Thursday, November 04, 2010

An Updated SRTOL?

Introductory Bio

Suresh Canagarajah is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor in Applied Linguistics and English at Penn State University. His multidisciplinary research has made contributions to fields in sociolinguistics, rhetoric and composition, and migration studies. His publications have won prestigious awards in these fields. His book Resisting Linguistic Imperialism in English Teaching (Oxford UP) won the Mina Shaughnessy Award for the best publication on the teaching and research of English language and literature from the Modern Languages Association of America. His publication A Geopolitics of Academic Writing (U of Pittsburgh P) won the Gary Olson award for the best book in rhetorical and social theory from the Association of Teachers of Advanced Composition. His article “World Englishes and Composition: Pluralization Continued” won the Richard Braddock Award for the best article from the Conference on College Composition and Communication. Through such publications, Professor Canagarajah has made a significant contribution to fostering a pluralized understanding of the English language, appreciating the linguistic and literacy resources of multilingual speakers, and developing teaching practices that affirm the identities and values of international students.

Professor Canagarajah has made important contributions to the professional community. He edited the flagship journal of the international organization Teachers of English for Speakers of Other Languages, TESOL Quarterly, from 2004 to 2009. He is widely credited for internationalizing the journal with increased submissions and publication from more diverse countries, and diversifying the research approaches and essay genres represented in the journal. He is the incoming President of the American Association of Applied Linguistics. He has won fellowships in several universities. He was the Benjamin Meeker Visiting Professor at the Graduate School of Education at Bristol University (UK) in 2007. He will be a fellow at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS) in Cape Town, South Africa, next summer. He has been named Thomas R. Watson Visiting Distinguished Professor in fall 2011 at the English Department of the University of Louisville.

Professor Canagarajah will chair the 22nd Penn State Conference on Rhetoric and Composition July 10-12, 2011 on language diversity. Information can be found at

Blog Entry

Buthainah, a student from Saudi Arabia, opens her literacy autobiography as follows: “As I type each word in this literacy autobiography, storms of thoughts stampede to be considered and mentioned. Which experiences should I value, which shall I consider, and which should I ignore. . . As I click the keys on the keyboard, an illustration of my literacy development shunt me to continue my ongoing learning adventure from my academic communities, my home, and my life experiences.”

I am particularly struck by the phrases “storms of thoughts stampede” and “shunt me.” In my feedback to Buthainah, I ask her: “The phrases I have highlighted in this paragraph will be considered unidiomatic by native speakers. Did you have any second thoughts about using such phrases?”

Buthainah is adamant in her response that she used these phrases after considerable reflection and that these are her creative options for voice: “Actually, I am surprised to hear that because I discussed the first phrase with an American poet and a writer who actually really liked it because it provides the readers of a visual for what I felt at that time. I do not see why only bulls stampede – this verb can be used figuratively as well. I do not think that this is an issue of native speakers of English, I think that it is a stylistic choice.”

Buthainah’s response reminds me of recent applied linguistics research that reveals that multilinguals who use English with each other negotiate language forms afresh to co-construct meaning according to their own interests and values, without worrying about native speaker norms.

But what should I do in an American writing classroom? Should I teach Buthainah the conventions of Edited American English (EAE), after making sure that I say something nice to acknowledge her creativity? Or should I go further and encourage her to develop this form of usage in her writing? I pose myself the question I always ask when I am confronted with linguistic diversity in my classrooms (more to affirm my position rather than in consultation): “What would SRTOL say?”

After some reflection, I realize that the “Students’ Right to their Own Language” statement doesn’t have much to say about students like Buthainah and their usage. What I observe is the following:

-- SRTOL is based on recognizable dialects. Buthainah’s usage doesn’t appear to belong to a stable variety of English. Hers is an emergent form, which shows the influences of her first language and culture. The essay features a hybrid language that shows the traces of Arabic, French (her third language), and personal appropriations of English.

