The journalist and scholar H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) once observed that “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” One would think that academic literacy, the ability to use academic language competently, would be the first and only language concern of the academic communities that make up the university. Such is the complexity of language problems, however, that not all solutions for them will have to do with making education and study more effective. Student communities may, for example, make language demands that are primarily politically inspired, and have little bearing on scholarship. When decision-makers yield to the politically expedient solution, that solution may be rationalized in many ways that might have the pretence of having to do with education, but that actually has no theoretical justification. There are at least two recent cases in South Africa where the language policies of universities were changed for reasons other than academic ones, with negative consequences that were foreseen, but ignored.
Simple but wasteful
So, solutions to language problems at university can be arrived at simply: through what is most expedient politically, or most conventionally appealing, or perhaps least costly. Those simple and apparently less costly solutions can, however, in the long run come to have substantial waste (and therefore cost) associated with them.
In a new paper, “Definition and design: aligning language interventions in education”, just published in Stellenbosch Papers in Linguistics (SPIL Plus), I show how, for language interventions at all levels to be effective, the language policy of the institution, its approach to language assessment, and its language instruction need to work in harmony. Too often the development of the ability to deal with the language demands of university study is at odds with both the assessment of academic literacy, and with the language policies of the institution.
There is no single component of the design process of language interventions that is immune to the blight of bias, a lack of imagination, or ideologically inspired resistance to considering alternatives.
Political and ideological bias add to the woes
The paper describes the several steps in the complex process that will prevent the simple solution from trumping the deliberate; the politically expedient from prevailing over the rational; the conventionally acceptable from triumphing over the imaginative; mediocrity from scoring another victory over excellence; and prejudice from stifling innovation and creativity. There is no single component of the design process of language interventions that is immune to the blight of bias, a lack of imagination, or ideologically inspired resistance to considering alternatives. Should deliberation in design be in abeyance, the applied linguistic intervention will lack effect and utility, it will be less defensible, and less trustworthy. Designed responsibly, however, our language interventions stand a better chance of serving those affected with care and love, with their best interests in mind, and transparently and openly so.
Weideman, Albert. 2019a. Definition and design: aligning language interventions in education. Stellenbosch Papers in Linguistics Plus 56: 31-46. DOI: 10.5842/56-0-782.