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Saturday, December 22, 2012


Only saw you a-live twice
In KL and you were in full flight
In Wellington and you were frail
I kind of knew you from a long time ago
As a child of the 60s
Got my first sitar in Calcutta
Took lessons in Kathmandu
Never advanced to the ragas
Still my sitar waits for my retirement project
To copy a note or two from you
Ravi Shankar
The year you died I was in Kochi, your India
And we listened to a sitar and tabla recital
Played well by two young unknowns
Attended by only three of us
Will the sitar’s popularity die with you
Ravi Shankar
The icon of a historical episode
All but forgotten in 2012
Resurrected only for silly reviews
Saying you never liked drugs and rock’n’roll and free love
What about your love child Normah Jones
What about the sitar that gently weeps
What about your Californian life-style
Ravi Shankar
You were a great musician and showman
Living in many worlds
A great Indian internationalist – a great contradiction
Like a Jain as head of the German Bank
Like a Pundit as the head of the Sony Music Corporation
As a head (a 60s term) of West meets East
Ravi Shankar the maestro, with Yehudi Menuhin
And a host of musical glitterati
With a love of music
And a love of the high (not a 60s term) life
Staying at the Mandarin Hotel and other presidential suites
But all is forgiven for the ragas you played at miraculous speed
Sa Re Ga ma Pa Dha Ni
Up and down, bending the notes, talking back to the tabla
Now there’s only your Anoushka, a faithful daughter
Playing the sitar like her father
But times have changed
The music has gone
Like my sitar
Ravi Shankar

Monday, December 10, 2012

A critical review of Critical Literacy: Theories and Practices, Volume 6 Issue 2, 2012, Guest Editors: Janinka Greenwood and John Everatt, University of Canterbury, Aotearoa/NZ (Editors: Lynn Mario T. M. de Souza, University of São Paulo and Vanessa Andreotti, University of Oulu)


Reading the contents of this issue of the journal is an interesting case study in ‘reading’, perhaps in analogy of the journal’s guru (in the positive sense of the word), de Souza, who often quotes that other famous Brazilian, Paulo Freire, as ‘listening’ – ‘we learn to speak not by speaking but by listening’. I wonder though if we can go as far as extending the analogy to ‘we learn to write not by writing but by reading’?

In any case, as the collection (of 7) articles can be headlined as ‘Research and Educational Change in Bangladesh: Meeting Local Goals Through Research in an International Academic Context’ (which is the title of the lengthy ‘position paper’ by Greenwood, filed at the end of the collection, and alluded to in the short introduction, also filed by Greenwood and her co-author), one cannot but wonder what the ‘International Academic Context’ might be, unless it is of course NZ/Aotearoa, as evinced by the location and academic institution given for themselves by the ‘guest editors’ Janinka Greenwood and John Everatt (the latter does not seem to have written anything much apart from having given his name to the brief introductory notes co-signed with Greenwood – perhaps to his credit).

While Greenwood (in her ‘Position paper’) does pay lip service to the idea that we as good Critical Litterateurs should have an critical dialogue between our “I” and our ‘non-I’, i.e. be self-critical, she does in fact stay within the limits of what she calls the ‘rules of the game’. At one stage she does indicate that she might entertain breaking the rules a bit, a bit like one of the authors (Rasheed) did “I risk following his example in the latter parts of this essay” – how ever I could not detect any signs of it. There were certainly signs in Mollah Rasheed’s article on ‘Learning English Language in Bangladesh: CLT and Beyond’. Greenwood alerts us to Rasheed having ‘overty shed the mantle of scholarly reliance on external academic authority … and subjectively explores …’ the shortcomings of the communicative teaching approach for English as a Second Language. In fact he does no such thing. What he does do is to inform us briefly but very informatively as to what the whole sham was about: some 14 ‘experienced’ educators from Bangladesh – selected from hundreds of applicants – are ‘given the chance’ to study in New Zealand at the University of Canterbury (in Christchurch) to get an MA – even though they all already have MAs from their Bangladeshi universities (sic) – believing in the ‘legend’ of the West. Once in Christchurch they wake up from their daydreaming, experiencing racist discrimination and other ‘situations’, realizing that the ‘situation’ is worse in New Zealand than in Bangladesh. Greenwood says that if Rasheed had written this in his ‘real’ MA thesis he might have failed!

Well, well, naughty Rasheed! Luckily in his Critical Literacy article he was allowed to briefly state the case (presumably the nasty details were edited out by the editors) – which in my mind it the crux of the matter. Christchurch can be a nasty little town full of neo-Nazis, as is the rest of New Zealand - as is the rest of the West, and quite possibly in the rest of the world, Bangladesh included – and no matter how Greenwood invokes the recent earthquakes as some sort of natural catastrophe that encourages her inhabitants to re-evaluate their lives in term of critical literacy, there is no change in the weather. Maybe she thinks she is taking a ‘risk’ by relating her experiences with the indigenous peoples of New Zealand, the Maori, which in academic circles has turned into an equal sham – tokenism of the worst sort. She speaks of Maori as some sort of sacred tribe that has all the wisdom to save the world from itself. By doing this she paints herself more and more into the corner of a white, middleclass academic who sleeps with the beautiful enemy – ambiguously perhaps – who are the power elites of this world (‘power is an aphrodisiac’ said one the greatest dickheads of our time, Henry Kissinger). Rasheed also points out that power elites run just about every country in the world, be it China, India, Brazil, Bangladesh or the USA). Only Rasheed calls a spade a spade. All the others concur with the editors and thus follow the ‘rules of the game’.

This does not mean, however, that all the other articles are not worth reading. The rules of the game do after all allow for ‘critical literacy’ and as such can be a valuable resource for those who seek to gain a deeper understanding of what conditions are like in Bangladesh. Ariful Kabir’s article entitled ‘Neoliberal Hegemony and the Ideological Transformation of Higher Education in Bangladesh’ does a good job in alerting us to the fact that ‘higher education’ is the domain for the middle and upper classes and that American-style private universities are the domain for the ruling classes. While Kabir does quote Said in this context he should have considered Chomsky ‘s (2003) Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance as a valuable resource. This brings me to this awful ‘rule of the game’ which dictates that academic articles must have a list of references that is longer than the article itself. This apparently demonstrates wide reading! One trick to get an impressive list of references is to have a phrase like ‘previous studies’ or ‘drawing on the works of’ and then bracket 10 or more references to it without ever having to refer to them again. Actually Kabir’s article is more of an exception to this rule but still manages an impressive list. In his conclusions he minces no words and says that for Bangladesh ‘future higher education will be reflected as a quest for knowledge of capitalist ideology’. Surely this is a statement of fact for just about all countries these days, New Zealand included. I wonder if Kabir was then forced to add what sounds like an addendum, namely that there is a nice solution to this nasty problem: ‘Democratic practices in higher education inevitably reduce market fundamentalism in this sector’. Maybe this was a nod of gratitude towards his alma mater in New Zealand which as an ‘international academic context’ has allowed him to voice unpalatable local (Bangladeshi) truths. I’m sure Rasheed, like myself, look at this as quite a sad cop-out. The so-called democratic practices in New Zealand promote capitalist ideology in a far more efficient way than in Bangaldesh, so much so that ‘higher education’ in New Zealand is sold as a model for Bangladesh – the aid donors for this project (ADB and the Canadian International Development Agency – both rabidly pushing capitalist ideology) wisely chose New Zealand for the purpose.

