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Let's talk about (your) language(s)

Whose language(s) and for what purpose?

Our findings about the needs and conditions of cross-border regions indicate that these environments host a wide variety of languages, often encompassing the official languages of the respective states, local dialects, and English (see the survey and examples of the border regions). Nonetheless, the teachers’ and students’ perception of language needs may vary considerably. This chapter aims to help teachers and — through them — students to make these pre-assumptions explicit. Different concepts of languages and their use will become clear and teachers and students may eventually rethink some 'obvious' aspects of language teaching/learning. This process of rethinking can bring language learning closer to the day-to-day experience of our students in multilingual communication contexts.

Indeed, people do not only learn and live in the reality "as it is", but also "as they believe it is". If we believe something threatens us, we experience fear even if the threat is completely imaginary. This aspect of social life is called social construction of reality (Berger and Luckmann 1967). Thus, taking into account that beliefs, attitudes and life context have an impact on the motivation and quality of (language) learning, teachers could start their courses by checking students’ needs and expectations. Teaching can build on the students' existing knowledge, while working at the same time with their beliefs, perceptions and needs. In language teaching in border regions, students usually have more experience with neighbours, their language and culture, so multilingual and intercultural situations occur more frequently than elsewhere.

Raise motivation to engage in present-day-based critical thinking about language.

Students have stronger (often also historically negative) mental representations about their neighbours (country/culture). It is therefore important to build on these mental representations in the language classroom, to raise awareness of them, to deconstruct them if necessary, and to build up new "positive" representations. Our experience from border regions shows that interactive, dialogic, and problem-based teaching (Alexander 2018; Derek Bok Center 2022) can effectively help to adjust such perceptions. In the chapter there is an interactive task to try out with students.

It is important to point out that interactive teaching requires, first of all, that teachers develop critical thinking about languages. We can't stress enough the need for teachers' continuous personal and professional development. This section aims them to help teachers think critically about languages, with theoretical and practical material that should make (language) teachers aware of the fact that language as a system, as traditionally taught in the classroom, is only a quite context-less fragment of what students need in order to live and work in another language (cf. Cummins 2021). 


PART ONE: What is language? Questioning the monolingual perspective on language

In the first part, we will highlight the importance of learning language both as a system and social practice. We will draw your attention to language as a mostly artificial standard system in the classroom, whereas language in real life includes a potentially infinite number of varieties and changes related to social contexts and time.

We will start by a provocative question “What is ‘language’?” In learning contexts that do not directed towards academic studies, it is particularly important to understand that the monolingual (‘native’) standard language is an unattainable, mythical ideal, which often thwarts the learners’ efforts (Dewaele and Saito 2022). According to language we teach, we also have to deal with language ideologies linked to its use at a local and global societal level. Further, we offer possibilities to help access the affective aspects of learning, fuel motivation, and boost learners’ self-confidence.

View part 1

PART TWO: Whose language and for what purposes? Pragmatic metalanguage in the (language) classroom 

Thus, the second part of this chapter will introduce cross-linguistic metalanguage for the classroom.

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What is language? Questioning the monolingual perspective on language

  • Refocusing from the language system to students’ practical needs in social practice.
  • Questioning the usefulness of the 'native' standard in language teaching.

 When we start learning a new language, it’s common to concentrate on that language alone. This monolingual approach has its advantages, as it allows students to dive deep into the language without distractions. It is often associated with language teaching aiming at becoming as good at a language as a “native speaker. However, neither idea is universally accepted nor have both been seriously challenged by researchers and policy makers. Their usefulness has become the subject of an ongoing debate on plurilingual pedagogies and the ideal standard in language education (Jessner, Allgäuer-Hackl, and Hofer 2016; Slavkov, Melo-Pfeifer and Kerschhofer-Puhalo 2022). “Near nativeness” is not the aim of language education anymore. However, it is still present in language teaching classrooms.

While a few students may want to become professional translators, interpreters or teachers, the main goal of learning languages for most of them may simply be to communicate and understand others in everyday life. It is therefore more important to learn how to be self-confident and have meaningful exchanges that attain a pragmatic goal rather than to worry about getting every grammar rule or pronunciation perfect (Blommaert and Backus 2013). 

Whether students are striving for professional proficiency or simply aiming to communicate pragmatically, the journey of learning a new language should always be an enriching experience. It broadens students’ horizons, exposes them to different cultures, and opens doors to connect with people from around the world. Teachers should not forget that the language needed outside of the classroom may be very different from the standard that is the base for in-class assessment.
Let’s feel inspired and think about our own classroom practice: Do we see language as something standardised, perfect and ideal, or do we view it as something that can change and be shaped by how we use it to talk with others? What is your iew on this, and how does it affect the way you teach? We will focus on this in the next section, so get ready to explore!

