Feb 10, 2009

Language and resistance

…[L]anguage is the primary means through which we maintain or contest old meanings, and construct or resist new ones.— Eckert and GinetLANGUAGE plays an active part in the construction of social reality. The vital linkage between knowledge and discourse has been elaborated by Foucault in his works Discipline and Punish and Archaeology of Knowledge.According to him, knowledge and power strengthen and justify each other as constructed discourses lead to a certain kind of knowledge that in turn justifies those discourses. The dominant groups in society make use of language to construct desired social realities that favour them by ensuring their superiority in an apparently ‘objective’ manner.According to Atanga, “Power also consists of occupancy of positions, which carry with them the power of command over others. Such occupancy is accompanied by specific language use and this language is the language of power.” Fairclough’s book, Language and Power, also underscores the central role of language in the politics of representation and the construction of social reality.In all social institutions, the role of language is central to the process of socialisation and the acquisition of social knowledge. In all imperialistic initiatives, language has been exploited as a powerful and effective tool for hegemonic purposes. The language of dominant groups possesses certain perks and to enjoy those perks marginalised groups have to act according to the linguistic and cultural rules of the dominant ones. But strategically, the access to language is made conditional by the dominant groups.Can marginalised groups challenge the hegemony of dominant groups? How can marginalised groups be empowered to identify the politics of representation? Is resistance through language possible? What changes are required in the existing practices of English Language Teaching (ELT)? These are some major questions taken up by this article. Foucault is of the opinion that power is in fact relationship which is largely structured by discourse.According to Foucault, the powerful and powerless keep on changing during different points in history as this relationship is not fixed. This also means that points of resistance are available to marginalised groups to tilt the balance of power in their favour. There seems to be a constant struggle for the possession of discourse in order to possess or regain power.Resistance to hegemony can be undertaken in different ways. Some may not be very effective. For instance, in the subcontinent a group of people, mostly conservative Muslim clerics, refused to learn English as it was the language of the colonisers. This cost them dearly in terms of jobs, etc.Another response to hegemony, which seems to be more effective, could be to learn the language and resist through its use by reversing the discourse, as Foucault would call it. This approach requires us to familiarise ourselves with the discourse of the powerful and discern allied aspects of power in those structures. This identification is not possible if language is viewed and learnt as a neutral and passive phenomenon.This has direct implications for the study of applied linguistics. Pennycook, in his book A Critical Introduction to Applied Linguistics, underlines the importance of studying language with its socio-political aspects dealing with questions of representation, politics and power. It is this critical study which empowers the learners to see the political use of language and the power structures constructed with the help of language. Fairclough proposes this empowerment through critical discourse analysis where learners are sensitised to see the power in the text and behind the text. The awareness of the political use of language may help learners get to the next step of actually negotiating meaning and using the discourse for putting up resistance.ELT practices in India and Pakistan need to be revisited. There is a need to expose students to the potent relationship of language and power. The use of critical pedagogy in the teaching of English in our classrooms can bring about a qualitative change in the thinking patterns of students. They can revisit stereotypical concepts by unpacking them linguistically. There is also a need to make English teaching more interdisciplinary in order to understand some major concepts in a more holistic manner.Canagarajah suggests that the “The redefinition of constructs such as subjecthood, culture, power and knowledge by resistance theories has enabled us to conceptualise the potential for teachers and students to negotiate power.” A critical approach to the teaching of language empowers students to challenge the familiar, popular and taken-for-granted meanings of words and concepts. Derrida’s notion of deconstruction is relevant to this discussion focusing on ‘delaying the meaning’ of the word by challenging its meaning and connotations.The resistance to hegemony needs a more holistic approach towards language teaching, language learning and language use. Educational institutions can play an important role by making sure that gendered stereotypes are not validated by teachers in the classrooms. Equally important is the point that language should be taught in a critical way so that students are able to challenge stereotypes based on ‘common sense’ and those ‘taken for granted’. The process of resistance should not be left to marginalised groups only; civil society too needs to play a role to encourage and facilitate this process. Similarly, marginalised groups also need to reach out to social networking. Chomsky says, “Organisation has its effects. It means that you discover that you’re not alone. Others have the same thoughts that you do. You can reinforce your thoughts and learn more about what you think and believe. These are very informal movements, not like a membership organisations, just a mood that involves interactions among people.”Can we begin to empower the students in our educational institutions through critical pedagogy in ELT and challenge gendered stereotypes in the shape of sayings, proverbs, jokes, songs, etc.?The writer is director of the Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore School of Economics and author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan.

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