The second of the seven articles by the Bangladeshi authors is by Safayet Alam, entitled ‘Neoliberalism and Citizenship in the Bangladesh Secondary School Curriculum’. As with Kabir the critique of neo-liberalism is well articulated but the question if and how ‘citizenship’ should be taught in secondary schools results in some odd ideas. Noting the obvious contradictions between education for ‘global citizenship’ and ‘local citizenship’, there is the often stated notion that citizenship education in Bangladesh is ‘based on the core values of patriotism’. These references to nationalism as seemingly positive values echo the recent speeches by Obama who also referred to American patriotism as a positive value. This type of jingoistic talk seems to make a come-back from the times when rabid nationalism and empire building led to two world wars (quite apart from the saying attributed to Samuel Johnson that ‘patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel’). Alam, like Kabir comes to the conclusion that these contradictory forces are designed to ‘maintain existing inter-group relations (middle class and the elite class) …’ Again there is this addendum that states that ‘to review the Bangladesh secondary curriculum in terms of critical multicultural approaches’ will save the day. This sounds very much like New Zealand practice. Endless reviews and reports, commissioned by MoE, come up with statistics that show the poor ethnic minorities like Maori and Pasifika as failing in the education stakes, making various useless recommendations, and thus leaving the ruling elite secure in the knowledge that all is well, that the poor are getting poorer while the tiny minority of the super rich are getting ever richer. Let them wishy-washy academics read all about Paulo Freire’s thesis of ‘education being a tool for liberation from oppression’ as long as they don’t rock the boat. If they dare, a call to the VC will ensure a quick redundancy or two. Anyway, a small number of academic dissidents are cultivated so as to prove the point of academic freedom. When political Maori activists like Tama Iti (not an academic) push for real action, they are quickly branded, arrested and sentenced as ‘terrorists’.

The fourth article by Abu Salahuddin entitled ‘Challenges to Effective Leadership of Urban Secondary Schools in Bangladesh: A Critical Study’ might be called a contradiction of terms, for ‘effective leadership’ is always and everywhere part of the problem, never the solution. ‘Leadership’ cannot be reformed: it is an institutional design that ensures the dictatorial status quo. Headmasters (and later called ‘principals’ (sic)) of schools derive from the British education system that is institutionalised to such a degree that even the most inept and laughable headmasters (ridiculed in many media) become pillars of their local communities. Take the deputy headmaster in JK Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy as a shining example. Salahuddin does mention that principals in Bangladesh need to pay more attention to ‘self-management’ of teachers and staff, i.e. letting go of their assumed dictatorial powers but wouldn’t a logical conclusion be that real ‘self-management’ means to have no leadership? Leadership means that people cannot manage themselves, hence need to be led. Education systems that subscribe to this model are as dominant in New Zealand as in Bangladesh. Salahuddin is again caught up a contradiction of terms when saying in the conclusion that ‘it is important for Bangladeshi policy makers to avoid replicating the colonial situation or creating a neo-colonial dependency on the western world’. ‘Policy makers’ all around the world are elitist cadres (Chomsky calls these intellectuals ‘Stalinist commissars’) who will ensure that the colonial mindset will prevail, even to the extent of using language that seems to point in a different direction. It’s an example of Orwellian newspeak. One hopes that Salahuddin has no ambition to become a ‘policy maker’ lest all sorts of educational crimes are committed.

‘Teacher Educators’ Perspectives of the Introduction of ICT in Education in Bangladesh’ by Arefin Chowdhury, must be an obligatory research topic these days, for what would the world be like without ICT? There can be little doubt that advances in military technology have had huge spin-offs for civil society, be it the Teflon frying pan or the microchip for the computer and i-phone. Modern drone warfare brings us closer to the idea that we can fight wars by remote control. It is always a matter of speculation as to why many parts of the so-called western world is technologically ‘developed’ while others are only ‘developing’ and yet more are ‘under-developed’. Since Chowdhury does call Bangladesh a ‘developing country’ one can only assume that the author subscribes to such a classification. When I was working for UNESCO as an education advisor for Vanuatu, this island nation was declared a ‘least developed country’ (LDC) and when I challenged the Australian Aid representative as to how Australia might have contributed to this new label, she said it was good news for Vanuatu as they could apply for increased aid. The boomerang aid industry is legendary as one of the most insidious mechanisms for keeping the LDCs of this world on their knees. One way is to ship off lots of second-hand ITC equipment to out-of-the-way places where it breaks down quickly, leaving behind toxic rubbish. ITC is like the magic wand that stops to function without warning. You are left with a piece of useless junk. Chowdhury does concede that one has to look at ITC critically and not accept it as mere consumer goods. Obviously ITC in education is a reality, as all new technologies are. The point is to assess how useful they are in a given context. The dream that ITC can overcome all geographical, economical, social, political and educational boundaries has long been shattered along the North-South division, suitably called the digital divide. Bangladesh cannot bypass its technological evolution by jumping the queue. ITC development is an elitist enterprise and to educate the masses in the uses of ITC is at the level of making them knowledgeable consumers of ITC – something that Chowdhury does warn against.

The last two articles ‘Attitudes and Concerns of Teacher Educators towards Inclusive Education for Children with Disabilities in Bangladesh’ by Mahbubur Rahaman, Dean Sutherland and ‘Secondary School Teachers’ Perceptions of Inclusive Education in Bangladesh’ by Tania Khan deal with the question of how to handle students with disabilities and/or special needs. While surely an eminently worthy topic but highly specialised and narrow in scope, one wonders why two articles are dedicated to this issue. Both papers seem to come to the conclusion that while inclusive education is a very noble aim, the Bangladeshi context is a long way off achieving any such goals. The harsh reality of a country struggling to educate its masses of able-bodied and cognitively unimpaired youth is that there are no resources to deal with ‘special needs’. To achieve a measure of social justice, i.e. of being inclusive, is predicated on economic success, and while this is denied to Bangladesh, it is unlikely to be able to respond. The authors quote all manner of lip service to the contrary yet are unable to get to grips with the underlying problems. Kahn seems to come to the conclusion that a ‘shift in consciousness’ on part of the teachers is required, as if that would solve the problem. I have seen several ‘special needs’ schools in operation in New Zealand and one can only be amazed at the professionalism some of the teachers display. What matters most is that they are relatively well-paid for their services. It’s a terrible thing to say but it is true: if you pay peanuts you get monkeys. Poor countries have no choice but to deal with ‘special needs’ by either ignoring them altogether or to put them into appalling institutions that are run by poorly paid and untrained staff – or worse, looked after by charitable volunteers who exploit the children for their own devious ends. Rahaman and Sutherland come up with the quite bizarre notion – repeated several times – that Bangladesh has ‘a history that pre-disposes it to social justice but also makes it hard to achieve’. What does this mean? The authors seem to suggest that history can work in contradictory ways: committed to social justice but beholden to poverty, hence unable to institute the former. It seems obvious to me that those who cause poverty are not in the least interested in social justice. Bangladesh’ struggle for independence – as all such struggles – only served to substitute the colonial elite with a native elite (educated by the best institutions the colonials can offer, such as Sandhurst and West Point). For the masses of ordinary people nothing much changed. All the history of ordinary people is predicated on social justice, while all the history of power hungry elites is predicated on denying it. Read Marx, read Chomsky. Read the pamphlets of the Socialist Party of Bangladesh.

My review is based on the saying that ‘the path to hell is paved with good intentions’ and that I want the authors to reconsider some of their ‘good intentions’ lest they reinforce the status quo. My critique may sound harsh at times but should be considered as a compliment: the authors are worth saving from themselves and instances of their incorrect thinking. With a change in direction they can make the world a better place. Critical literacy means not only to subject ones own thoughts (the I and the non-I) to criticism but also listen to criticism from the outside, such as this review. I am happy to argue my case and be criticized in return lest I am barking up the wrong tree. I am happy to engage in academic discourse that has no rules. I am happy to mix it up like de Souza in his ‘Gaza 2009: notes on critically reading conflict’ when he dedicates the article to the ‘victims of Gaza’ while on the other hand proposing a somewhat quixotic construct called ‘post-critical critical literacy’. I am unhappy with everything else.

