There’s an apocryphal story supposedly told and repeated in the past year or so by a high-ranking general here, one I’ve only heard secondhand, and so I don’t really have access to verifying its details or its telling, but it’s a grim story, and goes something like this: there’s a mixed unit operating in the field in one of the more dangerous places in Afghanistan, US soldiers and Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers, and they come under fire from insurgents and call for reinforcements and a medevac for the injured, only conditions are such that the Americans can’t figure out where they are from the landmarks and the Afghans can’t read the map well enough or communicate on the radio sufficiently clearly to give the inbound helicopters an accurate fix on where they are. By the time the helicopters locate them, there’s no one left. The medevac becomes a casevac.
It’s told to highlight the perils of miscommunication or lack of communication across languages and cultures, and told in service of a commitment to English-language education for ANA soldiers. Afghanistan has two official languages and a number of others besides, and rather than build L1 literacy and then L2 proficiency, the notion is to move directly to L2 proficiency and literacy for all Afghans, using English as the acknowledged foreign alternate language or interlanguage for purposes that most Americans here would consider to be pragmatic, or what James Britton and others have called “transactional”: language that gets things done; that performs the work of the world.
To that end, the English as a foreign language classes here are designed and taught to promote and assess pragmatic linguistic competency in reading, listening, speaking, and writing. As one would expect, at the Afghan institution that I’m working at until mid-June, English instruction is understood as purely and deeply pragmatic, much as English seems to be used to accomplish the quotidiana between and among the diverse soldiers of the international force at the base where I’m housed, Israelis and Mongolians and Greeks and Romanians and British and Dutch and French and Belgians and Americans and Germans and Portuguese and Australians and Italians and others.
I’m writing this at a picnic table outside. It’s warm for a January day; an afternoon in the 40s, a cool breeze doing nothing to cut through the heavy haze, and three Czech smokers come outside for their before-dinner fixes as the sun starts to go down. Behind me, there are the main doors to the barracks with laser-printed semi-official reminders and dicta and policies; to my left, the comings and goings from the flight line that I’m strictly forbidden from photographing, Bulgarian Hinds and white-painted UN cargo helicopters, the Air Force’s C-130s, the 727s and 737s flown by Ariana and Pamir bound for Kuwait or Dubai or Kandahar or other polyglot locales where English can similarly serve as a second language or — in its function as a “bridge” language — sometimes as something approaching a lingua franca. All around, there are the technological implements of communication: cell phone aerials, satellite dishes craning their concave faces skywards, coax and Cat 6 cable strung through the hallways of the barracks, radio towers topped by their blinking caution lights, and to my front, the vehicles studded with their electronic countermeasures antennae that serve to protect against IEDs activated via various electronic devices when powered up, generating around them a traveling null zone empty of any indigenous electronic signals, an electromagnetically-produced decommunicationalized bubble that leaves pedestrians glaring at their cell phones and then at us — the high-tech multinationals who travel swiftly through their streets; who use English as our own sort of interlanguage — in frustration. Yes, there’s some imperialism here, arguably even something of a colonialist project, and I’m ambivalent about some aspects of it, even — as I’ve noted before — while I believe in the need for and usefulness of literacy in service of the rule of law and self-determination for Afghanistan.
That imperialism is one analogue of the “English-only instruction” that Min-Zhan Lu compellingly argues “parades the (seldom delivered) promise of enduring access to wider communication and better educational and job opportunities” (608), and English (though not English-only) instruction is often posed as offering precisely those promises here.
While I think Lu’s characterization of “English-only instruction” sometimes problematically extends into caricature the practices Bruce Horner and John Trimbur thoughtfully dissected in their 2002 article “English Only and U.S. College Composition,” I like the way she poses English-only advocates against what she terms “living-English users,” who are users of an English “kept alive by many and by many different ways of using it, each of which is itself a living process in-the-forming: informing and informed by the specific, different dynamic, historical and social contexts of individual acts” (608). So, too, do I buy the contention she makes with Horner, Trimbur, and Jacqueline Jones Royster that “notions of the ‘standard English speaker’ and ‘Standard Written English’ are bankrupt concepts. All speakers of English speak many variations of English, every one of them accented, and all of them subject to change as they intermingle with other varieties of English and other languages” (305).