Understanding language and learning
Understanding language and learning

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Understanding language and learning

8 Problematising the L1/L2 dichotomy

So far, we have operated with fairly straightforward notions of learning, and particularly of language. However, research has recently begun to problematise the dichotomy between L1 and L2. In an age characterised by an unprecedented degree of migration, transnational and translingual communication – physical as well as virtual – linguists have begun to question the idea that languages are discrete, essentialised and countable. Such scholars argue that the difference between languages is more political and ideological than empirical. Thus, the reason why mutually intelligible entities such as Swedish, Norwegian and Danish are considered languages but the mutually incomprehensible Hokkien and Hakka are considered dialects of Chinese has more to do with politics and nation building than with empirical and linguistic facts.

More specifically, there has been a conceptual shift which prompts us to move our gaze from languages as systems (English, Chinese and French) to languages as practices, which may be a lot more hybrid in nature than the notion of systems would suggest. In fact, some scholars have even begun to use the word ‘language’ as a verb (as in ‘they are languaging’) to prioritise the ‘doing’ and emergent nature of languages over their a priori existence (García and Wei, 2015).

This conceptual shift also has implications for L2 proficiency. When the gaze moves from languages as systems to languages as practices, there is a recognition that some people can have greater proficiency in their L2 than in their L1 in some registers. One of the course authors has an anecdote from her childhood, which illustrates this. Her Swedish mother and her mother’s Danish husband (her stepfather) sometimes got into arguments about who was better at English, a second language for both of them. Her mother’s claim was backed up by the fact that she has a degree in English and used to teach it as a second language to Swedish secondary students. Her stepfather’s claim was not based on having a degree in English, but on the fact that as an engineer he often gave talks in English at international conferences. In the particular area of engineering in which he was specialised – sanitation – he certainly knew a lot more vocabulary items in English than her mother did, and possibly more than he did in Danish, his L1. This goes to show that in certain registers you can have greater proficiency in an L2 than in your L1, thereby further blurring the distinction between L1 and L2.

Further challenges to the dichotomy between L1 and L2 can be seen with the introduction of the concept of translanguaging, which refers to the idea of mixing features from L1 and L2 (García and Wei, 2015). While such language mixing has always occurred in bilingual contexts and has been studied under headings such as ‘code-switching’, ‘code-mixing’ or ‘code-meshing’ by sociolinguists, the novelty of this concept is that researchers are beginning to recommend that translanguaging should be exploited as a resource teachers and learners can draw on to enhance learning in bilingual contexts. You will explore this in greater detail in the next activity.


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