Friday, November 2, 2012

A left review of J. K. Rowling’s (2012) The Casual Vacancy

To declare possible bias first: I have never read any of her Harry Potter books simply because this genre doesn’t interest me at my advanced age. When I was a teenager in Germany, I devoured Karl May’s Wild West and Oriental adventure books, some 20 volumes in all. Our son was a great fan of Raymond E. Feist’s fantasy fiction and no doubt was instrumental in what authors like Rowling, May and Feist do so well, namely to instil a capacity if not love for reading in young people. Reading large amounts of text, fictional or non-fictional, invariably leads to an extensive knowledge base, to literary refinement and aids the development of one’s own writing skills. Of course some of us harbour the dream that, like J.K. Rowling, our manuscript(s) will be accepted by a major publisher and henceforth sell millions of our books, to be turned into blockbuster movies and commercial accessories, and to become super rich and famous like J.K. My personal connection goes as far as having been an ESOL teacher for some time, just like J.K. in her youth teaching ESOL in Portugal – me in Asia and the Middle East - all the while making notes on Harry Potter, while over the years I only managed to have a couple of academic treatises (one on Noam Chomsky) published – and my novella lingering undiscovered as a self-publication with Lulu.com. Naturally as an average news and literature junkie I have occasionally followed J.K’s progress and when news reached the world that she was writing an ‘adult’ novel, I was intrigued enough to check out what the fuss was all about. When the launch became a major media event, I saw an interview clip on the Guardian website where she amicably chatted with a journalist dressed up as a literary agent for cook books. My wife who monitors my media interests jumped the gun and bought a hardcopy of The Casual Vacancy, a week or so after the launch. Having by then already learnt about the plot and what the major media literary critics thought of the book – mainly OK but not high-brow literature – I was of course wondering if my reading of it would concur with the initial reviews. (I will first present my review independent of any references to any other reviews and only then make some comparative comments).

Having had only time to read the book on my way to and from work (sadly still teaching ESOL) – on a ferry – it took quite a while to get through; however, it was always with anticipation as to what would happen next. A good sign! The main characters and their families were quickly established and the drama, if not the tragedy, unfolded, with some clever backwards and forwards narrative, in the contemporary timeline of a small British town, thinly disguised as fictional, for what was unfolding is in essence a grim social realism prevalent in Britain as much as in the Western World generally. Rowling describes the whole strata of contemporary society in no uncertain terms, from the local grandee cum London banker down to the junkie mother and her two children, teenager Krystal and toddler Robbie living in a dingy council flat at the border of Pagford (the fictional name of the town). Krystal Weedon, as the other high school teenagers in the play – I say ‘play’ both because the novel has Shakespearean qualities as well as being a good script for a movie – Stuart ‘Fats’ Wall, Andrew Price, Sukhvinder Jawanda and Gaia Bawden (and few lesser ones) are really the heart of the novel and as such eminently suitable for reading material for young adults, if indeed not adolescents at High School.

Given that there is quite a lot of teenage sex involved – not to speak of the sex between some of the adults, and most notoriously the rape of Krystal by her mother’s drug supplier – there is of course the immediate question of the novel’s suitability for youngsters below a certain age. This conundrum of the ‘suitable age’ has always been hotly debated as if adolescents have to be protected from the depraved aspects of sex, be it rape or paedophilia (as a nightmare scenario for Fat’s father ‘Cubby’, the deputy principal of the local high school) by not talking or reading about it. After all modern schools have ‘sex education’ on their curriculum, albeit in the most sanitized version of sex being a biological act that is best accompanied by genuine love – the latter a nebulous term for many a teenager – so Rowling’s treatment of sex as social reality must come with its teenage angst and most of all with its crude language. Maybe there is something innately British about the term ‘shagging’ which is used frequently as an intermediate term somewhere between ‘fuck’ and ‘have sex’ and ‘make love’. When Fats ‘shags’ Krystal one does get the impression – as a non-British speaker of English – that the act is something akin to coming under friendly fire.

Another term used as pre-eminently British, is ‘slapper’ which is of interest to New Zealand readers inasmuch the term surfaced as a highly unusual epithet in a recent murder case whereby the accused had scrawled the word on a wall, denouncing his brother-in-law’s wife as such and standing accused of murdering his brother-in-law. People had to consult their dictionaries to determine the meaning of ‘slapper’.

In any case the heavy dose of graphic sex, amongst teenagers and adults, running the gambit from rape to ‘making love’ is of course questionable. Sure, nobody can deny that it isn’t happening, especially the low-down abuse of sex as violence but is it the domain of literature as we’d like to know it? How much of it is voyeurism that attracts readers with unstable minds – yes, even readers and writers are not immune from insane acts like rape – and how much is it gritty realism, designed to forewarn the reader of the awful consequences of  depraved sex, like the rape of Krystal ultimately contributing to her suicide. In this The Casual Vacancy is very similar to a notorious New Zealand novel called Once were Warriors (by Alan Duff) which was made into a grim movie detailing the low-down Maori gang culture, also resulting in a teenage girl’s suicide due to rape by a relative. Some people saw it as a powerful tale to make people aware of the dreadful consequences of a macho culture that regaled in mindless violence, while others denounced it as voyeurism that invited sick minds to watch a simulated rape scene. Whilst the Once were Warriors  novel could be critiqued as presenting perversity and violence – with doses of relatively harmless sex, drugs and rock’n’roll – as being inherently low-class Maori, without considering the societal conditions which drive sections of society into underground squalor and misery – with attendant crime and violence – the same cannot then be said of The casual Vacancy precisely because Rowling presents the whole picture, and in no uncertain terms blames the British middle and upper classes for what goes on in the down-and-out sections of Pagford.

The prime vehicle  is the Mollison family: Howard as the obese, ageing businessman and Pagford councillor, his weird wife Shirley who worships the local grandee and the Queen, their lawyer son Miles who plays the theme of ‘as father as son’ and who unfortunately married a class down to a buxom blonde who causes much consternation for her mother-in-law Shirley. The senior Mollisons also have a lesbian daughter who has been sidelined but occasionally surfaces as a minor character – in my opinion as a bit of a cliché and as a flaw in Rowling’s overall attempt to cram in all the middleclass scenarios known to British mankind. Howard represents the silent majority of ‘decent’ burghers who just want the problem of low class people to go away – literally. Out of sight out of mind. Helping low class people like Terri (Krystal’s junkie mother) to get out of their squalid condition, is written off as pointless, as these people have only themselves to blame. It is their choice to take drugs and rape each other. Just don’t do it in our backyard. One might think that this is a cliché not worthy of the middle classes who after all just do the bidding of the upper classes – the Fawleys in the novel – but this is exactly the strength of the argument in The casual Vacancy, namely the denunciation of the upper and middle classes together, as perpetrators of social disintegration for those on the low and lowest socio-economic ladder. Without the help of the bourgeoisie the ruling class cannot function as a model of the Westminster Parliamentary system (read: constitutional monarchy): they would have to revert to feudal absolutism (read: monarchy).

