When I first came across the edited volume Liberating Language Education, I wasn’t quite sure how this title was meant to be read: was this book about education that liberates or would it describe how to liberate language education from whatever norms constrain it? I thought that this kind of ambiguity was very clever, and –since both interpretations were very close to my interests– I proceeded to pre-order it. Soon the book arrived, and chances are that it would join an expansive stack of books that I’ve promised myself to read over the summer, except I was actually asked to review it for the Linguist List.
As an aside, I think it would be nice if we could all review more frequently. You might want to read the embedded post on the right, which makes a comelling case why.
One of the reasons why this book resonated so much was because I have been thinking, for a while now, that language education has tended to have too strong a focus on linguistics, as opposed to pedagogical theory, and is in need of repositioning. Also, through my work with people who have a refugee and migrant background, I have become very sensitive to the ways in which language education is (not always inadvertedly) instrumentalised to preserve barriers between newcomers and ‘natives’ (e.g. through through language requirements in citizenship tests). Plus, I am conscious, just like anyone whose interest in language runs more than skin deep, that our views of the “Other” are constrained by language, and the ideology that language encodes. The prospect of unshackling language education or even language education that might contribute towards a more just order ot things has an immediate appeal, and a book whose title hints at how this might be achieved commands attention.
You can read the ‘version of record’ of my review in the Linguist List, by clicking on the button. Or, you may want to read on an edited version in the paragraphs that follow. I hope you find it useful.
Review of Liberating Language Education
Summary of the contributions
Liberating Language Education, edited by Vally Lytra, Cristina Ros i Solé, Jim Anderson, and Vicky Macleroy, is organized in four parts, which are flanked by introductory and concluding editorial contributions. Each part consists of several chapters and a commentary section that highlights common themes and discusses implications.
The volume begins with a non-numbered introductory chapter (“Why Liberating Language Education?”; pp. 1-20) by the editorial team, which outlines the theoretical backdrop and rationale that informs the book. As the authors explain, the aims of the collection are to challenge “dominant paradigms of language and language education” which “continue to be based on static notions of language as code, as a rule-governed system that is coterminous with stable communities and identities” (p. 1), to question the “prescriptive ideologies” (p. 2) that inform language education, and to harness “the pedagogical potential that comes with valorising and strategically deploying the multilingual repertoires of learners and teachers” (p. 1) in order to address “increased linguistic and social inequalities” (p. 1).
A highly original aspect of this introductory chapter is the overt positioning of the editors, who use metaphors to critically examine their linguistic identities and to provide insight into how this positionality shapes their understanding of the book themes: this book is an effort at meaning-making by a ‘weaver’ (Lytra), a ‘fool’ (Ros i Solé), a ‘traveller’ (Anderson) and an ‘activist’ (Maclearoy). This is not a feature one often sees in academic books, and it is invaluable in understanding how the book, and the understandings in it, were shaped. What is, perhaps, less obvious, is how these multiple perspectives were synthesised in order to produce an understanding of language education that is more than the sum of its parts. Also, though this is not stated, as such, this positioning more is an invitation to readers to consider what their reading identity is, and how this shapes their engagement with the text.
Policies, Discourses, and Ideologies
Part 1 of the volume, which comprises four chapters, brings into focus the ideological backdrop that underpins language education, as well as its manifestation in discourses and policies. This discussion begins with a chapter entitled “‘I Don’t Think We Encourage the Use of their Home Language…’: Exploring ‘Multilingualism Light in a London Primary School”, by Thomas Quehl (pp. 23-39). This chapter reports on an ethnographic study in a multilingual primary school in Inner London. Two critical incidents are presented, which drew attention to representations of multilingualism in the school context and to how language use was shaped by language ideology. The data show that the monolingual ideology that pervades the school limits the communicative and expressive affordances available to children, and that translanguaging pedagogical practices are generally not present. Furthermore, any attempts to acknowledge linguistic diversity seem to be largely symbolic in nature, thus producing what the author terms “multilingualism light”, a set of beliefs and practices that pay lip service to multilingual ideologies but do not threaten established norms.
