1997; Lantolf, 1997). Translation involves cultural negotiation. In addition, activities such as précis writing coupled with the inclusion of ‘serious content’ contribute to the intellectual development of the student and echo Cummins’ (1979) notion of the need to develop cognitive academic language proficiency as well as basic interpersonal communicative skills. However, grammar and translation, even though they have a place in the language curriculum, cannot be the sole elements of language teaching.

    The notions in the liberal paradigm which are worth exploring in greater depth for their possible potential in language teaching are located in three areas: a) intellectual stimulus and criticality; b) the idea of a language user speaking with an ’individual voice’ to express her humanity (cf. Kramsch, 1993); and c) the notion of morality.

    These elements combine easily and almost naturally in a language classroom because the content of the classes can be fluid and contain any topic from pragmatic transactions to intellectually challenging discussions on any cultural, social, political, or other issues which interest the students. It is precisely the intellectual engagement which is one of the strengths of the liberal paradigm in education, and which has been almost completely lacking in instrumental approaches. This brings us to the second notion of ‘expressing individual meaning’. It is through content-based discussions that an exchange of complex thought and cooperation can take place and that room can be given to students to express their unique experiences and thoughts. This will contribute to students’ intellectual development as they may come to think about issues in a different light or come to realizations and ruminations, to experience perhaps the ‘life-changing conversations’ (Attinasi and Friedrich quoted by Kramsch, ibid. p. 29) taking place through the medium of the foreign language. However, the notion of expressing individual meaning needs to be problematized, which I will do in the next chapter.

    The third notion of morality in the classical liberal paradigm can be easily translated to a modern context for language teaching through its emphasis on the emancipatory role of education and its view of a morally and socially better world. At the time that I collected the data for this study, this notion was embedded in the concept of language teaching for ‘European citizenship’ (Byram, Zarate, Neuner, 1997). This requires, as Byram said, more than mainly pragmatic and functional language teaching, but is rooted in a more comprehensive concept of living together. In terms of language teaching, this meant emphasizing attitudes of mutual tolerance and a readiness to exchange views. This idea has been developed by, amongst others, Starkey whose pedagogy of political education and human rights awareness through foreign language teaching aims for ‘the development of democracy and active citizenship’ (Starkey, 1999: 156). Pedagogies taking such an explicit citizenship approach tend to focus on content as knowledge in the language class. Recent developments in this area tend to move away from the original national focus of citizenship education and offer cosmopolitan perspectives (cf. Starkey, 2010), critical perspectives (cf. Guilherme, 2002), and transnational perspectives (cf. Risager, 2007). Whilst I believe the citizenship and knowledge agenda in language pedagogy are very important, I focus in this book largely on a text analytical approach, which, though less knowledge-focused, incidentally also assumes a broader cosmopolitan and transnational perspective, as I will set out in greater detail in chapters 3 and 4. In my own pedagogy, the moral element is less fore-grounded than in citizenship education, although it is present through critical discussions about texts in class and through the idea of taking responsibility for the reader. The latter, to which I refer as ‘addressivity’ (cf. Bakhtin, 1996 (1986)) comes into play when students do writing tasks.

    Whilst all three elements of the liberal humanist paradigm, which I felt warranted re-articulation, are to some extent present in my own pedagogy, it was particularly the intellectual engagement and the critical element which I focused on in the pedagogy on which this book is based. This critical engagement is emphatically not present in the instrumentalist approach. Nevertheless, it was clear to me that the liberal humanist paradigm itself was unable to provide the theoretical framework for language teaching with a critical emphasis. Its notions of objectivity and language as neutral are counter to the idea of encouraging learners to see the complexity of language and culture. My interpretation of intellectual engagement was not so much the idea of providing interesting or challenging articles in the classroom (although that too was important), but my main objective was primarily for students to engage with texts in a critical manner. My aim was for students to become critical intercultural language users. Whilst my starting point was the critical perspective taken in the liberal humanist paradigm, I also wanted students to engage with other critical perspectives. This, however, brings with it the problem of incommensurability.

    This page titled A Re-accentuation of Elements of the Liberal Approach is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Gerdi Quist (Ubiquity Press) .

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