The other central character in the novel, Barry Fairbrother (sometimes Rowling is a bit clichéd with her choice of names, as if the name itself indicates as to who we are) is of course already dead at the beginning of the novel and plays his role mainly as the ‘ghost-of-Barry-Fairbrother’ (for his life, we are filled in by various flashback scenes). He took on the role of lower-class man made good through education, having been brought up in the low-class council flats of the Fields within the border of Pagford, and having made it through university (the first in his family) and become the local banker (he presumably being a ‘good’ banker as opposed to the local aristocrat who is the ‘bad’ London banker). In any case Barry takes Krystal under his wings and just about transforms the troublesome teenager into a champion rower – the sort of saga whereby athletic talent exhibited unexpectedly by the lower classes is seen as the bootstrap by which you can pull yourself up into the big league. Gaia, as the alternative teenage character, just arrived from London with her social worker mother, has or had after all a boyfriend who already was training for the British football league, Chelsea maybe. In any case Krystal, as an unlikely rowing champion with a team of others from the local high school, winning a match against the snobby private school in the area, is a highlight of the sporting kind. Rowling’s descriptive powers and sense of irony work best in such scenes. Kay, Gaia’s mother, as the social worker fresh from London in pursuit of a gutless lover (a lawyer called Gavin), is the only other really sympathetic character in the book, meaning ‘sympathetic’ as a social worker who takes her job seriously and treats Terri quite successfully to the degree that Terri gives up heroin, at least for a while, and looks after her toddler son Robbie better than before. Redemption is possible with the genuine help of those who see the worth in each individual – a powerful message delivered by Rowling, quite possibly echoing her own situation when she was a young solo-mother on welfare in Edinburgh, poor but never down-and-out.

Which brings us to the other flawed family, the Sikh Jawanda family, where the mother Parminder is the local GP, and her husband, the good looking Vikram playing the surgeon in the district hospital. Parminder as a fellow councillor (together with Howard, Barry and a few others) is an admirer of Barry, inasmuch as he seemed to do what others only preach, like her Guru’s saying of ‘the light of God shines from every soul’. Parminder hates Howard for his insipid racism against her family, even though it is the son of the deputy principal, Fats, who torments their daughter Sukhvinder with primitive racial and sexual taunts. Howard’s on the other hand is the wholesome racism of the British race which has a noble and long history wedded to a place like Pagford and no immigrants – especially of colour - can possibly usurp this legacy and tradition, no matter how qualified they are and how well-off they are. There is even some ambivalence in Rowling’s apparent attitude, as she paints Parminder in particular as a somewhat unstable character who is obsessed with a personal hatred of Howard, so much so that she commits a professional indiscretion by publicly admonishing Howard as a cost to the British health system, due to his gross obesity. Of course she is right but in polite society one cannot say so – and there is no doubt that J.K. is now also a member of the polite society.

Which brings us in turn to the interesting question as to why Rowling wrote the book in the first place. Had she written it as her first effort, she would not have found a major publisher for it. After all the publishing industry has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo for British and world society. Having reached the pinnacle of publishing success with her Harry Potter books, she could dictate the ‘next’ book whatever its theme. Maybe she wanted to give the fingers to all those middle and upper class twats who ignored her so cruelly when she was a young and very good writer of fiction – just because she didn’t belong to the right class of Oxbridge people who publish successful books. I would do the same if I had the chance – or so I keep telling myself. There is something very incongruous in having her mug shot at the back of the book jacket, looking ever so glamorous, looking so totally disconnected from the book she just wrote. Presumably aged 47 in the photograph, she exhibits a cleavage she decries so humorously as ‘cracked’ in The Casual Vacancy for elderly women. Of course she can now afford the very best the beauty industry has on offer and she will look forever young and beautiful, cleavage and all. Can Rowling be a social activist? A recent report from the British Commission on Living Standards says that ‘Britain faces a choice between a generation of stagnant living standards for millions of lower-income households, or an alternative that tackles low pay, low skills, and childcare costs’; so, can Rowling be an influential advocate for the ‘alternative’? Will Britain descend to Dickensian conditions and is Rowling the new Dickens? Dickens famously campaigned for children’s rights in many of his novels, and Rowling in The Casual Vacancy can be compared to this noble aim. She obviously has a knack to describe the lives of dispossessed children and adolescents and make us painfully aware that the children – like Robbie and Krystal – are the ones who pay the price with their lives.

Maybe Rowling has the hope that a new generation, spawned by the working and middle classes, can become the new and follow-up rebels of the 60s generation, in open conflict with their miserable parents’ generation. Unfortunately she focuses too much on generational differences that stem from idiosyncratic conditions rather than universal themes (e.g. make love not war) – only Fats is described as having some philosophical thoughts, like wanting to be ‘authentic’. 

As such, the theme in The Casual Vacancy as a conflict of generations, is somewhat overdone. All the teenage characters are in conflict with their parents, one way or the other. Andrew Price gets regularly beaten up by this dumb working class dad who is given to mindless violence as much as being mindless generally. His wife gets the occasional fist as well. Rowling sometimes uses the word ‘pummelling’ as if she wants to downplay the physical family violence as not that bad, contrasting it with the far worse psychological violence visited upon Fats by his psychotic father, the deputy principal who imagines himself as a paedophile in disguise, and the somewhat clichéd terror of the strict traditional Sikh family values which demand educational success from their offspring at all costs. The unfortunate youngest daughter is therefore given to self-harm.

Then there is the verbal violence – if that’s what it is - played out between Krystal and her mother. As opposed to the other teenage-parent relationships, Krystal is the real mother figure (and in the end tragically wanting to become a mother herself) doing her best to save her mother from heroin induced oblivion. There is a bit of the 70s iconic ‘teach your parents well’ song lyric in all of this, as well as the age old observation that in very poor societies the young look after the old (and not so old).So why in this Orwellian down-and-out scenario do we have this low-down language to contend with? Many a sociolinguist has grappled with this question  which pains the polite middle classes in particular. Maybe poverty breeds not only crime but also a language dialect that bestows an unmistakable identity, a kind of verbal revenge visited upon polite society.

Rowling’s use of the vernacular, like the drug dealer’s request for Terri to keep some goods stashed away ‘Jus’ keep ‘em ‘ere fer us, Ter, fer a coupla days?’, or like Krystal’s vernacular anguish when she finds out her mother is shooting up again ‘You stupid fuckin’ junkie bitch, they’ll kick yer ou’ the fuckin’ clinic again’ - this sounds slightly laboured inasmuch all the other characters’ dialogue is rendered in conventional spelling form. To have sections of dialogue (or thoughts) in the vernacular for the down-and-out but not for all the others is a problem for social realism, inasmuch all people of all classes have sociolects, be it the Queen or be it the Terri, the junkie. As we know, the conventional written word is an abstraction of the spoken word, and as such cannot render the true spirit of a dialogue unless we employ phonetic script or other devices such as the liberal use of the apostrophe to indicate dropped consonants and vowels. Of course Rowling wants to demonstrate that so-called bad and/or obscene language as a dialect of certain sub-cultures is as neutral as BBC English is for the daily news. The well-known sociolinguist William Labov in his (1972) Language in the Inner City portrays black American inner city vernacular as a perfectly formed language dialect, transcribing recorded text with normal spelling (e.g. ‘Well, you must can’t fuck good then.’) but of course also detailing the particular prosody that goes with it in a separate chapter. Rowling could have adopted a similar scheme, thereby also being able to poke some fun at the affected accents the middle classes often adopt (à la Mrs Bucket in the old BBC comedy series).

As mentioned above, Krystal is the only ‘young’ character who, from the beginning, tries to looks after the ‘old’, i.e. her mother Terri, thereby alerting us to the role reversal that is necessary for any generational conflict to resolve itself. Rowling indicates something like that also for the Sikh family in that their youngest daughter changes from a Cinderella character into an assertive young woman who tells her mother what is what. Perhaps Rowling is pessimistic about wholesale generational change as the other teenage protagonists don’t seem to progress, stuck in teenage angst and sexual inadequacy.

