Claire Kramsch


My name is Claire Kramsch. University of California at Berkeley.

Language as property and language as intellectual communication. There’s been a great deal of talk about who owns the language that they speak, whether it’s the native speaker or any non-Native speaker who speaks that language. I have a little difficulty with language as property. Language is not, in my view, the property of anybody. Although, of course, if you grow up in that language, uh you have a privileged uh socialization into that language and you use the language for uh—for intellectual, spiritual, personal, social enrichment. So I don’t see necessarily the language belonging to anybody. Uh, I think anybody who uses that language for personal enrichment, for social uh interaction, for um—for intellectual pursuit is, in fact, has appropriated the language for him or herself and is entitled to ownership so to speak.

The down side of believing that you own the language?  (interruption) Well, then it um—it can be, need not be, but it can be um associated then with feeling that uh, uh you as a national of the language—who speaks the lan—that standard national language uh has more rights than anybody else to uh the grammar, the way to talk. And as a native speaker, meaning as a citizen of the nation’s state whose standard language is that language, you have more rights then anybody else or to claim uh the way uh the language should be spoken, should be written, and should be manipulated. And uh, especially in the case of English, this is less and less true because there are a variety of Englishes around the world, um many of whom can claim native speakership, the English of Singapore, the English of New Delhi, and it’s becoming more and more difficult, especially for English to hold on to ownership.

Uh, the proficiency movement that started in the early 80’s in this country was preceded by the functional, notional movement in foreign language teaching in Europe. Uh, when it came here and was associated with the proficiency scale of testing uh that was used in the foreign service institutes and in the government institutes for teaching foreign languages, uh it gave a tremendous boost to uh the commun—commutable—communicably oriented approach to the teaching of foreign languages. Uh, it showed really teachers what you could do with language rather than just what grammatical paradigms you can learn. And so knowledge became associated with usable skill and all the indicators of the different um—uh the different levels of proficiency were very useful to bring to the uh teacher’s realization that language is something that you do something with, that you achieve something, that has a functional purpose in every day life. It was associated unfortunately however, with a testing method, uh the RO Proficiency Interview that had been very successfully used um when teaching languages for special purposes, like the armed services or professions. But when used uh for general education, then it became more difficult uh to apply because you did not know what will the language be used for.  And so the RO Proficiency Interview has become a way, again, testing your grammar and your grammatical contents and has not been very good at testing your sociolinguistic competence, your cultural competency, and in fact culture has never really found its way into the proficiency movement. But all—all this said, um it has really changed the face of foreign language teaching in this country.

Context is a word that we use very loosely like, “OK, we’re going to use language in context,” as if we have language or we own language to go back to your previous question. And then we learn it, we learn lists of vocabulary and lists of grammar and then we go out into the context and then we use it in a context of situation or a context of culture. In fact, um and in that respect, context was seen as all the surrounding text or the surrounding setting uh where language then in its purer form would be used. But, in fact, language does not exist without outside of its use in uh—in social interaction. Even when you speak to yourself you are imagining an interlocketer. Even when you write your diary, you imagine a reader. So I would define context, and in fact that’s what I have done in my book, “Context and Culture,” I would define it as the social, the historical, but also the imagined dimension and uh—em—embeddiness of language in use.  (interruption)  They might try but it’s futile because they cannot but teach context when they teach language. The thing is, is that it’s not always the um—the target language context. Very many teachers because they don’t know enough of the foreign uh culture or because uh they have other things to do, teach the gra—the language within their own L1 context, in other words their own native context, the context that’s there. It’s the walls of the classroom, it’s the school, it’s the educational context in which we teach.   

I think um the tension comes from the fact that um as language—many language teachers have been uh accustomed to learning and teaching language and they think they’re not anthropologists and so they feel that it’s not—they’re not entitled to teach culture and they believe that uh, in addition, that there is language on one side, the form on one side and meaning on the other. And that you teach the forms and the uh adjectives endings and the declensions and the conjugations, and once you’ve mastered that, then you have the tools to discuss meaning. But, in fact, uh my point and the point that is me—made very often is that there are no forms without meaning.  And whether you want it or not, you’re going to attribute meaning to these forms. So the tension is really the tension between form and meaning that is an artificial um boundary because, in fact, form expresses meaning and meaning does not exist if it’s not incarnated in form. And so the tension is really between form and meaning I would say. And teaching cu—uh language as culture is teaching meaning right from the start.  (interruption) Right from the very beginning.  