In Chapter 2 (“Recognising the Creole Community: Discursive Constructions of Enslavement and the Enslaved in Kreol Textbooks in Mauritius”; pp. 40-54), Ambarin Mooznah Auleear Owodally discusses how the Creole community in Mauritius, which defines itself as descendants of the Enslaved, is represented in education. This is accomplished by critically examining the textbooks used in a recently introduced Kreol language course, since “curricular artifacts” are viewed as “repositories of meaning about languages, people and places” (p. 44). This is a highly insightful observation, which echoes John Searle’s (1983) remarks on ‘derived’ intentional content, i.e. the meaning potential that is sedimented or assigned to objects. Although this somewhat important theoretical link is missing, the author does make a compelling case, through extensive examples of textbook content, that the Enslaved are presented in an unambiguously positive light: they are constructed as, e.g., authentic Mauritians, or as agents of resistance against colonialism, or as contributors to economic and cultural growth. In doing so, it is suggested, the textbooks may create an ideological space for the renegotiation of pervasive negative sentiment (‘malaise’) among the Creole community.
Chapter 3 (pp. 55-71), by Cátia Verguete, is entitled “Appropriating Portuguese Language Policies in England”. This chapter is part of a larger multi-site ethnographic study on Portuguese overseas language policy and its local implementation in the UK. Using data from interviews with three UK-based teachers of Portuguese, the study shows evidence of tensions between policies that are created centrally, and the power of individuals to re-create, re-interpret and appropriate policies locally. This is one of many instances, in the book, where the topic of ‘centre’-‘periphery’ relations is taken up, and the picture taht Verguete paints is more nuanced than the one encountered in accounts such as Phillipson’s landmark Linguistic Imperialism (1992). What the study shows is a series of mismatches and faultlines in linguistic policy: so, while official language policy has shifted from language maintenance to the internationalization of Portuguese, this reorientation is not reflected in the highly standardized curriculum, suggested content, and teaching methodology. Also, the teachers did not seem to align their practices with the espoused language policy. Verguette argues that this lack of alignment “is mediated by multiple factors which are discursive, ideological, structural and institutional in nature” (p. 68), and that language teaching remains constrained by influences such as resilient monolingual ideologies; but, since these observations are not connected to existing work on language policy (e.g, Spolsky, 2004) or curriculum change, or any theory about how sociocultural meaning structures are synthesised with local influences, the question of ‘how’ this happens remains open for the readers to pursue.
The final contribution to Part 1 is entitled “Making Sense of the Internal Diversities of Greek Schools Abroad: Exploring the Purposeful Use of Translation as a Communicative Resource for Language Learning and Identity Construction” (pp. 72-90), and is authored by Vally Lytra. Drawing on unsystematic obervations with an ethnographic perspective, the author describes a school serving the Greek community of Lausanne, in Switzerland. The chapter begins with information about the school and the “increasingly heterogeneous” (p. 73) population it serves, although this heterogeneity is masked by a shared language (Greek) and a shared religion (Greek Orthodoxy), which are unproblematically equated with ‘Greekness’. This description is followed by an outline of three loosely connected theoretical strands that inform good pedagogical practice, namely: (a) that linguistic proficiency should be viewed in terms of repertoires; (b) that identities are “emergent, fluid and discursively constructed” (p.76); and (c) that translation, seen here as a form of translanguaging, can be pedagogically useful in linguistically diverse contexts. Examples of pedagogical practice that align with these principles are presented leading to some discussion about the tensions between monolingual thinking and multicultural practice.
Part 1 concludes with a commentary by Ana Souza (pp. 91-96), which summarizes the tensions among the diverse influences that shape language education policy, and problematizes the extent to which multilingual practices have replaced monolingual ideologies in education.
Materialities, Affectivities, and Becomings
The second part of the volume relocates language-related discourse from cognitive engagement and instrumental use to “living” the languages. Nuria Polo-Pérez and Prue Holmes initiate this broad discussion in Chapter 5 (“Languaging in Language Cafés: Emotion Work, Creating Alternative Worlds and Metalanguaging”; pp. 99-119). This ethnographic study, which took place in two Language Cafés in the UK, proposes a distributed understanding of language immersion, to include not just sojourns in polities where the target language is spoken (what Phillipson  would have called the ‘Centre’), but also linguistic and cultural socialization in spontaneously created linguistic communities. The ecological outlook that underpins this study is one of the strengths of the paper, as it moves beyond views of language development as cognitive engagement with an abstract ‘code’; rather, it is seen as the emergent outcome of meaningful interaction in a linguistic ecology (van Lier, 2004). The findings are grouped in three broad categories: (a) the affective dimensions of languaging in a language cafe, which ranged from initial fear to a sense of accomplishment; (b) the role of language cafes as a transient mechanism where languaging is made possible, perhaps akin to a ‘third place’ (Kramsch, 1993) where cultures and identities are fused; and (c) reflection on and discussion of the participants’ relation with the target language (‘metalanguaging’).