I’ll resist the ‘how many points out of 10’ to give the novel, and instead check out what some of the mainstream reviewers have to say, and how much I agree or disagree. Much of the semi-intelligent British media is dominated by the Guardian empire these days – what with the BBC rapidly falling into everlasting disgrace over the Savile scandal – so the review by the Guardian’s Theo Tait must come first, giving a cautious thumbs up with various misgivings:

But if The Casual Vacancy is ambitious in its scope and themes, it is determinedly unadventurous in its style and mode. It's a book that wrestles honourably and intelligently with big moral and political questions, but does so in a slightly clunky and convention-bound way.

In other words it sounds a bit boring. Wrestling with ‘political questions’ should best be left to the Guardian, it seems. A clearly disingenuous ruse to keep readers away from anything approaching social realism. One item of agreement lies in the reviewer’s observation of the use of the vernacular:

Perhaps that's partly because the Fields characters are handled with the tweezers of old-fashioned literary convention: whereas the others speak in rounded standard English, they use a kind of generalised, Dickensian lower-order-speak, that owes more to written convention than anything real: "I takes Robbie to the nurs'ry"; "Tha's norra fuckin' crime"; "No, shurrup, righ'?" (ibid.)
So what do the mighty say across the mighty Atlantic? The New York Times – in a recent NZ National Radio talk show identified as the best newspaper in the world, or thereabouts – as a counterpart to the Guardian is, perhaps not surprisingly, saying much the same, like it’s good but on the whole you don’t have to read it. At least the NYT reviewer Amanda Foreman opens with some compliments:

“The Casual Vacancy,” Rowling’s much-­anticipated departure from the genre of children’s fantasy, is a sprawling homage to the Victorian protest novel as typified by Dickens, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell and Thomas Hardy. Like them, Rowling wishes to engage and enrage her readers, inspiring them to take socially conscious action.

While everyone seems to agree that Dickens was influential in highlighting Victorian degradation, and bringing about some social change for the better, both the Guardian and the NYT don’t want to accord any such possibility to Rowling, mainly because this is where the media calls the shots and ‘manufactures consent’ ( à la Chomsky and Herman). The NYT readers are warned that

Rowling has always harbored a particular loathing for middle-class smugness and self-congratulation — the kind Dickens so effectively satirized in “Oliver Twist … The unattractive sneer at middlebrow taste could have been toned down too. Few, if any, will share Rowling’s notion that a weakness for royal-themed tchotchkes and chenille robes is a sign of moral turpitude. (ibid.)

One also detects here the warning that Rowling seems to attack sacrosanct authorities like the ‘royals’ and as such cannot be tolerated as a social reformer, unlike good old Dickens (who never seemed to criticise Queen Victoria). Anyway, I must be one of the ‘few, if any; that share Rowling’s notion. The NYT in the end delivers the coup de grace:

A thoughtful edit might have removed many of the stylistic slippages that mar “The Casual Vacancy.” Rowling is at the height of her creative powers: there might have been a good, possibly even great, 300-page social novel inside the 500-page tear-­jerker we have instead. Let’s hope it will be different next time. (ibid.)

Subtext: write more Harry Potter novels and don’t meddle with the powers-to-be. Of course the NYT had also presented an earlier review, by one Michiko Kakutani, which totally rubbished the novel.

So what about a review from a bit on the left side? One cannot find them as easily as the ones from the right wing – naturally (as search engines deliver the conservative diet ad nauseam). One from a Yale (sic) college kid who is a bit of a lefty:

This is a book about class. The central battle of the book is one over the merits of government intervention and the meaning of responsibility — the battle between rich and poor, the haves and the have-nots. Rowling, who once described herself as being as “poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless,” is exposing her readers to the miseries of poverty that they never saw even in a cupboard bedroom or second-hand wands. She is arguing powerfully for the responsibility we have to help the least among us. There is no magic spell to cure heroin addicts or uplift downtrodden children, and Rowling does not sugarcoat. This will not be a book with a happy ending. Yet it is an important one, from perhaps the world’s most important living author.

The kid writes very badly but at least honestly. If we were to apply a Marxist analysis, or something along the lines that it is a crime to own assets and wealth, which adds up to more than ten times the average wage of the workers, we would have to dismiss Rowling as a criminal, never mind her insipid analysis of the class struggle. Revolution cannot come from above as ‘government intervention’. However, since contemporary society has regressed to the point where ‘revolution’ is a cosmetics brand, one cannot be surprised that the reactionaries view Rowling as a real threat to the Tories:

I do not agree with the claim that this book is a "500 page long Socialist manifesto" masquerading as a novel. It's much too negative and depressing to be a manifesto of any kind.

Obviously Rowling is no revolutionary, after all it is reported that she donated a million Pounds to the Labour Party. How could she?

Perhaps there is a deep irony in that Rowling’s erstwhile success with the Harry Potter books is rooted in a neo-feudal magic mysticism – of the nicest kind of course – which was ordained by the ruling classes as suitable reading material for youngsters (unlike the young, 10-year old, Noam Chomsky reading socialist pamphlets and copies of the Freie Arbeiterstimme) but when she turned to writing in a mildly social realist mode in The Casual Vacancy, she must be stopped in her tracks, especially as her younger readership might be tempted to read it too. Doesn’t she know that richesse oblige? Imagine if Karl May had written Das Kapital as a postlude to his magic adventure stories! So, compared to Karl May, who never quite escaped his fantastic imaginations (he did however become a pacifist in his later years), J.K. Rowling did reasonably well.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012



You were highly bred, a show cat
We rescued you after use by date
With your female companion
From life in a cage
You lived with us for ten years or so
Noble as a lion, as our best friend
Maybe you were too well bred
What with many an ailment
Born stoically
We loved you for your beauty and loyalty
Snuggling up in bed without fail
Pushing your wet nose against our faces
Then you got asthma
And one day you heaved and heaved
We took you to the vet
Who gave you the wrong medicine
Then it was all too late
Your respiratory system collapsed
You were put to eternal sleep
And we cried and cried
We buried you under the trees in our garden
With two little sandalwood gods
To protect you in your next life
And then look upon us
Who will never forget you
Until the day we also die

Monday, October 1, 2012


CLESOL Palmerston-North, 4-7 Oct. 2012

Universals of Grammar (UG) and Culture (UC) – implications for TESOL

Wolfgang B. Sperlich, PhD


The prominent linguist, philosopher and political activist Noam Chomsky made the analogy that when little green men from Mars arrive on earth, they will quickly acquire all human languages as they will crack the code of Universal Grammar (UG), thus having to learn only the minor surface features that differentiate human languages. In other words, languages have far more in common than divides them. Indeed this is the reason why we can learn, with relative ease, any other language(s) not our native tongue. Language teachers who engage in linguistic relativism – in tandem with cultural relativism – promote irrational modes of learning, including the much vaunted ‘necessary talent’ to become a polyglot. Universals of Grammar (UG) are well known to theoretical linguists but appear to have had only limited impact on TESOL, despite seminal works like Lydia White’s (2003) Second language acquisition and Universal Grammar. Perhaps the most common distracter is the current fashion to integrate culture (C) and language (L) as if L2 = C2. This paper argues against culture studies as a necessary or even desirable complement to language learning. If we apply Chomsky’s analogy to ‘culture’ – and especially to modern culture – it becomes apparent that cultures differ less and less in surface features, with the Universals of Culture (UC) finding expression in the global villages – and quite unrelated to language per se. Cross-cultural communication is not a skill that needs to be acquired via language learning: it is a skill inherent in our common humanity. Language teachers should concentrate on UG and desist from engaging in cultural relativism that gives rise to unnecessary conflict. For example a recent AKTESOL newsletter (March 2012) showcases a ‘set of picture cards to prompt conversations about cultural diversity’ one of which poses the contrary prompts ‘Living together before marriage is …’ and ‘Who can you marry?’. These are worn old hats from Victorian times, quite unrelated to TESOL.

