Teachers often use examples to illustrate the point they want to make. As a language teacher, I am not an exception. While giving examples in my classes, I used to make many culturally embedded references, and when I did, many students’ showed a heightened interest. However, while I was reading Van Herk’s What is Sociolinguistics?, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the examples he used in the textbook. I have been thinking about this sense of unease for a long time, but I wasn’t sure how to articulate it until I read an article written by Patricia Duff (2004), and I found what it was that bothered me.
The story goes back to last September. When I first read Van Herk’s What is Sociolinguistics?, I found it was very accessible and fun to read: it was not as serious as other university textbooks, and it didn’t miss important concepts or studies that are significant in the field of sociolinguistics. Moreover, the author gave lots of Canadian examples to illustrate points he wanted to make, which is not common for a university textbook. More often than not, the textbooks produced by the major American textbook publishing companies hardly ever use studies carried out in the Canadian contexts as illustrative examples. So, for me, it was refreshing to see many examples drawn from Canadian contexts.
For instance, in the chapter named Place, Van Herk details the relationship between language variation and space – in effect, he examines both geographical and socially constructed space. In the middle of the chapter, he describes how an isolation that occurs between two places creates a language variation, and then he further explains three types of isolations: physical, linguistic, and social. To explain these concepts, he gave examples of Newfoundland English, Quebec French, and Nova Scotian black American royalist English. All of these locally-rooted historical Canadian examples are quite familiar if you have ever read a history of Canada, or if you have gone to a Canadian secondary school. Especially, if you can make a personal connection with the above mentioned examples, the quality of understanding the concepts will be quite different from that of others who cannot.
While I was reading this portion of the textbook, the faces of my colleagues who had arrived in Canada as recently as last August flashed before me, and I wondered whether these examples would mean anything to them. I was certain that my newly arrived colleagues were intellectually capable of understanding the concepts Van Herk wanted to explain. However, I was unsure how many of them could make a personal connection with the examples. As many educators and cognitive scientists agree, making a personal connection with idiosyncratic information is known to heighten the level of cognitive engagement.
At the same time, I felt a sense of relief that we were not going to have an in-class discussion of what we read in the textbook as many undergraduate university courses do. If we had done that, many newly arrived students would have been more silent than usual since the examples were almost foreign to them. However, it didn’t change the fact that newly arrived students needed to exert greater efforts to understand the concepts than did other Canadian students.
Then I read Duff’s research article Intertextuality and hybrid discourses (2004). In this article, she followed two grade 10 social study classes and their teachers in English-speaking Canadian school to investigate the pervasiveness of pop culture related discourses in classroom discussions and its impact on both Canada-born and immigrant students. She found that making popular culture references during classroom discussions not only makes academic topics more relevant to the Canada-born students, but it also legitimized the cultural capital of the Canadian born students. In turn, it excluded the ESL students from classroom discussions and silenced them (252-253).
This was a eureka moment: I was now able to articulate the nagging feeling that I had every time I read Van Herk’s textbook. It was the assumption the author made about what is shared between him and his readers that bothered me. When Van Herk wrote the book, I think he imagined his readers would be ‘ordinary’ Canadian university students interested in Sociolinguistics. Based on this assumption, he further imagined that many of his readers would be already familiar with Canadian contexts, so without reservation, he expansively used examples from Canada to explain sociolinguistic concepts because these examples would assist ‘ordinary’ Canadian students in grasping the sociolinguistic concepts. However, my classroom is anything but ‘ordinary’ and I am certain that these situations are being repeated at most if not all educational institutions across Canada.
Here, I am not arguing that we have to replace all the Canadian examples in the textbook with, let’s say, Nigerian examples, so that the examples won’t privilege anyone in the Canadian classroom. My point is that these examples, regardless of the good intentions of the author, often insidiously operate to privilege the cultural capital of the students from the dominant group and, in turn, they often marginalize students from non-dominant groups. So the next time you give an example to your students, I hope you first question whether your example reinforces a certain group of students’ social and cultural identities.
Duff, P. A. (2004). Intertextuality and Hybrid Discourses: The Infusion of Pop Culture in Educational Discourse. Linguistics and Education, 14, 3, 231-276.
Van Herk. G. (2012). What is sociolinguistics. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.