Chapter 6, by Eszter Tarzoly and Jelena Ćalić, is entitled “Language Studies as Transcultural Becoming and Participation: Undoing Language Boundaries across the Danube Region” (pp. 118-142). This chapter problematises a distinction, common in academic curricula, between ‘language’ and ‘content’ courses. The authors’ argument is that language should not be viewed as an instrument for delivering content, and that language courses can have an intrinsic ‘content’ orientation. To achieve this, they present aspects of a university course on the languages in the Danube region. Their expansive discussion involves a theoretical and an empirical component. The former argues for a return to teaching of linguistic form and metalanguage and for the “thorough and precise analysis, description and interpretation” (p. 138) of decontextualised texts, suggesting that learning about language in this level of abstraction and encouraging cross-linguistic comparisons (in other words, reversing decades of work on Semantic Functional Linguistics and Communictive Language Teaching and Learning) promotes intercultural learning and challenges essentialist linguistic ideologies. This is a bold claim, and the fact that it is not further explored in the empirical component of the chapter is a missed opportunity. Instead, this part of the paper uses metaphor analysis to reveal how students conceptualize language, and what their perception of ‘content’ is. Based on hte observation that some course participants, though not the majority, viewed the course as having both ‘content’ and ‘language’ elements, the authors propose that rethinking the balance between communicative and metalinguistic goals constitutes “linguistically informed” (p. 140) language teaching.
In her contribution to Part 2 (Chapter 7: “The Textures of Language: An Autoethnography of a Gloves Collection”; pp. 143-158), Ros i Solé foregrounds the personal dimension of multilingualism, as a counterbalance to narratives that “focus on the objective of languages” (p.144), and she highlights “sensory and visceral” (p.144) experiences of multilingualism. The author proposes transcending the binary between abstract and tangible meaning-making, and attempts to show how their intersection (“the wild” in language; p.146) connects to materiality and memory. This is accomplished by autoethnographically documenting her involvement in an arts-based project that involved multilingualism. Details are provided about how the author created a collection of gloves which were decorated with greetings in multiple languages. Throughout the text, the description of her actions is interspersed with discussion of emotions and personally significant memories. What emerges is a perspective of how language is lived in uniquely personal ways. This perspective is subsequently used to interrogate language ideology drawing on the works of Bakhtin and Vološinov, Deleuzean views on language, and the notion of intentionality as inherent meaning-making potential.
In the commentary (pp.159-163) that concludes Part 2, Simon Coffey situates the three preceding chapters in an interdisciplinary meeting point that synthesizes elements of applied linguistics, education science, and the humanities.
Transcultural Journeying and Aesthetics
Part 3 of the volume centers on the role of aesthetics and transculturality in language education. This section consists of four chapters which can be read as case studies in language education, which have value as examples of good practice, even though connections to informing theory and the themes of ‘liberation’ are not always easy to discern.
This discussion opens strongly with a contribution by Jim Anderson (Chapter 8: “Visual Art in Arabic Foreign and Heritage Language and Culture Learning: Expanding the Scope for Meaning-Making”; pp. 167-185). This chapter broadens instrumental perspectives of language teaching that are associated with communicative approaches, by adding elements of intercultural learning, symbolism, and aesthetics. Specifically, the chapter proposes re-thinking the role of language as just one mode of meaning-making within a broader repertoire of semiotic processes. This is demonstrated by showing how the paintings of the contemporary artist Ermes were used in a course on Arabic as a foreign and heritage language. A structured pedagogical approach which involved ‘approaching’, and ‘exploring’ the cultural artefact, before re-imagining, re-mediating, and re-presenting it (‘creating’), was used to engage learners in multimodal meaning-making. Such approaches to language and culture learning, it is suggested, can help to overcome “the damaging divide that exists currently between language and culture learning” (p. 182).
Following that, in Chapter 9 (“Creating Pedagogical Spaces for Translingual and Transcultural Meaning-Making in a London Greek Complementary School”; pp. 186-204), Maria Charalambous describes aspects of meaning-making in the context of a complementary school that served the Greek and Cypriot diasporic communities in London. There are two loosely connected foci in the case-study, namely the role of learner agency and the pedagogical potential of storying around cultural artefacts. Following two brief sections that contextualize and theoretical position the paper, various incidents are presented which showcase how the learners collaborated, deployed their agency and creativity, and interacted translingually (in English, Standard Greek and Cypriot Greek) to produce multimodal artifacts.