The Future

by Leonard Cohen

Give me back my broken night

my mirrored room, my secret life

it's lonely here,

there's no one left to torture

Give me absolute control

over every living soul

And lie beside me, baby,

that's an order!

Give me crack and anal sex

Take the only tree that's left

and stuff it up the hole

in your culture

Give me back the Berlin wall

give me Stalin and St Paul

I've seen the future, brother:

it is murder.

Kia ora

1. There can be little doubt, as established by bio-linguists (Lenneberg 1967, Chomsky 2004), that all human languages share a common structure, if only based on the common sense observation that natural languages arise from a brain structure that is common to all human beings. Detractors, who claim that linguistic differences are absolute, can be compared to racists who peddle racist discrimination on the basis of absolute racial differences (cf. Reich 1946).

2. Equally there can be little doubt that human cultures also share a common foundation. To claim absolute differences is again akin to racism. Take for example Lévi-Strauss’ groundbreaking work (1962 a, b) to show that so-called primitive cultures have the same underlying structures as so-called highly civilized ones. The modern class system in New Zealand has its antecedents in various caste systems as much as in Maori totems (Schwimmer 1963) - hence the potentially awful realisation that, world-wide, we are not evolving at all but regressing to a state of neo-feudalism (see Leonard Cohen’s predictions above).

3. Less certain seems to be the position on the interdependence or otherwise of language and culture. If we consider the history of both phenomena, we can track the changes and permutations, with the result that language and culture diverge rapidly – at least in the sense that contemporary globalisation runs parallel with a global, popular and hybrid culture that seems more and more independent of language differences. In other words, many different languages are all in the service of one culture. In traditional societies, language and culture were closely connected, if only by default. However, even in traditional societies there has always been the real potential for language to go far beyond the confines of culture. Cultural practices are of course not only dependent on language but also on environmental factors. For example it is widely assumed that various Maya cultures were radically changed due to prolonged droughts. In modern times the loss of many traditional languages due to globalisation – if not linguistic imperialism (Phillipson 1992) – has not necessarily meant the parallel loss of traditional cultures. In the English language domain there are traditional cultures that are maintained basically via English as a first language and the traditional (indigenous or heritage) language in various degrees as a second language – if at all. Attempts to revitalize indigenous languages as first languages have invariably failed – witness te reo Māori. Nevertheless Maori culture seems to be transmitted reasonably successfully via English as the first language and te reo Māori as a second language to various degrees of competency. Kwachka (1995) reports a similar situation for Eskimo cultures in Alaska.

4. If we then consider Universal Grammar (or more widely the universals of language) and Universal Culture as separate entities, we may well ask what the implications are for TESOL. Even if we acknowledge that these two entities can be closely connected in traditional settings, we still need to ask if ESOL teachers (or language teachers in general) are qualified to teach both, especially when there are strong claims in some quarters that language and culture must be taught together (Kramsch et al. 1996). One of the more bizarre assertions is indeed one by Kramsch (2009), echoing the worn old Sapir-Whorf thesis:
So it’s this irony that we’re moving into an era where more and more people speak English and yet less and less do they understand one another because through English they are thinking, they speak English but they think French, or they speak English and they think Hindi.
The Sapir-Whorf thesis (language influences thought) was famously proven false by the founder of biolinguistics, Eric Lenneberg (ibid).

5. In the first instance Universal Grammar (UG) is still pretty much unknown in TESL despite seminal works like Lydia White’s 2003 Second language acquisition and Universal Grammar. This is a scandal of major proportions and can be likened to mathematics teachers being ignorant of Whitehead and Russell’s Principia Mathematica – which to their credit, few are. I have elaborated elsewhere (Sperlich, 2011) on the pedagogical advantages, if not necessity, of UG in language teaching in general and TESL in particular; it suffices to repeat here that the learning path from L1 to L2 is made possible precisely because of UG. If L2 were an alien beast (as for example claimed by Everett, 2012) we would not be able to understand it, let alone being able to learn it. Teachers of ESOL, like any other subject teachers, are ‘subject’ to the common sense demands, as articulated by many a professional teacher, e.g.

Teachers need a firm grasp
- subject knowledge
- pedagogical knowledge AND
- subject-specific pedagogical knowledge
so as to be flexible in their approaches and to cater for diverse learners and provision (Coben & McCartney, 2012)
6. What about culture? If we accept that language teachers ought to be trained and certified like all other subject teachers, does it follow that ‘culture’ teachers should have the same requirements? There can be little doubt that the study of culture is a well defined academic field, generally within an anthropology department. Indeed there is also a well-established sub-field entitled variously as ‘linguistic anthropology or anthropological linguistics’ (cf. Ottenheimer 2012), hence one would expect that language teachers – if they insist on teaching culture as well – are indeed qualified in linguistic anthropology to do so (for example I claim to be an anthropological linguist, having specialised in Melanesian and Polynesian languages). If it is scandalous to claim that native speakers of English all qualify as English teachers, it is equally so to claim that all members of English culture qualify as ‘English culture teachers’ – or worse, as ‘culture teachers’ generally, having no qualms comparing English with, say, Chinese cultural practices, and advocating the former – while at the same time they have no idea about the Chinese language, and being singularly unable to use comparative syntax (as based on UG) when teaching English to speakers of Chinese.

7. There is also the often exaggerated claim that New Zealand/Aotearoa is some kind of advanced multi-cultural and multi-lingual society, and as such all her citizens – and native ESOL teachers in particular - are well placed to exemplify this state of affairs. With regards to the latter, i.e. ‘multi-lingual’ we do know, however, that New Zealand is still one of the most mono-lingual countries in the world (cf. a recent Listener article entitled Why are we so doggedly monolingual?), and with regards to the ‘multi-cultural’ claims we can assert that Auckland is indeed multi-cultural as nearly half of the population is foreign-born. Unfortunately many of them originate from English-language backgrounds (with European ancestry) who integrate their respective cultures with the conservative (if not right-wing), mainstream New Zealand pakeha one, whilst the other non-English/non-European lot tends to retrench in ethnic ghettos. As such, few mainstream ESOL teachers (you must be a ‘native’ speaker to get a job with us) qualify as experts in multi-culturalism. In fact New Zealand may well follow the dreadful example from Germany where Chancellor Merkel (2012) has declared that "Multikulti in Deutschland ist absolut gescheitert"(trans. multi-culturalism in Germany has absolutely failed).

8. In the abstract I commented on an example from an AKTESOL newsletter (for an in-depth critique of Magee, see APPENDIX) where marriage customs were takes as tokens of ‘cultural diversity’ - with my reading of the sub-text being, that in our glorious Western culture we can chose our partners and even live and have sex with them before marriage whilst the unfortunate ‘others’ have to yield to medieval practices of arranged if not forced marriages. I contend that we have long transcended national and cultural boundaries in the marriage game, whereby the global caste system dictates who can do what and with whom. The issue of whether or not a British pretender to the royal throne can marry a Catholic is the same as to whether or not a Saudi royal can marry a non-Moslem. The issue of same-sex marriage inflames the fundamentalist Christians of the USA as much as the fundamentalist Christians of Uganda. Nowadays there are liberals in all nations and cultures who advocate free marriage – or indeed no marriage at all as it is an outdated custom to keep women in domestic prisons. As such the issue of marriage is not cultural but social, economic and political. There is nothing wrong with discussing such issues in the classroom as long as points of views taken are not type-cast as having roots in cultural practices. Of course one can also argue that language teachers are generally not trained as sociologists, economists and political scientists either, hence they should stick to what they know best, namely ‘language’. Anyone who studies a language in academic depth will of course be drawn to the so-called language arts, traditionally listed as literature, film, history and medieval studies (as for French, German, Sanskrit, etc.) but also to media studies and politics, especially as the latter is invariably rich in the language of propaganda. If as a teacher of ESOL you have done equivalent studies for English then you may be a better teacher for it but at the same time you may be distracted from the main job of practicing ‘applied linguistics’.