-- Even if I can show that Buthainah’s usage belongs to a recognizable variety, SRTOL won’t apply to her. SRTOL recognizes only the “heritage of dialects” in this “nation.” Less prestigious varieties are affirmed on the basis that “A nation proud of its diverse heritage and its cultural and racial variety will preserve its heritage of dialects.” The explanatory document (published in a special issue of CCC in fall 1974) is also framed in relation to dialects of English in the US. I am not sure what to do about varieties from outside the USA. For this reason, students of Indian English, Jamaican English, and Nigerian English are also left in limbo.

-- It also doesn’t appear that Buthainah’s usage is one of those “dialects of . . . nurture” into which students are born or socialized. Buthainah’s is a performative act of shuttling between languages for temporary ownership, identity claims, functional purposes, and fluid community membership. She doesn’t have “native” status in this English usage, an important consideration for SRTOL.

-- SRTOL won’t let me encourage Buthainah’s current usage or its further development . SRTOL is largely a policy of tolerance rather than promotion. It says: “We affirm strongly that teachers must have the experiences and training that will enable them to respect diversity and uphold the right of students to their own language.” What it expects from teachers is sufficient sensitivity as to not denigrate or suppress less prestigious dialects. But how far should we go in affirming less prestigious dialects?

-- The pedagogical option recommended is to move such students gradually towards EAE for formal writing purposes, while affirming their community dialects for oral and in-group purposes. The explanatory version says:

Teachers should stress the difference between the spoken forms of American English and EAE because a clear understanding will enable both teachers and students to focus their attention on essential items. . . Students who want to write EAE will have to learn the forms identified with that dialect as additional options to the forms they already control. . . . Therefore it is necessary that we inform those students who are preparing themselves for occupations that demand formal writing that they will be expected to write EAE.

From this perspective, Buthainah’s argument that such usage is necessary for her voice in her academic writing seems to go a bit too far. Also, the binary distinction made between EAE and other varieties doesn’t permit the possibility of Buthainah meshing her preferred dialects with EAE. What I am left with is the following strategy: I can encourage her to use her preferred variety of English in conversations in informal and in-group contexts; however, I must teach her EAE for writing and formal purposes.

When I realize all this, I feel like dropping from my thoughts a more difficult question I have—i.e., whether I should encourage students from the dominant varieties of English in my class to develop intelligibility, if not proficiency, in Buthainah’s language. Shouldn’t all our students—both native and nonnative—develop their repertoire by familiarizing themselves with the varieties found in the classroom and society? SRTOL shows the limits of a “rights discourse” in relation to a “resource discourse.” While a rights-based policy simply affirms the existence or preservation of a different code or culture, a resource-based policy looks to develop and promote these codes and cultures for the mutual enrichment of the diverse communities in a polity.

Let me be clear: SRTOL, written and adopted in 1974, was far ahead of its time in articulating the connections between language, power, and pedagogy. However, today in the twenty-first century, it is beginning to show the traces of the dominant ideologies of its original context.

In terms of language, SRTOL is informed by a structuralist orientation. It focuses on systematized varieties of language, with a stabilized grammar. In this sense, languages are treated as separate and discrete entities. However, many of us now adopt a practice-based orientation, which posits languages as always in contact and influencing each other in subtle ways. Users negotiate the diverse languages in their context, leading to an ever-shifting and evolving emergent grammar (a term introduced by Paul Hopper in the late 1980's). Such hybridity and fluidity in language use provides more communicative possibilities beyond the highly structured inert products posited by structuralism.

The structuralist orientation leads to a sociolinguistics based on contextually appropriate norms for communicative success. Each domain has its own dialect or register that needs to be recognized and upheld. These norms are treated as different but equal. However, in contrast, a post-structuralist linguistics adopts a critical orientation to language that assumes nothing instrumental or value-free about norms. We now realize that the norms of certain domains favor some groups over others. Therefore, a poststructuralist linguistics treats norms as not settled but as persistently open to negotiation.

The hybridity in language that it affirms offers us more possibilities to bring values and voices from elsewhere into the discourses of specific domains, reframe the contexts and norms, and achieve our own interests. New developments in textuality have provided other answers to the question of what is appropriate or coherent in writing. The multimodal and multilingual nature of texts suggests that writing doesn’t have to involve only one dialect or the other.