Try out our language pie activity and discover more about your languages and cultures.
Click here for the language pie activity

Holistic approaches and student-centred teaching of language

The Language Pie

In a recent study, Busch (2022) brought evidence that children tend to think of their plurilingualism less in terms of language (and competences) and more in terms of communication (and pragmatic language use). It helps them to position themselves and relate to others. Indeed, in their focus on grammar and vocabulary, language teachers may sometimes forget that the primary function of language is to create social relationships. So, how can they encourage new perspectives on language and its use? And how thinking about language as a means of creation of social relationships be included into the classroom practice?

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Whose language and for what purposes? Pragmatic metalanguage in the (language) classroom

Raising motivation for more pragmatic and critical language-awareness talk.

Why employ metalanguage in the classroom?

Cognitive psychology and cognitive science would agree that only little, if any, long-term learning can happen without conscious attention (Leow 2006). Therefore, paying attention to metalanguage should be an integral part of teaching. As James and Garrett (2014) stress, this does not apply only to learning languages. The topic has been defined in research as language/linguistic/metalanguage/metalinguistic “awareness”. Being "aware" means being able to step back and zoom out from the situation experienced or the notion discussed, being able to describe it and reflect on its implications. 

Learning is fuelled by language awareness

This is conceptualised in a variety of ways, but in practice, raising language awareness means making knowledge and beliefs about language use explicit (James and Garrett 2014). The authors emphasise the importance of gaining as well as sharing information, both at the peer level among the students and between the teacher and the students. Having metalinguistic awareness means being able to talk analytically about language and reflect on one’s variety as well as societal discourse(s) of language(s) that are locally and globally relevant.

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Power relations and language ideologies

Metalanguage at different levels in a society (communities, teachers, government, etc.) assigns a low/high status to a language and considers, for example, class affiliation, political power or ethnic identity as more or less superior to others). If a language is perceived as having a low status this limits its use, both at the individual and societal level. That said, one language may be considered both high and low status in different ideologies and (geographical or societal) contexts. For example, Luxembourgish may be considered a cherished national language in Luxembourg but an unimportant minority language elsewhere.

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How to use (cross-linguistic) metalanguage in the classroom?

When students encounter multiple languages being used in the classroom and perceive their teachers as language users with different levels of proficiency in those languages, they tend to develop greater self-confidence in their own languages (cf. Kramsch, 1998). This effect is particularly pronounced when students are evaluated against plurilingual user standards rather than native speaker standards of their first language (Cook, 2002).

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Ways how to foster metapragmatic awareness in language learning in cross-border settings 

Apart from explicit instruction, comparative and contrastive analysis, there are many more approaches, with which an inspiring teacher can enhance metapragmatic awareness in language learning in cross-border settings. To name just a few to consider:

Authentic Materials: Work with authentic materials, such as videos, audio clips, and texts that showcase real-life language use in cross-border contexts, can expose learners to diverse pragmatic conventions. 

Role-Playing and Simulations: Incorporating role-playing activities and simulations allows learners to practise using language in various social situations. This provides opportunities to reflect on their language choices, adapt communication strategies, boost self-confidence, and develop a heightened sensitivity to the impact of language on interpersonal relationships.

Reflective Tasks: Engaging learners in reflective tasks, such as journaling or group discussions, encourages them to analyze their own language use and the effects it may have on others. By reflecting on their own communication experiences, learners can identify areas for improvement and develop a more mindful and adaptable approach to language use.

Collaborative Learning: Encouraging collaborative learning opportunities, such as group projects or language exchanges, allows learners to interact with peers from different linguistic backgrounds. This collaborative environment provides a platform for learners to observe and discuss pragmatic differences, negotiate meaning, and develop intercultural communicative competence.

Guest Speakers and Cultural Exchanges: Inviting guest speakers from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds to share their experiences and perspectives can provide valuable insights, too. Furthermore, organizing cultural exchanges or language immersion programmes can offer learners authentic opportunities to practise language and engage in cross-cultural communication (cf. also the ECML-resources of ELANG).

To conclude, teachers have a wide range of possibilities for effectively cultivating metapragmatic awareness in learners within cross-border regions. Focus on reflection and metapragmatic skills has the potential to empower learners to navigate intercultural communication with confidence, sensitivity and respectfor difference. The resulting ability to change perspectives and reflect on power relations is then crucial not only for language teaching, but for life in a diverse society in general.

Take away

  • Learning language (not only in vocational contexts) means both understanding language as a system and language as a social practice
  • Language in real life includes its own varieties and it changes over social contexts and time. 
  • Metapragmatic awareness has been provento have positive effects on language learning. 
  • Reflection is crucial for raising metalinguistic awareness. 
  • Multimodal learning can help access the affective aspects of learning. 
  • Depending on what language we teach, we have to deal with specific language ideologies linked to its use at the local and global societal level.


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