I spent most of my time going to papers from two strands, Educational Linguistics and Analysis of Discourse and Interaction. In those sessions, plus the plenary talks, a couple of themes stood out to me:
On a theoretical level, it might be more productive to think about our communicative resources as a diverse set of linguistic or discursive practices rather than discrete entities called “languages”. This was one of the major points of Monica Heller’s plenary address: why do we think of standardization as being “normal” while variation is problematic? If you take a long view of human history, shouldn’t it really be the other way around? After all, to take one example, there have been people using language in the area currently known as France for millennia, but the Academie Française is only a few centuries old. This theme came out in parallel sessions in different ways; for example, Nelson Flores presented a critical view of the self-congratulation inherent in a lot of European talk about “plurilingualism,” and Rachel Wicaksono and Wendy Scheder Black proposed the idea that intercultural communication breakdowns might sometimes happen not because of nonnative speakers’ lack of linguistic competence, but because of native speakers’ lack of language awareness.
On a professional level, we have a responsibility to make our research findings relevant and appliable, at least to our research participants, if not to the broader communities they belong to. This theme came out in Srikant Sarangi’s plenary talk, which called for us to reconsider the role of our participants in developing research programs and building interprofessional relationships within what he calls “communities of interest.” Heidi Byrnes’s distinguished service award talk also touched on this: we may understand that language learning is a social process of developing meaning-making potential, but what does it matter if we don’t use this understanding to improve language teaching practice?
Among educational linguists, I noticed this call for greater engagement being implemented through projects that focus on participants’ awareness of linguistic structures at the discourse level. That is, teachers know something about grammar — they know that language is structured at the sentence level — but broader structures such as interactional patterns, speech registers, and discourse genres are outside of most speakers’ conscious awareness. So, to educate teachers about discourse:
- Deborah Romero, Jingzi Huang, and Margaret Berg offered a professional development module using Vygotsky and systemic functional linguistics to help teachers integrate language and content instruction
- Meredith Doran and Matthew Jadlocki observed international teaching assistants in math and science to identify how they use language to construct a teaching persona, with the aim of eventually figuring out how they can best communicate with American undergraduates
- Li Li and Steve Walsh suggested that “classroom interactional competence” should be added as a third strand in teacher education aside from pedagogy and content knowledge; to this end, they looked at teachers’ reflections on their own teaching practice, in order to figure out how to foster productive reflective dialogue
- Catherine Evans Davies and Matthew Wolfgram proposed a university teaching assessment process that uses qualitative research, specifically discourse analysis, to help college instructors improve their teaching
Imagine how excited I was to observe all of this; the idea that discourse analysis could be used to improve classroom instruction is exactly the reason I went back to get my Ph.D. in the first place.