Chapter 10 (“Opening Spaces of Learning: A Sociomaterial Investigation of Object-Based Approaches with Migrant Youth in and beyond the Heritage Language Classroom”; pp. 205-225), by Koula Charitonos, covers similar ground, as it reports on a learning project that took place in two complementary schools that serve the Greek and Greek Cypriot diaspora in the UK. In the project, students interacted with various culturally significant objects, such as Greek banknotes, using diverse modes of inquiry (e.g., observation, reflection, etc.). This mode of work helped to engage participants with different linguistic profiles and varying levels of proficiency in Greek. According to the author, the project is an example of a ‘safe space’ for learning, where “principles of dialogue, meaning-making and intercultural exchange” were deployed (p. 222).
Similarly, Dobrochna Futro’s contribution (Chapter 11: “Translanguaging Art: Exploring the Transformative Potential of Contemporary Art for Language Teaching in the Multilingual Context”; pp. 226-247), explores the pedagogical potential of contemporary works of art in language use and meaning-making. Coupling exploratory practice with a critical enquiry methodology, the author designed and implemented eight workshops where learners engaged with works by three visual artists, ranging from an installation to a performance-based video. In these workshops, learners explored creative ways to visually represent phrases that fused elements from more than one languages. This sustained engagement with translanguaging reportedly had a beneficial impact on the affective dimensions of language learning (e.g., agency, motivation, confidence), and on their metalinguistic and metacognitive skills.
The four chapters that make up Part 3 are discussed in the commentary (pp. 248-252) by Alison Phips, which highlights the role of art in opening discourse spaces and pedagogical possibility. Importantly, readers are cautioned that expanding the scope of the language education is not self-evidently benign or useful, and that there are dangers associated with uncoupling an enthusiastic drive for innovation from the enduring need, in education, for being critical. The argument is made for a pedagogy that is grounded on a “tolerance of ambiguity, ethics, creativity, political empathy and critical reflection” (p. 249).
Voices, Identities, and Citizenship
The final section of the volume examines questions of identity, voice, and citizenship in language education, often through the lens of digital pedagogy.
In Chapter 12 (“How weird is weird? Young people, activist citizenship and multivoiced digital stories”; pp. 255-276), Yu-chiao Chung and Vicky Macleroy explore how the use of digital technology, in the context of teaching English to young learners, can help the latter construct “narratives of freedom and social justice” (p. 255). This exploration is theoretically premised on the beliefs that digital storytelling allows for a democratic deployment of learner agency, and that it facilitates a critical interrogation of how identities are formed. To illustrate the potential of digital storytelling, two examples of digital storytelling projects are presented, both having taken place in the context of English as a Foreign Language classes in Taiwan: one focussing on a case of bullying that attracted media attention locally, and one on the rights of indigenous people. The projects, which showcased stories of discrimination and belonging, are described in detail, and with ample reference to the perspectives of participants involved. This leads to a brief discussion of “the transformative power of putting digital technology into the hands of children and teenagers” (pp. 272-273).
The pedagogical affordances of digital storytelling are also explored by Gabriele Budach, Gohar Sharoyan and Daniela Loghin in Chapter 13 (“Animating Objects’: Co-creation in Digital Story Making between Planning and Play”; pp. 277-296). A central idea in this chapter is that the use of storyboarding, as a preparatory step in the production of digital stories can be usefully replaced by more flexible methods that encourage spontaneity. Using a combination of interview data, ethnographic observation and written reflections, the chapter reports on the experiences of students involved in a university course on digital story creation. In the process, the data highlights how emotional connections were made with the ‘boundary objects’, which often had significant psychological resonance or represented aspects of their identity, and how students engaged with them in ways that involved linguistic creativity. This process reportedly generated a psychological state of flow as well as harmonious collaboration, and it is suggested that such a way of work is more pedagogically desirable than “pre-thought and previously scripted” processes (p.293).
Chapter 14 (“Visual Representations of Multilingualism: Exploring Aesthetic Approaches to Communication in a Fine Art Context”; pp. 297-317) by Jessica Bradley, Zhu Hua and Louise Atkinson completes the substantive part of the collection by reporting on the “Visual Representations of Multilingualism” project that ran in 2018-2019 in the UK and aimed to encourage thinking about multilingualism as “normal, unremarkable everyday practice” (p. 297). The chapter contains a thoughtful discussion of how the authors perceive the post-monolingual paradigm, which is helpful given the multitude of partially overlapping perspectives. At the core of their discussion is the belief that translanguaging, and multilingualism more broadly, “reflects the ways in which humans communicate every day and have always communicated” (p. 299). Also notable is the authors’ cautioning commentary on how the uncritical use of translanguaging might result in unnecessary ontological confusion as well as “damage to the emancipatory potential” of the translingual practices (p. 300). After these positioning comments, the authors discuss how they appraised the artistic submissions to the project and showcase and analyse some examples of the creative work that was submitted. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the potential such artistic creativity has for fostering transdisciplinary dialogue and participatory work.
