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).
Still, there’s something of the straw man — or at least target of facile opportunity — to the way she poses “English-only instruction,” and I take issue with her overly simplistic contention that it “cannot address [living-English users’] needs to use English to articulate — work out meaningful connections across — experiences and circumstances of life consistently discredited by standardized English usages” (609). This sounds like an instance of discredited Whorfianism, similar to some of the mistaken arguments I’ve unfortunately heard some Americans express here that Afghans and/or Muslims (yes, sic, for the folks who think that Muslims and Arabs are the same) have no words for integrity (امانة) or leadership (قيادة) and therefore remain fundamentally unable to grasp such Western/American concepts until they sufficiently immerse themselves in the English language. The notion that only one’s native-culture language can adequately address or characterize or represent one’s culture seems a peculiarly nativist one: It’s an American thing; you wouldn’t understand. Horner, Lu, Royster, and Trimbur counter such tendencies with a “call for working to achieve fluency across language differences in our reading and writing, speaking and listening, so that we can become adept at processes of making and conveying meaning — processes that, particularly when they belong to less powerful communities, sometimes appear opaque to individual readers and listeners” (307), and that opacity is precisely what some react to with mistaken and misplaced Whorfianism.
More personal anecdote as evidence: in my travel here to Kabul from New York through Fort Benning and various airbases in Europe and Asia Minor, I came across plenty of errors in convention and correctness in language used in official military contexts, from forms to be filled out to web sites to procedural instructions to official signage to memoranda to room labels: simple misspellings or typos (“depature,” “addres,” “offical”), punctuation errors, fragments, dangling and misplaced modifiers, homophonic spelling (“THIS POLICY STRICKLY ENFORCED”); all the various ways in which people communicate when both writer and reader understand that they are communicating not for the purpose of being evaluated as to their linguistic competence but for rather more pragmatic purposes: to get things done.
When expert dominant language users express idle criticisms of errors in convention and correctness in language used in public contexts and suggest to themselves or others that such errors indicate either carelessness or stupidity, they ignore the usability of that language (one knows precisely what “STRICKLY ENFORCED” means) in order to make implicit hierarchical pronouncements about who is better and who is worse; about who should be in power and who should not. As Horner et al. note, “Myths of unchanging, universal standards have often been invoked to simplify the teaching and learning of language” (305): language instructors attempt to teach Afghans a monolithic English according to a monolithic standard, even though that standard changes and even as they explicitly acknowledge the dissonance between the British and American instructional systems that are used throughout South Asia, engaging in head-shaking at Afghan inadequacies all the while. This is one of the “two types of responses to language difference” concerning which Horner et al. enumerate the problems, most significant of those problems being that the response “ignores how readers grant or withhold recognition of particular language practices as ‘correct’ or ‘acceptable’ — thereby often helping the powerful rig a game of demonstrating ‘mastery.’ [Additionally], it ignores the value for ordinary language users and learners of challenging and transforming language conventions to revise knowledge, ways of knowing, and social relations between specific writers and readers” (306). Whatever pragmatic slack may be offered outside the classroom, within its walls, monolingual norms are often (as we know) strickly enforced.
Despite these norms, though, we know perfectly well — as A. Suresh Canagarajah points out — that “multilingual people always make adjustments to each other as they modify their accent or syntax to to facilitate communication with those who are not proficient in their language. Furthermore, they come with psychological and attitudinal resources, such as patience, tolerance, and humility, to negotiate the differences of the interlocutor” (593). This is the case as much here on base in communication among all the soldiers of different nationalities as it is in the communications among American and Turkish mentors and Afghan instructors at the Academy. The problem is that “Proficiency requires adapting the new language for one’s own values and interests. To use a language without any personal engagement, even for temporary utilitarian and pragmatic reasons, is to mimic not to speak” (Canagarajah 597). There are some Afghans here who come into contact with the Languages department and have cause to learn some degree of English proficiency but who practice rote memorization of English greetings and phrases without understanding them, so that they (for example) might smile and reply “Very good, thank you” when you ask, “How long have you been here at the Academy?”
