TESOL vs SLA

This is a bit of a follow-up to something I wrote about in last week’s post.

I spent about nine years as a TESOL professional, whether or not you’d call some of those jobs legitimate. Over time I got bored, but soon into this current non-TESOL job, I realized (for like the 50th time) that I really do love teaching, and find myself to be at my absolute best when I’m in front of a classroom. So if it wasn’t teaching that I got tired of, what was it?

Now that I’m taking a doctoral seminar on multilingual learners (don’t call them ELLs anymore), I’m realizing that I’m just not interested in the language acquisition/applied linguistics aspect of the field, but I do find the issues of culture, class, race, and linguicism to be fascinating. I think there’s room for me to flourish there, eventually.

The field, like any other in education, is very white, partially by chance, but also by design in that we made a conscious choice to promote the spread of English after winning WW2, and we certainly succeeded. If you want to be a top-flight professional in almost any field in a major city, you had better learn some English, and although this may eventually change to Mandarin, but not any time soon.

I think about my positionality as both oppressed and oppressor as a TESOL professional. Oppressed, in that I am still not seen as the ideal user of the language as a non-white person, but oppressor in that I still needed to hold students to the expectations of standard American English when I was teaching the language.

Some argued in class last night that there is no standard, which is a bit too far for me to go – of course there’s a standard, it’s just that attaching normative value to the standard can be and has been harmful.

Nevertheless, I think about how many people I know very well who would not be accepted in certain circles because their version of English is accented in a particular way, or because they speak in a specific register that’s not considered correct. My own job is much more diverse than almost any other job I’ve had and I appreciate it, but all of us people of color in this office speak a version of English closer to standard. I doubt any of us would have these jobs if we primarily spoke African-American Vernacular English, despite the fact that many of our students do. (One non-black co-worker drops into AAVE when speaking to our students, which I find to be pandering and offensive but I’m not sure there’s much I can do about it.)

Of course, I can code-switch, but I frankly try not to because it no longer feels authentic to me to do so. When I was younger, I code-switched so often I don’t think I even knew what my real voice was, like a little black Christian Bale.  Was I the Justin who wanted to be accepted by his cousins, the Justin projecting a certain persona at school, the Justin on dates, the Justin at parties?

These days I sound the way I sound, and the fact is, my natural speech is acceptably close to the standard, without an accent that is harsh for listeners or slang that marks me as lesser.

I say all this to say that TESOL isn’t entirely about teaching the language to people who are new to the country. And English isn’t entirely about the standard. Raising the status of AAVE and other dialects is important for the future of people who look like me but haven’t had the same good fortune, and I think that’s a valuable way to contribute to the field down the line.