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.

CCCC Annual Convention

2009 Convention logo

March 11-14, 2009
San Francisco, CA