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Thursday, September 02, 2004

Language is power

I recently finished reading a book by John Honey, Language is Power - the story of Standard English and its Enemies". I enjoyed it because it challenges the development of my own ideas about language and power. He critically (and very controversially) examines the ideas developed by current "politically correct" socio-linguistics following in the steps of post-colonial writers who claim that Standard English is a form of "linguistic imperialism". He argues that minority groups can only win by learning (and being taught) Standard English and that not teaching it ("properly") is, in fact, a way of disempowering minority groups.

His final chapter is about Standard English as "a national and international language". He acknowledges that "many teachers of English are rightly concerned about the value-system that is implicit in the teaching of both the language and its literature, and much attention has been paid to the uses of English as a voice for writers from non-British cultures." (p. 256) However, I think that he then goes on to focus too much on language rather than looking at the dynamics of language, voice, knowledge and power.

Compare Honey's apparently simple question: "is it possible that, globally, the more people speak English, the less it reamins culturally the exclusive property of one group?" with Alasdair Pennycook's statement about voice in "The cultural politics of English as an international language".

The notion of voice ... suggests a pedagogy that starts with the concerns of the students, not in some vapid, humainist 'student-centred' approach that requires students to express their 'inner feelings', but rather through an exploration of students' histories and cultural locations, of the limitations and possibilities presented by languages and discourses. The issue in teaching critically ... is one of working with students to come to terms with the continuing struggles over language, knowledge and culture, over what is constituted as knowledge, and how one is represented and can come to represent oneself in the world."(p. 311)

Pearls of wisdom from Pennycook!


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