As a wise man named Costanza once said, “We’re living in a society.”
Jokes aside, this concept is seen very differently depending on a person’s positionality, and when it comes to TESOL and SLA, it’s important, and often unsaid, that we define what it means to “function.”
Programs often know their populations fairly well, and know if their students want to enhance their English to change their career prospects, or attend school, or simply pass the time. All of these desires are valuable, none moreso than any other, yet when curricula are designed, ultimately what it comes down to is that we want our students to be able to function in their particular societal context. Unfortunately, we often reduce this to a surface-level analysis of what language, grammar, vocabulary, etc. they are lacking, and leave little time for a deeper reflection on their culture, race, class, what have you. These attributes are implied, of course – if we are helping a student learn vocabulary for their housekeeping job, their class is not assumed to be professional-managerial – but rarely explicit in the classroom or in the materials chosen. We are mostly trying to be kind by not making assumptions, I’m sure, the way we (well, not me, but “they”) say that being so-called “colorblind” is beneficial for black kids (but it isn’t).
The fact is, though, we need to see everything about our students, all of them, to really provide them with the ideal learning environment that will help them function, whatever that means to them.
Does functioning mean being able to feed themselves and their families and nothing else? Does functioning mean attaining degrees? In other words, how high on the hierarchy of needs does an individual student want to climb to consider themselves satisfactorily functional?
Our defict-based education system (even for adults) classifies students by what they lack, and when it comes to the concept of functioning in society, our language learners are assumed to be, essentially, malfunctioning, like everyone who isn’t part of the majority.
Yet they do live here (or wherever they are). And if they can’t do what they want and need to do without considerable difficulty, their lives are more challenging, and if we can help them learn how best to do so through enhancing their use of this language while retaining their chosen identities, then we should do so. But we must keep in mind when we plan our lessons, curricula and programs, that to assume our learners aren’t functioning by default is to do them a great disservice. The dominant society will always paint them as malfunctioning, and it’s our job to help them find what they need to consider themselves more than merely functional in a society that would rather they didn’t hold onto their identities.