'The Good English': Teachers’ Conceptualization of the Target Language in Adult ESOL

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Without taking the linguistic reality of named languages for granted, what does 'English' mean in the context of adult ESOL? This project seeks to interrogate this issue by analyzing recurrent discourse patterns and meta-linguistic/pragmatic commentary in two classrooms, exploring teachers' linguistic ideologies, as well as their historical development.

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Previous work has problematized the notion of discrete, named languages as real linguistic objects (Makoni & Pennycook, 2006), and yet they continue to be designated as the target of language education, particularly in fields like adult ESOL. From this perspective, what exactly does 'English' mean, in practice? And what are teachers doing when they designate it as the target in their classrooms?

This project seeks to interrogate these issues by looking at the construction of 'English' in a particular context – a non-profit adult ESOL program in New York City – drawing from audio recordings and field notes of observations of two teachers and their classes over three semesters.

Analyzing recurrent discourse patterns and the teachers' and students' meta-linguistic/pragmatic commentary, I find that 'English' was presented as a closed linguistic universe which only included those forms introduced explicitly by the teachers (and by the curriculum), reinforced through a focus on replication of templatic language, as well as teacher-centered pedagogy.

The teachers also placed an outsized focus on certain categories of forms – final sounds, inflection morphology, and interdental fricatives – which cast any 'English' without those forms as deviant. Unsurprisingly, the absence of these features is traditionally characteristic of a number of racialized varieties of English, pointing to the continued relevance of race in the designation of a standard, a relationship that was discursively reinforced through teachers' commentary.

I end by drawing on historical texts related to English philology and teaching, as well as curricular materials used in Settlement Houses and other early education initiatives targeting immigrants and other racialized communities, to explore when current discourses around 'Standard English' (and the associated features) emerged, and how they are connected to larger historical processes of forced assimilation, racialization, and settler colonialism.

Makoni, S. & Pennycook, A. (2006). Disinventing and Reconstituting Languages. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

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PhD candidate and lecturer
Graduate Center, City University of New York

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Dr. Yo-An Lee
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