Well, when you um—because the—the pedagogic situation is always a dialogic situation between a teacher and students and much more than we think between students and students, even if students are not put in groups and in pairs. Uh, the presence, the co-presence of other students in the class is much more uh, um stimulating or inhibiting than we think for the—for the uh—the other students.  Um, and because meaning is not given in the um—in the dictionary or in the grammars, meaning is something living that gets co-constructed uh among and between interlocketers in a dialogic situation.  When I say teaching for meaning, I don’t mean the dictionary meanings that are themselves reductions and—and extr—abstracts um, um essentializations, so to speak, of—of standard meanings that have been codified by society. But it’s the living meaning that is linked to intentions, what you intended to say and what you’re trying to bring across. And you weren’t yourself maybe very uh aware of what you were trying to bring across. It only comes through to you—it comes back to you through the reaction of your interlocketers. So it’s as if you understand what you meant to say by seeing how you are being responded to. And so that’s what I mean by the dialogic construction of meaning in conversation which is—which, of course, you do in your mother tongue but becomes very uh visible and very blatant when you do it in a foreign language because you’re never quite sure of what you’ve said, and what you’ve uh finally said, and what you meant to say. (interruption)  Exactly. (interruption)  Yes.  (interruption)  Yes.   

Well, we have to imagine the um—the communicative situation. We generally imagine the communicative situation as formed by two poles, a sender and a receiver or an adviser and advisee.  But it’s much more fruitful to think of it as a quadrangle. You have somebody who sends a message and the person receives it, but that person interprets the message and so that—that receiver becomes an interpretant and sends back to the receiver what he or she understood the receiver to have said and thereby makes the receiver into a communicator. So we have a four-point quad—rectangle. We have a receiver, and addressee, the addressee becomes an interpretant and the interpretant then makes the receiver into a communicator. 

Well, I’m giving a course now to graduate students called language and identity and I am—because the word language is in the title of that course, I want to show them how uh language creates identities, expresses identities and perpetuates or transforms identities. And we took recently the inaugural speech by George W. Bush uh who has—has been uh titled in the New York Times it says, “President: I ask you to be citizens.”  And we took that phrase and the paragraph to see how the choice of words and the—the way he shapes his sentences, the way he used pronouns, in particular, uh in fact conveyed to us a sense of who we are, who he wants us to be, and who he defines himself by asking us what he wants to be. And we looked precisely—particularly at the pronouns that he uses, uh the—the way grammar shapes culture and shapes um, in fact, representations of the world. And they are the sentences such as, for instance, “Even after nearly 25—225 years, we have a long way yet to travel.”  So the ‘we,’ we assume, is the president and we, the audience. And then he goes on to say, “While many of our citizens prosper, others doubt the promise or our own country.”  And we say, ‘our citizens’?  Well, who are our citizens?  I am a citizen. Is he talking now the president or the government talks about our citizens?  And then he says, “Sometimes our differences run so deep we share a continent, but not a country.”  So in the ‘we’ here, our differences, he is—he is himself putting himself on the level of the citizens. And the he says, “We do not accept—accept this and we will not allow it.”  Now who will not allow it, me or he as the president?  So it’s fascinating to see—to—to dissect, in fact, to analyze this text through the grammar, the use of the pronouns, the use of the metaphors. He’s asking us to be citizens. Well, I am already a citizen.  How can he ask me to be something that I am already?  So there must be a metaphorical meaning to the word ‘citizens’ that means more than just a national of a country. And—and that leads you to look at metaphors, so you look at pronouns, you look at metaphors, you look at the information structure of the sentences and you start getting a picture of the meaning of the text embedded in its form, in its grammatical and lexical form.   

Well, a child um as—as has been shown by somebody, for instance, like the linguist Michael Halladay who went and observed his child uh for 18 months to see how language emerged in that child as the same time as that child got socialized into ways of doing things in the family. And one of the first functions of the child is not to go around like our students naming “This is a table.  This is the pen.” Uh, “What is this?” “This is the door.”  The child does not name his environment or her environment, but wants to act upon the environment. So when the child says, “Milk.”  The child does not mean, “This is milk,” but means, “I want some milk,” or “Please give me some milk.”  But the child only has that one word. Already in that one word, the child has defined himself—let’s take it as a boy—has defined himself in an actor, in an agent on the environment. And it’s interesting to see that the first function in uh language in a child is defining the child as a manipulator of his environment, not as a namer of his environment, but as a manipulate—as an actor, as an active social agent. 