Part 4 concludes with comments by Kate Pahl (pp. 18-320), who summarizes the three chapters and uses them as a prompt for re-examining the role of theory, or “living with theory a bit more dangerously” (p. 320).
In the final chapter of the volume (“Language Education Collages”; pp. 321-330), the editors synthesize the perspectives that were outlined in the preceding chapters. This loosely connected discussion includes a one-page presentation, in bullet-point format, of some implications for pedagogical practice and research, and summarizes the contribution that the collection aspires to make on ongoing debates including diversity, inclusion, citizenship, and communication.
At the core of “Liberating Language Education” is an invitation to readers to problematize how they perceive language education. The diverse contributions that make up this volume engage with this question from multiple perspectives, and effectively challenge views of communication that are narrowly linguistic and views of learning that are narrowly formal. The effectiveness of the volume lies in the suggestive power of the various contributions, and in the opportunities these diverse chapters create for imagining alternative to normative practice in language education.
The theme of ‘liberation’ that is indexed in the title of the volume is present in most of the chapters, although with differing levels of intensity. Although some chapters, especially in Part 4, explicitly tackle issues of unjust world orders and suggest how these can be problematised in the context of language education, the questions ‘who is liberated’ and ‘from what’ are answered in rather different ways in each contribution. For instance, in Chapter 3 what is brought into focus is freedom from top-down influences in shaping language policy; in Chapter 2, positive re-imaginings of the Enslaved are viewed as providing ‘liberation’ from racist ideological representations; and in Chapter 8, liberatory practice involves transgressing the boundaries between narrowly linguistic and narrowly cultural learning. Center-periphery relations, which are only overtly problematized in Chapter 3, are implicitly present in many contributions, for readers to tease out through engaged reflection.
It is perhaps disappointing, given the theme of the book, that the subaltern, minoritized, and vulnerable student populations remain largely invisible, and that precedence is sometimes given to correcting perceived injustices in the academic curriculum or to challenging ‘strawman’ representations of language pedagogy. However, the overarching call for a restructuring of language education is powerfully and persuasively made.
The central theme of ‘liberation’ places the volume in a growing discourse space that brings together critical theory in education and critical perspectives in applied linguistics, a discourse which the book extends with insights from the arts and humanities. The volume stands in a somewhat singular position in this space, in the sense that it seems relatively unconcerned with establishing a firm grounding on the existing literature that is commonly associated with ‘liberatory’ outlooks in education (e.g., the works of Freire or Giroux, or any of the literature on Critical Theory). Also, despite the central role of ideology in many contributions the discussion is generally unburdened by references to work in Critical Applied Linguistics, which could help to trace the linguistic contours of ideology more visibly.
This is not to say that connections with the informing theory are absent: various chapters make insightful linkages to philosophical work ranging from semiosis to intentionality, and the concepts of meaning-making and translanguaging run through the text (sometimes with surprising re-connotations). Rather, what is suggested is that these connections tend to function as implicit theoretical springboards rather than as explicit grounding.
Overall, this is a volume that invites a specialized readership. The methodological opacity of many chapters (especially the ones that position themselves in the ethnographic tradition) might mean that the book lends itself best to readers who are more concerned with the ‘what’, and the ‘what if’ of education rather than the ‘how’ of research, and that it might be less suitable as a teaching resource for MA and doctoral students. Equally, the book will likely reward readers who are prepared to invest intellectual effort in appropriating its content and working out context-specific ways of implementing the pedagogy described, since specific pedagogical guidance is not typically present in the chapters. This is a volume that presupposes a readiness, on behalf of the reader, to engage with implicit meaning, to reconcile ambiguities and contradictions in a polyphonic text, to draw connections across chapters, and to raise questions beyond the ones that the authors ask.
Ultimately, the value of this book does not rest on either the empirical rigour of the studies that are described or the strength of the theoretical connections to existing literature. The contribution that this book makes is in the bold proposal for a new way to re-imagine what ‘liberation’ might mean in the context of language education.
For those of you who find these things useful, the full APA citation of the book is:
Lytra, V., Ros i Solé, C., Anderson, J. & Macleroy, V. (Eds.). (2022). Liberating language education. Multilingual Matters.