9. At any rate, there is an easy way out for language teachers who are unqualified to teach culture, namely don’t do it. There is absolutely no harm in not doing it. In the first instance this would merely confirm that culture and language are quite independent of each other, and in order to learn the former one has to learn nothing about the latter. In fact from a pedagogical point of view this frees up valuable time to learn the language much faster – and fastest if supported by UG. For TESL this is ever more so the case because there is no such thing as English culture anymore, that is directly associated with English language as a lingua franca. Sure, English culture has a very rich history but modern expressions have morphed into the Coca Cola culture (cf. Foster 2008) at worst and into a global, popular and hybrid culture (cf. Burke 2009) at best. With reference to the former consider the awful spectacle of the Eurovision music contest where just about every song from any nationality is sung in English. Or else consider the perfectly valid pessimism – if not artful cynicism - expressed by Leonard Cohen in his lyrics above. With reference to the latter again, consider modern English literature which features fewer and fewer ‘indigenous’ English writers – Indian writers, for example, have in the last decade or so informed the English literature canon to the highest degree. Just think of Arundhati Roy who had never been outside India before her The God of Small Things was published in the UK. Think of Aotearoa where Maori writers have influenced English literature far more than NZ English writers.

10. Of course I wish that all ESOL students were deeply interested in English literature in order to experience and learn from the more exquisite forms of English but the fact is that most ESOL students want to become chefs, IT operators, bankers, tinkers, sailors and candlestick makers for which they require mastery of technical English, quite devoid of any English literary culture. International English as a language of commerce, technology and science is by design devoid of unnecessary use of idioms, metaphors, sayings, proverbs, similes, figures of speech and what have you – not that I would claim that these ‘literary’ devices are totally culture bound either. It is no accident that many immigrant children from non-English backgrounds excel in maths and science at school, precisely because they can quickly master the technical English language skills. Of course there are also a few of those who take on literary English as well and excel in Shakespearian English, not least because it too transcends culture and national boundaries – as all good literature should.

To conclude, and stated in plain English: T(each)ESOL based on UG. Nothing else!

Kia kaha!


Burke, P. 2009. Cultural hybridity. Polity.

Chomsky, Noam. 2004. Biolinguistics and the Human Capacity. Lecture delivered at MTA, Budapest, May 17. http://www.chomsky.info/talks/20040517.htm

Coben D & N McCartney (2012) Quality, Choice and Innovation in Embedding. Numeracy and Literacy. University of Waikato

Everett, D. 2012. Language: the cultural tool. Pantheon.

Foster, R. 2008. Coca-Globalization: Following Soft Drinks from New York to New Guinea. Palgrave Macmillan.

Kramsch, C., Cain, A., & Murphy-Lejeune, E. (1996). Why should language teachers teach culture? Language, Culture and Curriculum, 9(1), 99-107.

Kramsch, C. (2009). Interview. http://pterodactilo.com/numero6/?p=541

Kwachka. P. 1995. Language shift and Cultural Loss. Languages of the World 9:19-25.

Lenneberg, Eric. 1967. Biological Foundations of Language. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Lévi-Strauss, C., 1962a. Le Totémisme Aujourd'hui. Paris, Presses Universitaires de France.

_____________, 1962b. La Pensée Sauvage. Paris, Plon.

Listener, http://www.listener.co.nz/commentary/cultural-curmudgeon/why-are-we-so-doggedly-monolingual/

Merkel, http://diepresse.com/home/politik/aussenpolitik/602605/Merkel_Multikulti-in-Deutschland-absolut-gescheitert

Ottenheimer, H. 2012. The Anthropology of Language: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology. Wadsworth Publishing.

Phillipson, Robert (1992), Linguistic Imperialism, Oxford University Press.

Reich, W. 1946 (first English edition). The Mass Psychology of Fascism. Orgone Institute Press.

Schwimmer, E. 1963. Guardian animals of the Maori. JPS Volume 72, No. 4: 397 – 410.

Sperlich, W. 2011. TESL without cultural baggage. Language, Education & Diversity conference paper, University of Auckland, 22-25 November 2011.

White, L. 2003. Second language acquisition and Universal Grammar. Cambridge University Press.


The reference to the AKTESOL Newsletter refers in turn to the following note:
At the 10 November session, Jenny Magee of Conversity (www.jennymagee.com, www.conversity.co.nz)
showcased a set of picture cards to prompt conversations about cultural diversity. These generated a lot of interest among the teachers present, and Jenny kindly awarded a set as a prize for the one who came up with the most creative use of the cards.
When looking at the two websites promoted by Jenny Magee, one finds the quixotic logo, saying:
On the outside, we are all different. On the outside, we are all the same.
On the inside we are all different. On the inside, we are all the same.
One cannot go wrong with stating all possibilities but just let’s say that from a biological point of view we are certainly all the same on the ‘inside’ and do not have many differences on the ‘outside’ either (unless one wants to play the skin-colour card).

Magee goes on to claim that
‘Across Cultures’ will spark conversations about the visible (food, language, festivals) as well as the invisible (attitudes, values and beliefs).Some of our ethnic differences are visible - those aspects we can see, hear, taste, touch and smell. Other sides are hidden, part of the inner rules we learn as we grow.
It seems a bit bizarre that ‘language’ is included in ‘visible’ ethnic differences since it should be clear by now that ‘language’ is NOT necessarily an ethnic attribute. Recent history is littered with ‘ethnic cleansing’ whereby all the people concerned speak the same language but have different religious beliefs – which is the cause of the conflict. Sure many so-called ethnic communities have their own languages – the whole point here is however to establish whether or not language per se has anything to do with ethnicity and culture. My claim is that language has nothing to do with it!

If we take food, dress, festivals and the arts generally, there is no denying that traditions and customs CAN differ according to ethnic and geographic lines but as noted before, in modern societies such differences have become choices for individuals to follow as they wish. The global village devours ethnic trends as fashion-fusion, forever giving rise to new expressions – possibly under the banner of popular culture. Those who hark back to the good old days when race and ethnicity were clearly labelled by the colour of your skin, the food you eat, the way you dress, the religion you believe in - and the language you speak – have long been exposed as bigots and racists, belying the fact that the distinctions never existed in the first place.

It is instructive that Magee includes ‘beliefs’ as ‘invisible’ differences when we know all to well that much of the human conflicts are based on believers wearing their beliefs on their shirtsleeves. Indeed Magee presents a quite bizarre story, presumably to demonstrate her point of view in these matters:
What you are
‘What you are shouts so loudly in my ear that I cannot hear what you say'. Ralph Waldo Emerson was so right.
The man at the café wearing a t-shirt that said ‘Speak English or #*@! off’, left me outraged. Could I hear his point of view? No, I was much too offended by his apparent prejudice to even want to. Far from encouraging me to engage in a conversation, the t-shirt provoked an instant negative reaction. I immediately consigned him to the ‘bigot’ box without even a hello.
So much for tolerance. I’ll never know if he really thinks that way or if he was out to provoke. Nor will we have the opportunity to challenge each others view. For one who teaches about first impressions and the limiting effects of stereotyping it was a salutary reminder that there is always a chance that I might have been wrong about him.
So, when I come across the woman wearing a big cross around her neck, or the Pope in his funny getup, or the Hare Krishna devotees in their orange robes, or the woman in the burka (as most likely to be enforced by a male guardian wearing jeans and t-shirt), or the banker in his Saville Row suit – are they all out to provoke me? Should I talk to them to find out if they really mean it? And what if they do? What if the man at the café really meant ‘Speak English or #*@! off’ and thereby, even according to Magee, is then classed a ‘bigot’?