SRTOL’s social vision was and continues to be circumscribed by national boundaries. It perceives the locus for policy making as the nation-state. It is for this reason that it doesn’t address the language use rights of migrant and transnational groups. It is also silent about the rights of languages other than English. Understandably, it doesn’t consider the need for students from the dominant language groups to learn the varieties of English, or even languages, outside the United States. In the current context of transnational production, finance, popular culture, and digital communication, Anglo-American students are compelled to negotiate diverse languages in their everyday life. The languages students from outside the US bring to American classrooms are a resource that should be harnessed and promoted—if for nothing else than the good of the nation, all language, and writing instruction.

Our professional organization has recognized these new developments and reaffirmed SRTOL in 2003 to acknowledge that the passing of time didn’t affect the relevance of this statement. Thus, in August 2006, it added an updated bibliography that addresses many of the social and philosophical changes we have seen since the adoption of the SRTOL in 1974 (see

Perhaps the next time we take up SRTOL for consideration, we should ask ourselves how we can build from its position of strength and its legacy of radical change to formulate a statement that addresses the language resources brought by the broader cohort of students we currently have in our classrooms, the multimodal and multilingual textualities that offer new possibilities for writing, and the expanded repertoires all of us need for transnational relations.


Nichole Stanford said...

Great point about the structuralist and nationalist leanings of SRTOL -- definitely something to update. But I wonder if favoring a "resources discourse" over a "rights discourse" can lead us back to something like code switching -- perhaps not the "inert" structured model critiqued here -- but still a hierarchy of codes that is produced and backed by socioeconomic structures. In other words, we might wind up with "practical" rationales for excluding everything but the dominant (though fluid) variety because we want to equip our students for "success." I agree that students will benefit from knowing other Englishes and other languages (the resources argument), but not all policy makers will agree and may need to be persuaded to endorse multilingualism based on rights. May I suggest that the SRTOL update draw equally on the "rights discourse" and the "resources discourse"?

Suresh Canagarajah said...

I agree: a rights based argument is more persuasive for policy makers. Some scholars have also recently alerted me to the dangers of the hybridity approach for minority group students. My good friend, Scott Lyons, has pointed out that teaching other dialects on the grounds of resources may lead his own Native American community members to abandon their heritage languages. He favors the rights based approach to preserve heritage languages. John Trimbur has pointed out to me that though we transnational scholars/students may benefit from a resources based argument, indigenous minority groups(such as the African American and Native American communities) are more concerned about protecting their languages. So, I think, it is important to keep the rights based discourses alive as we update SRTOL. Thanks for the clarification.

Xiaoye You said...

Moving from affirming multilingual writers’ temporary ownership, identity, and voice to affirming their rights to their language practice is a laudable step to take. Such an effort champions racial and linguistic equality in American society, which originally inspired the drafting of the SRTOL. But I wonder whether such a revamped policy will effectively help American teachers, many of them monolinguals, to teach multilingual writers. You are familiar with both the rights and the practice discourses. However, when dealing with Buthainah’s writing, you still chose to draw a clear line between her preferred variety of English and EAE. You told her that the former was better kept in “conversations in informal and in-group contexts” and the latter was to be used for “writing and formal purposes.” Your pedagogical choice may well be the choice of most writing teachers, including myself. The major challenge for most American teachers is probably to envision a model of EAE that seamlessly mashes codes from different languages and cultures. There are numerous successful code-mashing examples in the real world, as you have repeatedly reminded us. What the composition studies community lacks, in my opinion, is a multilingual/multidialectal creativity discourse. Scholars in postcolonial literatures and cultures have studied and identified various ways in which linguistic and cultural codes are mashed in cultural products, including writing. But this knowledge has not been widely disseminated in the composition community yet. Worse, this knowledge has hardly entered the composition textbook publishing industry at all, which has tenaciously defended the monolingual ideology. Therefore, to successfully negotiate between the rights and the practice discourses at the policy level, we need to develop a creativity discourse more forcefully. Code mixing and mashing takes place in almost any writing and any genre, but developing sensitivity to the phenomenon and harnessing its linguistic and cultural nuances poses a higher demand on language teachers. We should identify and examine examples of successful code mixing and mashing in different written genres. We should identify the creative strategies used in those examples and inform the composition community at large. Only then will our teachers feel confident and comfortable teaching code mixing and mashing in the writing classroom. Only when a creativity discourse has further developed will the revamped SRTOL find a popular base among the teachers and students.

