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“Competence”, “target languages”, and other clothes that don’t fit

Written By: daveski on February 11, 2012 9 Comments

A few days ago I had the pleasure of talking with several friends & colleagues in languages at Berkeley about classroom applications of the 2007 Modern Language Association Ad Hoc Committee on Foreign Languages’ report, “Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World“. Specifically, we heard from Claire Kramsch about a roundtable discussion she led at New York University in late October 2011, called “Translingual/transcultural competence in practice.” There, she (one of the original members of the MLA’s committee) described the notion of translingual/transcultural competence as it related to and “reframed” ACTFL’s National Standards (the five C’s of communication, culture, connections, comparisons, and communities) and Michael Byram’s notion of intercultural communicative competence. In the MLA’s vision, she said (as I remember it), language students learn not just to communicate information and learn about the self and other, but learn how to understand and act on the communicative situation in which conversations are happening; they don’t just learn how to compare their first and second (and third etc.) languages and cultures but learn the symbolic values attached to each by “operating between languages” through activities like translation, transcription, and transmodal exercises; they don’t just learn to value the intercultural other, but to “grasp themselves as Americans” (as the MLA report says) by understanding culture “as historicity and subjectivity” (as Kramsch said in the roundtable discussion).

The comparisons could go on. And need elaboration to make sense in a blog post, for sure. But one of the points that everyone seemed to agree upon was that whatever “translingual/transcultural” competence is, it does not replace the need to learn the ‘basic structures’ of a language–its grammar, its vocabulary, its rules and conventions of speech and writing. Instead, it tries to provide a new context and a new language for re-thinking what language learners and teachers can do with the categories that have defined language education for so long: students shouldn’t just be taught “a language” but to operate between languages; they might learn that social reality is in part created through language, and not a fact to be taken for granted; as they consider “alternative ways of seeing, feeling, and understanding things”, they come to see that even “history and memory are multiple, changing and conflictual” (MLA Report).

If I seem to be repeating what I wrote in the first paragraph…I probably am. I, and the others at the table, were struggling to reconcile with the ways the report seems to, on one hand, call into question the long-standing categories that have defined Second Language Acquisition and language education for so long–the (homogeneous) “target language” spoken by the (idealized) “native speaker”, whose ways of thinking reflect the values of the nation-state he or she comes from. On the other hand, the report seems to depend upon some of those very same categories in its reasoning and arguments. Is it right, people were asking, for this forward-looking report to claim that, for instance, students in the language classrooms of the multicultural, multiethnic United States should “learn to comprehend speakers of the target language as members of foreign societies and to grasp themselves as Americans”?

I won’t try to get directly at this “American” question here in this blog post, but a thought about “competence” occurred to me while our conversation was going on, and in my own mind it seems to point in a useful direction. For decades, many things have been said about how grammatical, linguistic, cultural, pragmatic, intercultural, and other kinds of competence describe the goals of language learning, teaching, and assessment; by using this word, the authors of the MLA Report surely knew they were putting themselves in dialog with those who have used (and still use) this term. Yet, with the Report’s postmodern-ish insistence on the breaking down of old categories, just what does the “competence” of translingual, transcultural competence mean?

As I tried to suggest in the title, I feel like this term, and many others the report uses, don’t quite fit anymore. And maybe it’s not just because this competence is bigger than this or that of the others (that’s an argument that could go on forever)–no, I think it’s because if translingual/transcultural competence were a piece of clothing, it would have to fit on at least two, possibly three, and maybe even more people at the same time. Maybe it’s time to stop thinking of “competence” as something that sits in the mind or person of the autonomous, individual language learner. Maybe it’s not made for one. Maybe, instead, it’s something that is collaboratively achieved between language learners and their teachers, peers, and the instructional material they employ.

This thought probably isn’t very original, really–writing it, I’m reminded of arguments about where Vygotsky’s (in?)famous Zone of Proximal Development should be understood to reside. But that comparison, like “the American question” from the MLA Report, will have to wait for a future post or thread of comments to be fleshed out. In the meantime, I’m just going to try to imagine how the metaphor of a new kind of clothes might help to imagine a “competence” that’s too big for one person to wear by herself or himself, so I can keep using this word.

What if “competence”…

  • were like a big shawl or blanket or cartooney pair of pants that two or three people could wear at the same time and stay warmer, run faster, climb higher…
  • changed depending on what was expected of the language learner, like how we wear different clothes for different occasions, but…
  • was still seen as having an organic relationship with the learner’s evolving identities, like your favorite dress or hat…
  • was acknowledged, like a piece of clothing, to have a history that dozens of other people had a hand in making too…
  • could be talked about for its style as well as its functionality…
  • could be judged without judging the people wearing it?


