Importance of Language in Society

Introduction

Scholars and analysts in the linguistics field have for the longest time admitted that language is a social construct in society (Creese et al, 2011). However, it is not yet clear what constitutes any given language, given the fact that several variables overlap to this end.

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Communities use language for its value and distinctiveness, making it a very effective and efficient tool for communication (Blackledge & Creese, 2008). Sociolinguists view language from two perspectives. The first perspective conceptualizes language as a “fluid and changing (phenomenon), with permeable boundaries” (Creese et al, 2011: p. 1196). The second perspective contradicts the first, viewing language as fixed and rigid (Creese et al, 2011).

It is against this backdrop that Creese and colleagues conducted a comparative sociolinguistic study using four case studies in 2009. The findings of this study were published in the Journal of Pragmatics, 2011. In this paper, the author is going to review the article published in this journal, the article that reported the findings of Creese and colleagues’ study. A summary of the article will be provided, together with comments on selected aspects addressed by the article. The author is also going to analyze how Creese et al (2011)’s research can be applied to varying social settings, relating the study to developments in Saudi Arabia.

Article Summary

As earlier indicated in the introduction part of this paper, the study reported in this article was comparative sociolinguistic. The researchers used four interlocking case studies, with a total of eight researchers collecting data from the schools that were selected. The study was conducted on non-statutory schools that are run by their local communities, schools intended to teach the learners the language of their ethnic heritage (Creese et al, 2011).

The study conducted focused on Gujarati schools in Leicester, Turkish institutions in London, Manchester’s Cantonese and Mandarin schools, and Birmingham’s Bengali schools (Creese et al, 2011: p. 1199). The study had three main objectives. The first was to analyze the social-cultural and linguistic importance of heritage language schools to the ethnic community and the society at large (Creese et al, 2011). The second objective was to analyze the various linguistic practices used in various contexts in these schools. Finally, the study aimed at assessing how the linguistics practices of learners and the instructors in the schools are used to create the youth’s multilingual and multicultural identities (Creese et al, 2011).

According to this study, the default mode of communication in classrooms involves the instructor speaking in the community language, while the learners speak in English (Creese et al, 2011). This finding was in line with the findings of other studies that had been conducted in the past (Gafaranga, 2005). An example is a study that was conducted on Gujarati complementary schools in Leicester (Rampton, 2007). This finding supports the idea propounded by Myers-Scotton in a study cited in Gafaranga (2005). According to this scholar, this form of “unmarked codeswitching”, detailing a situation where the speaker uses a different language from that of the listener, was found to be common in ethnic schools. Creese et al (2011) also refer to this phenomenon as un-reciprocal code-switching or the parallel mode of conversation (p. 1200).

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In such a scenario, the speaker (in this case the teacher in a classroom setting) gives the listener a word in one language and expects them to reply in a different language (Rampton, 2007). This is something that the teachers in the study accepted and tolerated to some extent. However, they would often request the students to speak in the ethnic language when they were of the view that English has been used far too much (Creese et al, 2011: p. 1200).

When asked about this observation, one of the teachers was of the view that “if it is a Turkish class, the lesson must be exclusively in Turkish” (Creese et al, 2011: p. 1200). In this observation, Creese et al (2011) note a vivid case of separation between the English language and other languages. This teacher, and others with similar views, was reducing the interactional space between different linguistic resources.

The idea proposed by these teachers is not unique to this case. For example, linguists have always advocated that in the teaching of a second or a foreign language, using the language is the best way to learn it (Blackledge & Creese, 2008). This separation of languages ensures that the students get maximum exposure to the language that they are learning.

Creese et al (2011) found that speakers can switch from one language to the other with relative ease. For example, the students may speak one language in school while they use another at home. The teachers may also use the community language in the classroom, and then switch to English outside the classroom. This is what Creese et al (2011) refer to as bilingual flexibility (p.1200). This flexibility is used as a community identifier by the students in the complementary school. The flexibility is also marked by considerable diversity. It is not a single or fixed phenomenon (Creese et al, 2011); rather, it is a heteroglossic, translanguaging exercise (Gafaranga, 2005: p. 28).

The complementary school policy advocates for monolingualism in the community language that they are teaching (Creese et al, 2011). However, despite this advocacy, classrooms are multilingual, and the learners together with the instructors apply several linguistic resources. This is in teaching, learning, and social operations that take place in the classrooms (Creese et al, 2011).

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The study also noted that the proficiency of the students and that of the teachers in different languages varied. For example, the teachers were noted to be more proficient in the community language than the learners, and this proficiency was more than that of English (Creese et al, 2011). The learners, on their part, were noted to be more proficient in English as compared to their teachers. However, they were not that proficient in the community language.

In the scenario depicted above, it is noted that two languages, the community, and the English language, are used to accomplish lessons (Creese et al, 2011). This is possible given the fact that both languages help in the creation of meaning, and this cannot be achieved by the separation of languages. Both the speaker and the listener can carry on a conversation using different languages, but each can hear or listen to the other.

Critical Reflections

The article by Creese et al (2011) concludes that separate bilingualism is a common phenomenon in complementary schools. This is where the students and the teachers can communicate using more than one language. The participants can switch from one language to the other with relative ease, something that the scholars refer to as flexible bilingualism (Creese et al, 2011).

I agree with the views in this article. This phenomenon of bilingual flexibility is observable even in other settings. For example, students who are learning foreign languages such as English in Saudi Arabia can switch from the foreign to their community language easily. The student may be made to speak in English at school. But when they get home, they communicate with their ethnic language, which might be Arabic.

Bilingualism may be a response by the community when they feel that their language is threatened by the foreign language being learned by the students. This is another point that I agree with. Parents, teachers, learners, and other stakeholders in the society may feel that the foreign language may obliterate their community language. This is the reason why the teachers feel that it is important to speak to the students in the community language even when the students use English to respond.

Separate multilingualism seems to be here to stay. This is given the fact that the communities in contemporary society are experiencing globalization. This being the case, there is no way they can keep their learners from interacting with other languages from around the world. For example, citizens of Saudi Arabia are interacting with foreigners working in their country, or interact with them when they go abroad. The anxiety over the loss of the community language ensures that, as much as the community members interact with another foreign language, they will make room for multilingualism.

References

Blackledge, A., & Creese, A. (2008). Contesting ‘language’ as ‘heritage’: Negotiation of identities in late modernity. Applied Linguistics, 29(4), 533–554.

Creese, A., Blackledge, A., Barac, T., Bhatt, A., Hamid, S., Wei, L., et al. (2011). Separate and flexible bilingualism in complementary schools: Multiple language practices in interrelationship. Journal of Pragmatics, 43, 1196-1208.

Gafaranga, J. (2005). Demythologising language alternation studies: Conversational structure vs. social structure in bilingual interaction. Journal of Pragmatics, 37, 281–300.

Rampton, B. (2007). Neo-Hymesian linguistic ethnography in the United Kingdom. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 11(5), 584–607.

Importance of Language in Society
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