Suresh Canagarajah said...

What I meant was that some teachers understand SRTOL as developing a split pedagogy of encouraging students to reserve EAE for formal purposes and use their preferred varieties of English to oral and personal contexts. I didn't adopt that policy in my own context. I appreciated Buthainah's efforts to merge different varieties of English.

You are right in saying that we have to provide more examples of creative strategies by students so that teachers will have models to adopt more daring teaching approaches. This work is slowly starting. We are beginning to see more analysis of code meshed writing in our professional journals. I am thinking of Steve Fraiburg's essay in the Sept.2010 CCC (from which you seem to have borrowed the term code mashing). Perhaps we'll see changes in composition textbooks and handbooks soon!

Steve Housepian said...

I totally agree with your take on the value and support for Buthainah. I think the main thing is that we, as teachers, can evaluate and promote the stylistic, metaphorical, poetical differences in intelligent, individual student writing which comes out of all countries' various consciousnesses as meaning making. The things we are taught in schools as children, and our writing stances, make us different. In the U.S. we are taught to stand up and voice our opinion constantly. That can seem boorish to students in many other counries. We know for a fact that students from different countries write in a different political voice, and their identities are situated in a different place within their own thoughts and writing than in the U.S. The real question is - if we know this, should we not be very careful not to confuse that unique and valuable positional voice in a student with a student who simply has some slang voice from home or the street;a voice which may be more comfortable or may be the only voice the student has access to; but which does not help to make more genuine or unique meaning out much of the expected writing. Street jargon is awesome if it's used for narrative, artistic and creative writing and novelistic, narrative purposes but does not substitute for all argumentative writing. If we were to take SRTOL all the way as it was intended - wouldn't we have to allow a student to write in their native language completely. Any attempts to have a student's voice altered from the total original,is technically,"tampering" with the student's "identity." Imagine a classroom where the teacher has to make sense of 10 different foreign "languages" which he is not able to decode. I use this exaggerated image because what many experts argue should be "allowed" in a classroom of diverse identities is in fact very close to that. No teacher I ever met has any problem with, as the SRTOL suggested, "cafe" instead of "restaurant" but I think in general, U.S. classrooms are too hung up with "identity." We are very close to an "anything goes" approach to students' writing, and it is a biproduct of the endless political correctness and emotion which permeates education. We are not rejecting students, student backgounds, cultures, race or origin in the least if we simply make students aware of an American scholastic expectation in an American school environment which asks all its students to learn an appropriate discourse which forwards their progress in that environment; an environment where the expectations of various end products in writing constitute a fairness across the board. It is not really the teacher's job to politicize who is pre-disposed or equipped for such writing and if we stop calling it an "ability" to write with some class or race tag attached to it instead of just an "aquired necessity," as part of classroom pedagogy, we'd all be better off.

Rebecca Breech said...

When I first read the entry from Buthainah's literacy autobiography, I thought that some of the phrases that she used, including "storms of thoughts stampede" and "an illustration of my literacy development shunt me to continue my ongoing learning adventure" were not unusual and unidiomatic and "proper" academic Edited American English (EAE), but rather expressive and imaginative English. Yes, the construction of the phrases may be a little nontraditional, but if it is unconventional, then by which standards? Before I read your response to her terms, I thought that "storms of thoughts" characterized her struggles with combining the "languages" (and dialects) of her home, her life experiences and her academic communities. I am not surprised that she "defended" her choice of words by saying that she consulted a native English speaker before writing this autobiography, and specifically an American poet, because Buthainah's language seems very poetic, but that doesn't make it any less academic.