Such inattention to context and reliance on rote memorization — an unwillingness to engage anything other than the surface features of a language — plays out in the cultural sphere of language learning, as well. (There’s a connection here to the Whorfianism I talked about above, but I can’t quite express it yet.) There are books we use here from the Defense Language Institute (DLI) American Language Course series that are designed to mainstream students into American culture, in ways that seem to me somewhat off-kilter for the Afghan students in the English Language and Culture major: they offer readings and exercises themed around such topics as “Farms and Ranches in the USA,” “Stamp Collecting,” “Opening a Checking Account,” “After the Baseball Game,” “Morning in Seattle,” “Going on Vacation,” “Drive-in Movie Theaters,” and “Visiting Texas.” On the one hand, these seem somewhat appropriate to an Afghan audience of English language learners: they would likely provide some measure of useful context both for those who will eventually go to a DLI installation in the U.S. to study and for those tasked to serve as liaison officers to American forces. On the other hand, when I put myself in the place of many of the Afghans I’ve met thus far, they seem like such abstracted stereotypes of Americana as to be deeply mystifying: why these things? The particulars of “Opening a Checking Account” might serve some practical purpose, and even help someone to understand the mentality of a culture that deals in monetary transfers other than cash, but otherwise, I’d feel like someone who’s been asked to learn French by reading paragraphs about Jacques and Marie eating cheese and drinking wine.
Sure, things like that are excellent examples of the socially valued dominant aspects of a culture that are so well-known as to be clichés: that’s part of the point. Learning language necessarily involves learning culture, as the Academy’s English Language and Culture major indicates. And we often forget that even clichés need to be learned; that they’re well-known by expert dominant language users, but not by novices or learners. So one question would be: do clichés need to be taught to offer language expertise? Will Afghan language learners be more effectively mainstreamed by learning about stamp collecting and visiting Texas? The positions argued by Canagarajah, Lu, Horner, Royster, and Trimbur would seem to suggest otherwise, given representative assertions like Canagarajah’s contention that “valuing students’ own languages — in this case, nonprestige varieties of English — helps in the acquisition of other dialects, including the socially valued dominant varieties. As we recognize now, the vernacular is an asset in the learning of mainstream languages” (592). It seems foolish to surrender such assets to mastery of clichés and commonplaces in the dominant language (though language acquisition is obviously more complex than such a zero-sum representation), particularly when, as Lu notes, “English is being used in multilingual countries… as a ‘link language’ for collective struggle against long and complex histories of intra- and international injustices along lines of race, ethnicity, gender, and class” (612). Certainly those injustices have long existed here in the pervasive misogyny and in the ethnic prejudices that privilege (for example) Tajiks over Hazaras and play out in any number of social effects, from individually and group-enacted violence to economic discrimination, and one hopes that the “translingual fluency” Horner et. al describe “as deftness in deploying a broad and diverse repertoire of language resources, and responsiveness to the diverse range of readers’ social positions and ideological perspectives” (308) might help in working against those intracultural injustices as well as in working in conjunction with coalition forces toward political and military self-determination.
In order to work toward such self-determination, Canagarajah argues, “[s]tudents must be trained to make grammatical choices based on many discursive concerns: their intentions, the context, and the assumptions of readers and writers. Students must understand that in certain special cases they may have to try out a peculiar structure for unique purposes (making sure that they subtly indicate to the audience that they are using this with the full awareness of the established conventions)” (610). He goes on to caution that “[t]his doesn’t mean students are free to use the vernacular for all contexts of communication. Negotiating grammar means being sensitive to the relativity of style and usage in different communicative situations… Though not directly confrontational as to reject the dominant codes or to flaunt the vernacular codes in established contexts, multilingual students will resist ME from the inside by inserting their codes within the existing conventions. This activity serves to infuse not only new codes, but also new knowledge and values, into dominant texts” (Canagarajah 610-611). Here in Kabul, I’m happy to see that such activitiy — what Canagarajah calls “code meshing” (598) — is happening not only among students but among expert dominant-language users like the multinational workers who begin their emails to me with “Salaam” or “Sobh ba khayr” and interject or conclude with “Tashakor” or “Sepas gozar astom.” I think the American mentors and advisors and security forces here ought to be glad to see Afghans indicating their linguistic self-determination via such code-meshing in communications with their multinational counterparts, as well: we expect to see them taking their culture on their own terms, we are encouraged to see them start taking their security and political affairs on their own terms, and we ought to actively look for ways to promote them taking their own language policy on their own terms.
Canagarajah, A. Suresh. “The Place of World Englishes in Composition: Pluralization Continued.” College Composition and Communication 57 (June 2006): 586-619.
Horner, Bruce, Min-Zhan Lu, Jacqueline Jones Royster, and John Trimbur. “Language Difference in Writing: Toward a Translingual Approach.” College English 73 (January 2011): 303-321.
Lu, Min-Zhan. “Living-English Work.” College English 68 (July 2006): 605-618.