There are many definitions of discourse, of course. Uh, and when I give my course on discourse analysis, I generally give at least 20 definitions of what is discourse. Linguists tend to uh define discourse as any stretch of speech, which is beyond the lev—above the level of the sentence. So from period to period you have sentences, written sentences. And discourse is any stretch of text that is above the sentence, meaning, that a text is not—the meaning of a text is more then the some of its sentences. So if the meaning of a sentence uh has to do with the configuration of subject, verb, object, who does what to who under what circumstances, a text, a—a discourse, is much more than just many sentences put together. It has to do with patterns of meaning across sentences. So that is the linguistic definition of discourse. If you go, however, into sociolinguistics or into philosophy, like Michelle Fuco or so, then you have discourse—or James Gee, then you have discourse as uh—as a carrier of ideology, carrier of ideas and uh it is the many—it becomes equated with ways of acting, ways of speaking, ways of writing, ways of expressing yourself that have to do also with the way you have been socialized. So James Gee makes the difference between small ‘d’ discourse, which is the way we talk, which is the first definition, and big ‘D’ Discourse, which is ways of believing, acting, behaving, etc. which go together with the ways of speaking.

Well, a discourse-based pedagogy—building on what we have discussed before about teaching for meaning, means that you’re not uh—a discourse-based pedagogy believes that because you are teaching for meaning, you are not going to teach abstract decontextualized sentences. You’re going to teach texts in their—uh their patterning and that gives you more than the some of the grammatical parts. And so a discourse-based pedagogy will attract the students attention to the living meaning that you construct in a—in verbal exchanges such as conversational discourse or the uh—the meaning that comes out of texts, but not only the paraphrasable content, but the way the text uh is put together um structurally, ethically, uh socially, etc., to convey a certain meaning.

Classroom—the attention to classroom diversity on the part of the students and on the part of the teacher, means that you pay attention to who says what to whom.  And that is one of the principals of a discourse-based pedagogy.  It’s not enough to look at what sentences mean or in the dialogs in the textbook uh that ‘a’ says “x” to ‘b’ and ‘b’ answers “y” to ‘z.’ They uh—a discourse-based pedagogy looks at who has said what to whom in order to express which intention and based on which assumptions and presuppositions. That um addresses directly the notion of diversity because um speakers may say the same thing but they might mean something different because of their social and cultural background. And a discourse based pedagogy or a pedagogy that pays attention to diversity will always uh not impute intentions to students or impute to them um a link between what they say and they’re ethnic background, for instance, but will ask them, “Why did you say this? This is interesting. Tell me more. Why are you particularly interested in this” uh etc., etc.  So questioning on their utterances on what they have written or what they have said and then they bring in their own intentions, their own rational for why they said what they said.

The tension uh generally—the tensions between pedagogy discourse and natural discourse um have to do with the institutional norms under which pedagogy discourse has to operate. Uh, we—teachers like to think that they are free to do what they want once they have closed the door of their classroom. And communicative language teaching tends to emphasize that freedom and it is true that to a certain extent, a teacher is able to shape her curric—her syllabus the way she wants. But, the teacher is paid by the institution, has to test the students according to the norms of the institution uh and these norms are always the shadow in the background of any communication that takes place in the classroom. And the students are no fools. They know that they have to practice natural conversation in an artificial, normative environment where they’re going to be judged on everything they say and everything they do. That in itself is not natural in the sense of you—you’re not constantly judged on what you say. So the tension I see it is—uh this inherent paradox to the pedagogy situation is that you have to pretend that you’re natural and yet everybody knows that there’s nothing natural about it.        

Well, you’re asking the right and the wrong person, because as you know I am originally French and in France I’m going to say “Oui” now, although I am American now. But uh France has a rigorous national educational system um that has a unitary national testing system uh that is hardly questioned at all uh despite the diversity of the French population now. Um, however, it has what we don’t have here, is also a national um, central uh training program for teachers. So it tests that which it has insured the quality of.  Here we are imposing uh—uh we are trying plans to impose a national testing system, but we don’t have a national uh, training program for teachers. And so I find that’s fundamentally unfit.  Uh, the---one of the strengths of this country has always been in my foreigners view, on newcomers view to this country, the diversity and the creativity and the imagination of the individual teacher.  Now it is true that also con—communicatively with that, you have a lot of variety in uh—in styles, in criteria of excellence, and in quality. Um, that disturbs certain people and I must say that I know the differences in my own students when they come to Berkeley. Uh, the difficulty has always been—and we had that difficulty in France also teaching to the test.  Now, there are some tests that are good at teaching—testing you, but at the same time teaching you. I don’t happen to feel that multiple-choice is the best way of learning the subject matter. And so uh in that sense I’m a little bias.