I, too, experience linguistic diversity in my classroom, as I'm sure many instructors do. I was wondering what you have decided in terms of one of the questions that you posed in this blog entry: Do you want to instruct students to use EAE for formal writing purposes, at the same time encouraging the use of the linguistic conventions from their own community dialects for oral and in-group purposes? I understand that this is a difficult question, but doesn't this contradiction in composition classrooms inherently cause a schism in the students' understanding of English and their use of it in their writing? I feel that this may create some confusion in terms of the relationship between writing (formal or informal) and communicating verbally. As instructors we should probably attempt to bridge the gap between writing and speaking so students don't feel a disconnect between how they communicate in class and how they write for class, in addition to how they communicate outside of class in their communities or career fields.

Diana said...

Buthainah's opening is rich and vivid--and displays the sometimes surprising notion for teachers of writing that our own language can be enriched by an infusion of "non-native" elements. It is always a wonderful discovery when student writing makes you stop, frame, and re-focus, as with a camera lens, some image or idea that has become banal and tired from overuse. An original turn of phrase or an unusual metaphor can accomplish this effect, and in my experience, it's often second-language or non-standard-English writers who play with language in this way. Buthainah happened to be conscious of this play, but students often aren't aware that they've done anything unusual or special, since they are also often struggling as they write. Pointing out these moments to individual students and sharing these moments in larger class settings seems like a fruitful way to affirm "students' rights to their own language," and also to talk openly about how this "code meshing/mashing" or "interlanguage stage" is working in their writing.

I don't see students' fusion of languages as an EAE issue, which I think of as correcting "seen" for "saw," for example, since their most compelling ideas are often expressed through this fusion. Where would we draw the line in what we are defining as EAE for the new statement? Are we only talking about grammar rules, or are we also talking about strict adherence to idiomatic English? This question, I believe, will have to be considered if SRTOL is to be re-drafted.
-Diana Epelbaum

Suresh said...

Thanks for affirming Buthainah's creative strategies. I confess, I have been a bit conservative in my interpretation of her style.

As for the split between EAE for writing and students' vernacular for speaking: I raise that in order to problematize what many teachers understand as the approach that SRTOL recommends. I use the term code meshing (along with other scholars like Vershawn Young) to encourage students to mix dialects and discourses. I talk more about this approach in the following article: “The Place of World Englishes in Composition: Pluralization Continued.” College Composition and Communication, 57/4 (2006): 586-619.

I hint at this possibility in a later paragraph in the blog, when I say: "The hybridity in language that it [the poststructuralist orientation to language] affirms offers us more possibilities to bring values and voices from elsewhere into the discourses of specific domains, reframe the contexts and norms, and achieve our own interests. New developments in textuality have provided other answers to the question of what is appropriate or coherent in writing. The multimodal and multilingual nature of texts suggests that writing doesn’t have to involve only one dialect or the other."

Suresh said...

You are right to question what we mean by EAE. Many linguists consider "standard English" as also an ideological construct. Though you are prepared to concede that there might be an EAE at the grammatical level, scholars of World Englishes (such as Jennifer Jenkins and Anna Mauranen) point out the existence of diverse grammatical norms for English academic writing in Europe and elsewhere. I am not sure if we'll succeed in defining a universal academic English.

Many scholars are currently making a plea for more tolerance as we negotiate the diverse varieties of English used internationally. I address this issue a bit in my personal blog at:

Suresh Canagarajah said...

I agree that affirming students' voices cannot mean anything goes. I encourage students to engage with dominant academic usage to find creative ways of merging their voices and discourses. In fact, there is nothing called a pure or unmediated voice. I tell students that we always have to work along, around, and against dominant discourses to represent our identities.

Zan Goncalves said...

A case for the relevance and necessity for encouraging multilingual texts in the writing classroom--our transnational sensibility!

"to formulate a statement that addresses the language resources brought by the broader cohort of students we currently have in our classrooms, the multimodal and multilingual textualities that offer new possibilities for writing, and the expanded repertoires all of us need for transnational relations" (Canagarajah).

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