Ralph Waldo Emerson should have changed his homely to ‘What you are shouts so loudly in my EYES AND EARS that I CANNOT BEAR TO hear what you say'.

Suffice to say that those who wear their religion for all to see, will also define their ‘attitudes’ and ‘values’ under that banner. Nothing ‘invisible’ here!

Those who keep their beliefs, attitudes and values to themselves, in public - and in polite discourse with ESOL teachers - are of course fairly handicapped if called upon to reveal their ethnic peculiarities. To be polite, they will discuss issues of culture and ethnicity but not with reference to themselves lest they are seen to betray the (biased) expectations, like the ethnic Korean having to admit that he/she actually doesn’t like eating kimchi, or the ethnic German refusing to wear Lederhosen and eat Sauerkraut and speak English with a German accent. The latter harks of course back to the above ‘Speak English or #*@! off’ with the further implicit qualification of ‘speak NATIVE English or else …’. ESOL speakers know all to well that they may never acquire a NATIVE accent even though their English may be perfect in every other way. To be asked ‘where do you come from?’ as an unrelated question in a friendly conversation and trying ‘I come from Auckland’ will quickly deteriorate into ‘I mean where did you come from ORIGINALLY?’ and if you are silly enough to try ‘Auckland’ again you will be cut off fairly quickly. Of course NATIVE English speakers delight in various native English accents but for some reason they cannot stomach any FOREIGN accents, for a foreign accent is synonymous with a foreign, non-English ethnicity – if not race – and as such undesirable to the tune of ‘Speak English or #*@! off’.

It is very tiresome to equate ethnicity/culture with group think since we know very well that within a single ethnicity or culture – if there is such a beast at all – there are numerous organisations that enforce group think to the maximum, using mass psychology to good effect (cf. Reich, 1946).

If modern societies have anything positive going then it must be the primacy of the individual, all the ones who have risen above the clamour of the group and their ethnicity, and have become modern citizens of the world. How wrong it then feels when Magee asks again:
Did you know that waiting in line varies between cultures? Should you always tell the truth, or is it more important to save face?
 How often do we trot out the worn adage that Asians put ‘face saving’ over ‘telling the truth’ whilst us still superior Europeans ‘tell the truth’ always, like all good people should? Such discourse is blatant nonsense at its most benign and blatant racism at its worst.

I do not ascribe any bad intentions to Magee at all – what do ascribe to her is the proverb of ‘the path to hell is paved with GOOD intentions’. For good intentions she surely has, as evidenced in the last section of the following paragraph:        
Our human brains are hardwired to notice difference. Sometimes the similarities seem more difficult to find. Getting to understand and appreciate each other is not always simple or easy, yet when we have positive, quality contact with each other, what we have in common stands out and the differences matter less.
What is sad about above statement is that ‘getting to understand and appreciate each other is not always simple or easy’ because ‘our human brains are hardwired to notice difference’. Pseudo-scientific – and indeed totally un-scientific – facts of the matter are always manufactured in such discourses as otherwise there would be absolutely no reason for the value statement in the first place. Who says that ‘our human brains are hardwired to notice difference’? Where is the reference so I can check? What if I counterclaim with ‘our human brains are hardwired to notice similarity’? Neuro-science hasn’t progressed to the point where any such claims are proven in any way.

If Magee would only listen to her own logic when she says that ‘when we have positive, quality contact with each other, what we have in common stands out and the differences matter less’, considering the simple negation for the positive outcome, namely ‘when we have NEGATIVE, ZERO-quality contact with each other, what we have in common stands out LESS and the differences matter MORE’. I am sorry to say that despite Magee’s best intentions, she unwittingly promotes the latter.

We all must try to get away from exploring insignificant differences – including the notion of different languages when we can postulate a common Universal Grammar that underlies all languages and thus makes them more ‘common’ than ‘different’. The same goes for culture, ethnicity and national traits. Let’s get away from this mythical Kiwi culture and its associated patriotism, for as Samuel Johnson – as a true-blue Englishman and linguist - is reported to have recognised a long time ago (1775) that ‘patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel’. We must get away from vast generalisations and false claims, such as Magee’s assertion of ‘New Zealand values, customs, etiquette and communication styles - verbal and non-verbal’. The world is changing, and if it is changing for the better, we may as well take Magee with us by simply appending the word INDIVIDUAL or IDIOSYNCRATIC to her final claims:  
We each have an IDIVIDUAL/IDIOSYNCRATIC cultural lens through which we view the world.
Our INDIVIDUAL/IDIOSYNCRATIC culture affects everything we do - what we say, how we say it and what’s important to us.
We will then soon discover that our individuality is also our common destiny, just as ESOL may turn out to be a useful conduit. As such I may find out that, say, as a German-English speaker I have far more in common with a Chinese-English speaker than with a mono-lingual German, English or Chinese speaker – or any shade of gray in-between.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Modern times: fast forward to the past

Modern politics and economics – being one and the same – are moving rapidly towards neo-feudalism, not as a far-out conspiracy theory but more and more in terms of main-stream commentary. One such example is given in Der Spiegel in an article on Romania’s current problems. A so-called renowned political commentator by the name of Alina Mungiu-Pippidi is quoted as saying that in the current crisis Romania’s ‘real’ political structure is exposed, whereby ‘various cliques conduct a life and death battle to conquer the state in order to plunder it. The political parties are like medieval armies whose recruits are not paid, making a living only by conquest and plunder’. This analogy seems to me to apply to the rest of the world as well: be it by all-out war as in Syria or as media manipulation for the so-called hearts and minds of the American electorate. Winners take all and distribute the spoils amongst the faithful. The losers die or else suffer degradation and humiliation. It is becoming increasingly impossible to simply sit on the fence and watch the tragicomedy unfold, for ‘if you are not with us you are against us’.

The French race towards neo-feudalism is of course laced with a heavy dose of deviant sexuality, be it the Strauss-Kahn escapade or now the Dehar scandal. The Guardian tells us the story from the British point of view as a sort of neo-feudal sex romp that could equally apply to Prince Harry: the under-aged Dehar (of Algerian ethnicity) was flown to Munich to have paid sex with a French soccer star (playing for Bayern Munich) by the name of Franck Ribéry who, according to the Guardian is a ‘good dad and an observant convert to Islam’. The case is now before a French court. Dehar is now a celebrity sponsored by the bizarre German fashion icon named Karl Lagerfeld. Not surprisingly she models underwear for his label.  Lagerfeld is quoted as saying that Dehar ‘is so fascinating precisely because she is a reminder of France's 18th-century courtesans, the paid mistresses of the rich and powerful, a purely French tradition that the whole world admired and copied’. Welcome to the past! What is even more amazing is the ease with which we are retreating to the quintessential feudal notion of serfdom. For to make a living as a courtesan – or artisan – you have to abandon any notion of self, i.e. giving yourself – your body and mind – without reservation to your feudal lord and master. The Guardian makes this point very succinctly by reporting that Dehar was asked by a French journalist ‘if she was irritated by always being reduced to sex, to being a sex symbol. Dehar replied: "Me, I don't know what I am, in fact. It's other people who know …"