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9 Responses to ““Competence”, “target languages”, and other clothes that don’t fit”

  1. CK on: 12 February 2012 at 11:25 pm

    I’ve always liked the idea of a “distributed competence”, especially when it comes to language. Distributed across speakers, but also across occasions, modes, modalities etc. It’s too bad that the term ‘competence’ has been highjacked by the instrumentalists and utilitarians. When Hymes wrenched the term from Chomsky and resignified it as ‘communicative competence’, nobody reproached him with siding with the technocrats. But then that was 1972. Today, what other words are left ?
    As for the American question, the more I think of it, the less I believe those who say that the MLA phrasing is distasteful because it smacks of the “ugly American”. US college classrooms are not anymore multilingual and multicultural than French or German university classrooms, and yet the French and the Germans don’t have any qualms “grasping themselves as French,” i.e., “members of a society that is foreign to others”. So why all this fuss about Americans not fond of comprehending themselves as Americans? In my mind, the real reason is that Americans don’t know WHO THEY ARE, or CAN’T AGREE on who they are !!!

  2. daveski on: 14 February 2012 at 12:55 pm

    Very interesting thoughts. I realize that one thing I didn’t say explicitly when I was writing the post (but part of what motivated me to write it) was the idea that perhaps one thing the MLA Report does by employing historically loaded terms like “competence” is invite us to rethink what those terms can and must mean. Because they simply can’t mean what they used to mean if they’re going to do this new kind of work. It would be fascinating now to have a spyglass and see into the minds of Hymes and those who came after them, to know what kinds of struggles they had (if they did) in using this term.

    I think I share your perspective in thinking that, by urging students in the U.S. to “grasp themselves as Americans” the MLA Report is taking steps to challenge the “ugly American” view. I certainly don’t see how it would be seen as promoting it.

    But for Americans who are so ensconced in their lives and habits and languages as they’re lived inside the United States, one of the hangups might be that “grasping oneself as American” feels at odds with “grasping oneself as a member of a society that is foreign to others.” I have the sense that well-meaning educators and students might have little trouble with the second one, at least in principle–that is, of relativizing their own position in any number of ways that can happen. But the first, to “grasp oneself as American” might feel like something else altogether, because of all the ideological baggage there.

    This might all be to underline your what you say that Americans don’t know or can’t agree on who they are. In light of the implicit comparison of “American” with “competence” that we have going in these comments and in the post, though, it also makes me wonder about the question of “distributed Americanness”. I’m usually much more comfortable saying that I participate in, reap the benefits of, am complicit with, and feel both pride and shame in “Americanness” than saying forthright “I’m an American.”

    But that probably means that I just have to be more practiced in leaving and returning to this country–either physically in person, or in everyday ‘cross-border’ encounters right here in Berkeley.

    CK Reply:

    what you say about the qualms of “grasping oneself as American” and the ideological baggage associated with it feels right. There are precedents, of course. The qualms Germans had after the war to “grasp themselves as German” took them decades to reconcile themselves with the fact. But then, why does one have to be either a ‘good’American or an ‘ugly’ American? why can’t being American simply mean having an American passport – and adhering to political values (American Dream, competitiveness, sacred nature of property and of money, private initiative, two party system, unique history, protestant culture etc.) that are different from those of other nations. English teachers around the world who teach “American culture” courses have no difficulty identifying an “American culture” that they teach to their students with abandon. So why can’t we identify with their picture of us?

    Désirée Reply:

    When I began to try to work through what the 2007 MLA report means to me, and how the ideas and responses generated by this article reverberate and influence decisions I make as a coordinator in the French language program, I re-wrote the “to grasp oneself as American” as “to grasp oneself as (insert blank, to be provided by instructors, students, language learners)”, or “to see themselves as members of a society that is foreign to others”.

    daveski Reply:

    Interesting, Désirée. And did you hear back from some of the instructors as to what they and the students did with this __blank__? Did they abandon national categories altogether? Would their students agree with CK in a sense, that “American culture” is invisible or isn’t really felt as a meaningful category to employ in French language classrooms in Berkeley?

