The Role of Language and Critical Literacy 1

Notes taken during Mario T. Menezes Souza presentation on the role of language and critical literacy.

Lynn starts the talk by asking us to revise our pre-conceptions of education, culture and projects a picture of Robison Crusoe and Good Friday kneeling at his feet.

He cites Chakrabarthy´s book Provincializing Europe and stresses the need for provincializing the universal/global

He points out that the concepts we have of education are not universal but come from somewhere, they are embedded somewhere, have an origin somewhere.

The two main points of his talk will be to situate where the taken for granted assumptions come from and then move on to what critical literacy is.

People have being accustomed to being told in the ELT to look at the native-speaker model (an ideal non-existen universal speaker) whereas we should try to see “a native that speaks”.

The concept of the native speaker is based on projections of one’s own language, we one see values as superior to those of others. There is a projection of the local as universal, excluding difference.

These are the conceptions that have changed

Provicializing Europe

We usually do not question or re-conceptualize the concept of culture itself. We need to understand, contextualize the origins of concepts of (single) language and (single) culture.

Modern school and modern education come from European Enlightment of the 18th century, according to the values of a hegemonic social class who were interested in constructing a single homogenous nation. Linguistic and cultural diversity were seen as a threat and it was necessary to impose order on chaos, reason over unreason. (inheritance of enlightment can be seen on the motto of the Brazilian flag  – ordem e progresso)

Globe Brazilian flag

Language and culture of the hegemonic class was seen as unmarked and neutral ie. not limited to certain contexts (their cultural values as standard and their educational system was imposed on the their own population and later on the rest of the world in colonial times). Different cultural values, languages were a threat and the official school was given the responsibility of carrying out the process of civilizing and ordering chaos. School was the place for dissemination of norms and the elimination of the local. There you were taught how to speak in an educated fashion, to acquire a certain knowledge – those people who did not identify with this were marginalized, eliminated (decontextualized). In order to be part of the mainstream, At the time, to be modern, civilized, you needed to approach as much as possible the universal model. Heterogeneity of language and culture seen as signs of anti-modernity and barbarism – eg. Bernard Shaw’s flower girl’s language as opposed to Professor Higgins’.

Homogeinization was based on imposition of norms/grammars of language and culture. Canons of literature; grammars of language; encyclopedias of knowledge were developed. These are the products of the 18th century enlightment

Myth of modernity

Modern (European) civilization sees itself as most developed, superior civilization and feels obliged to civilize/uplift/educate/develop lesser (barbarian) cultures. The path to development is known and must be followed, obstacles/resistance has to be removed at all costs, recourse to violence is justified, if necessary. The violence is symbolic and ritualistic and hero and victims participate in redemptive sacrifice. The victim is always in the state of guilt and redemptive, emancipatory symbolic violence is necessary.

This is the posture many teachers still adopt in their classrooms.

(Mignolo, W 2000 Local Histories Global Designs, p.117)

Questions to be asked – Whose grammar? Norm? Language? Culture? Whose perspective? Whose point of view? Is there a happy middle point?

The universal is the local of someone. If homogenous norms are based on a hegemonic, dominant, perspective of language and culture, there is no neutral perspective.Other perspectives have to cease being excluded. Diversity has to confront normativity.

All the words, text and images,on one hand, just as concepts, meanings and objects are signs which belong to a given context (culture, history, social class, gender, age group) The meanings do not come inside words and what we use but are understood from the viewer´s, reader´s own complex perspective and system so part of the process of reconceptualizing should be asking the questions “who are we, what context are we speaking from?. Homogeneity and normativity have to be recontextualize in language and culture just as diversity and difference have to be contextualized.From normativity to acceptability

  • (not anything goes – but from the perspective of a new notion where correctness is seen in a context – formal x informal,)
  • context defines acceptability – eg. rules (grammar) are contextual – not static but dynamic. Meanings of words change and so do grammar rules.
  • normativity has to be seen as contextual and local and universal or neutral
  • instead of simply right or wrong, language has to be inserted in a context
    • Speaker or writers of language are always located/speak from somewhere (situatedness).
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