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Critical Language Awareness

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    Critical Language Awareness (CLA) is not a view of language as such, but a pedagogic approach. I include it nevertheless in my discussion of social views of language, because its critical approach, derived from influences such as Critical Linguistics (cf. Kress and Hodge, 1979), Critical Pedagogy (Freire, 1970), and Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) (cf. Fairclough, 1989; Fairclough and Wodak, 1996) is part of a shift moving away from viewing language as autonomous, to a more ‘‘ideological’ model with connections to media studies and a more grounded understanding of social processes’ (Pennycook, 2001: 9). Its aim is emancipatory: to encourage social transformation through denaturalizing ideologies that have become naturalized (ibid. p. 81). CDA studies focus particularly on unequal relations as produced through conversations, e.g. doctor and patient interviews, such as who gets to speak about what and for how long (Fairclough, 1989: 43-47).

    CLA, as the pedagogic wing of CDA, aims to promote awareness in learners of how power relations and inequalities are produced and reproduced through language. There are various practices of CLA, although there is usually a strong focus on the use of text and reading (cf. Wallace, 2003). CLA pedagogies encourage students to look at the way that power is reflected in the use of particular conventions, what the conditions and motivations were of the producers of a given text and how texts position readers or listeners in terms of their role or identity. It raises awareness of how through the use of language people can maintain or change power relationships.

    This pedagogy was developed in Britain and is used in some English Language Teaching contexts, but does not seem to have made much impact on foreign language teaching. One reason for this might be that a pedagogy of critical language awareness does not fit in easily with the now dominant skills-based traditional approaches to foreign language teaching.

    However, Critical Language Awareness approaches are also used to develop productive language skills, particularly writing. Romy Clark (1992: 134-137) argues that in the case of academic writing, for instance, students should be aware of the prevailing conventions within the academic community and should be able to apply them. But equally important is, as she states, a critical attitude towards these conventions; by challenging dominant practices, students can learn to produce alternative discourses and inscribe their own meaning.

    This last point has potential for further development as a pedagogy in the foreign language classroom. It hinges on the dual aims of empowering the learner to recognize social meanings and to be able to employ these if needed, but also to allow for human agency to create individual articulations within established discourses. I describe elsewhere (Quist, 2013) how in an oral presentation, one of my students employed both formal conventions and consciously departed from these. She did so by adopting generally an informal tone, in order to ensure her ‘audience’, who she had imagined to consist of a range of different people representing hierarchical relations, felt all equally respected and included.

    I borrow from CLA in my own pedagogy in the sense that I ask learners to look at how people in texts are positioned and represented. However, my pedagogy deviates from CLA in the sense that its primary aim is not to ‘unmask power’, but instead to recognize the complexities of discourses in texts. In doing so, I am more in line with O’Regan (2006) who critiques CDA (the theoretical precursor to CLA) for its ‘unintended privileging of a final reading of the text’. O’Regan locates this predilection of CDA in its attachment to humanist values of reason and truth (2006: 21). His concern with criticality is to query the ‘truth certainties’ and the ‘truth claims’ in texts (ibid: 17). Whilst his motivation is political, in the sense that it is critiquing the naturalising of discourses of power inequalities, it is also moral in its concern with tolerance, and social justice. His take on criticality is not located in the ideology critique of ‘emancipatory modernism’ (Pennycook, 2001), but in the poststructuralist critique which Pennycook refers to as ‘problematising practice’, which finds its practical application in ‘discursive mapping’. This brings us to a discursive view of language.

    This page titled Critical Language Awareness is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Gerdi Quist (Ubiquity Press) .

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