  3. juergenkurtz on: 16 February 2012 at 4:45 pm

    Yes, very interesting thoughts indeed! I personally think of competence as some kind of an energia or potential, rather than a psycho-physical or mental substance (that consists of clearly distunguishable and measurable (?) ingredients). It is this potential which ‘enables’ us to participate in transcultural communicative encounters/exchanges. It emerges and increases/decreases over time, depending on a wide range of factors (e.g. participatory challenges and needs). From this perspective, (integrated) language and culture learning/education is more/is very different from simply accumulating knowledge and skills/developing communicative competence in the 70s and 80s sense. I think it is more appropriate to think of language/culture learning as a complex transformative process (transformation of particiipation in Rogoff’s words), grounded in individual, and, at the same time, shared psycho-social experience. Our ‘participatory potentials’ are part of and shape our identity. However, as the ACTFL Decade of Standards Report 2011 indicates, in many foreign/second language classrooms the focus still seems to be more on functional skills development in the ‘target language’ than on developing the (multilingual) participatory potential necessary for successful transcultural communication in a more holistic sense/way.

  4. daveski on: 29 February 2012 at 3:57 pm

    Thank you for the insightful comment, @juergenkurtz! My apologies for the late reply. I think we may be on the same page in thinking about what competence may have to mean to serve well in transcultural encounters/exchanges, as you write.

    And, as I write that, I’m struck by the number of “/”s that have found their way into your comment too, indicative perhaps of the baggages or limitations of any one term when it’s not played off a second, to make the meaning move back and forth between them, and not get stuck in any one place. (maybe reading too much into it?) I do this a lot, I realize, and use a lot of common tricks to make words and sentences do more than one thing at once–like use these–(or these) and i wonder if this is partly because the categories we’ve inherited from earlier decades don’t quite fit anymore.

    So, if a lesson for the language classroom were to be gleaned from these rhetorical moves, perhaps it would be that multiple enactments of participatory potentials would be validated, and there would be fewer ‘right answers’. Challenging the rules as ways of learning them, spoofing pragmatic conventions as a means of demonstrating understanding, creation of word mash-ups as an exercise in vocabulary–would activities built around ideas like this be too difficult or time-consuming to realize in the classroom?

  5. juergenkurtz on: 3 March 2012 at 8:33 am

    Dear Dave,

    I definitely agree that we need to think about new ways of learning and teaching languages, and that we should, among many other things, place much more emphasis on the interrelation between lexical meaning and world-knowledge. In schools, „we learn and teach words in certain contexts, and then we are expected, and expect others, to be able to project them into further contexts.” (Cavell 2002: 52). However, “nothing insures that this projection will take place.” (Cavell 2002, ibd). This is mainly because “the dominant sense of how and what we might know (..) neglects or erases a whole realm of complex, finely nuanced meaning that is embodied, tacit, intoned, gestured, improvised, coexperienced, covert.“ (Conquergood 2002: 146). The following example may serve to illustrate the problem:

    This is what I found printed on a Canadian paper bag last year:


    What do FL/SL learners need to know in order to understand this message? Why is this difficult to ‚decode’, and to ‘behave’ accordingly?

    The acronym ‘NSLC’ stands for ‘Nova Scotia Liquor Commission’. Learners can certainly find out about this via the Internet, but it nevertheless refers to specific world knowledge related to particular values and norms, and a particular ‘everyday behavioral’ script; i.e. that in Nova Scotia, Canada, alcoholic beverages can only be purchased in liquor stores or by the drink in bars and restaurants, if you are at least 21, etc. Once they are (made) aware of this, they can infer what ID means (they will not find it in an English learner’s dictionary), etc. Apart from this, the acronym ‘ID’ appears to be used as a verb in this context. For non-native speakers of English this raises the question as to whether it can also be used, for instance, in the past tense (as in: ‘he IDed me’?). Is this, perhaps, only possible in everyday informal spoken English? Etc.

    In sum, I agree with Turner (1982: 122) who pointed out long ago that we need to learn (and as far as possible teach) “how strange and many-layered everyday life is, how extraordinary the ordinary”.

    Cavell, Stanley (2002): Must We Mean What We Say?, updated edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Conquergood, Dwight (2002): Performance Studies: Interventions and Radical Research. The Drama Review, 46, 145-156.

    Turner, Victor (1982). From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play. New York: PAJ Publications.

  6. daveski on: 8 March 2012 at 4:41 pm

    Interesting example, Juergen, and great to see these references too, highlighting the importance of performance. It’s amazing, isn’t it, how even the seemingly simplest of texts can hide such nuanced meaning, require so much cultural knowledge that relies on both linguistic and non-linguistic modes of interaction and being in the world. Explaining them through this kind of artifact reminds me of Ron Scollon’s nexus analysis. And then, the question from a language teaching perspective seems to be, how do we use these artifacts and launching points for helping students to engage in the kind of situated, material, embodied practices that they would need to interpret these and myriad other artifacts that circulate in cultural life? How can we make sure that our attention doesn’t get attached to these artifacts as such, but is stimulated and sharpened by them?

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