The question, “What counts as literacy in foreign language,” in the days where uh literature was more dominant in uh language and liter—language programs, literacy was the ability to read and interpret literature, obviously and was the ability to translate from the English into the foreign language and from the foreign language into English. That’s the way I learned German in France and that is now the conspued grammar translation method. Uh, under the communicative approach, literacy was the ability to retrieve information from texts um. The writing component was always neglected. Uh, it was the ability to write grammatically correct sentences. I don’t think that the communicative approach ever insisted that he students write the way a native speaker would according to the style of a—an eight-legged essay in Chinese or—or three-part essay in French.  Um, the—I think we are still at the informational retrieval stage of text, but there is a movement now towards—towards uh training the students to interpret the meaning of text.  And we might see a resurgence of interpretative uh demands placed on the students, not just retrieval of information. 

In one of my articles in the “Unterproxies,’ (? spelling) I use the word oppositional practice. That was borrowed from Russ Chambers book of the same title. Um, it is a way of reading against the grain. Now reading against the grain can mean two things. It can mean both trying to read between the lines uh beyond the retrievable content and the paraphrasable content, the way the text uh is structured has itself a meaning which very often uh re—replicates or duplicates the um—the referential meaning of what is said in the text. In other words, how the text says it also has meaning, so in other words, it’s—it’s reading not just what the text says, but—but the implicit meanings behind—between the lines. Uh, oppositional mean—oppositional reading also means to bounce off—and that’s where I saw the oppositionality—bounce off one type of reading against another.  For instance, that goes back to the topic of diversity. In our diverse classrooms, different students because of their uh previous reading habits, ideologies, family uh traditions, etc., will read or understand the text differently although it’s the same text in—that we’re all reading. And there is a resource and a richness there to capitalize on and have the students compare the way they have understood the text. I have them do that by sending them to the blackboard and give me summaries, four sentence or five sentence summaries of how they’ve understood that text. What does—what—what is this text about?  And then you have these summaries on the board and it is fascinating to see the different accents put by the different students on the very same text that we’re all reading. And then I send that text abroad to native speakers or non-native speakers. I sent a German text to my colleagues in France and to colleagues in Germany and I had their students do the same exercise. So we can compare on the very same text various readings. And we put them in opposition to one another and we see how the text can elicit different readings and it really—the text uh comes alive in different forms then in that way.

The second language acquisition and the language and teaching of uh—of languages uh has up to now been more associated with the computer metaphor than with the marketplace metaphor. It’s the input/output etc., etc., that was more familiar to traditional ways of teaching. The marketplace metaphor implies an exchange, a dialogic exchange of “You give a little bit, I give a little bit,” we barter; we negotiate meaning all this fits nicely. Uh, the way I like to think about marketplace—however, it’s not necessarily Wallstreet, it’s more marketplaces in Africa or marketplaces in small villages where the purpose is not so much profit and benefit and selling and buying, but all the rest around it, the storytelling that goes in marketplaces. In fact, we know in Africa you’ve got the Guho (? Spelling) who uh—who do this wonderful storytelling performances on the marketplace. You’ve got the—the—the gossip that goes on between the—between the women and the men and the—and the—the—the play, the ball play and the—and the stories that are among men. And that’s what I find a marketplace. And the marketplace is full of—of marginal people, not those necessarily engaged in the buying and selling, but a lot of people milling around and tricksters.  I like the—always the—you know you’ve got parasites and chameleons who pretend to be somebody else.  And that’s what I like about the marketplace metaphor.

My soapbox issue changes (laugh) changes as I grow older. But right now I am struck by the seriousness of the language teaching enterprise as it is portrayed the language for the professional and language for the marketplace in a sense of uh better employment and uh communication to exchange messages. Uh, you—you are what you mean and you say what you mean.  There’s a seriousness of purpose that I find impoverishes language teaching. I am more for mischievous, for playfulness, for invented sentences, for the poetic.  And so right now that’s my—that’s my stick. I uh—we—I almost would like to go back to the days where we were talking about (speaks French) and—and like children play with words and play with meaning that they—that they try on for size. Uh, I learned, for instance, just an anecdote—I learned the other day the word ‘gadfly.’ I didn’t know gadfly. And so I—I received an e-mail message and I uh—and I answered that person, “Oh, so do you want me to be a gadfly?” And he answered, “Yeah, that would be good.” And then I answered, “Well, I’ve just learned the word and I’m delighted that it worked, that it was the right context.”  That’s what I find fascinating about language is that, especially language learners should be more encouraged to—to enjoy the sounds and the shapes and try on different meanings and see if they work.  (interruption)  Exactly.

Well, maybe a little note to one of your previous questions about diversity.  Uh, I don’t know about BYU, but at Berkeley we notice that at least 95 percent of our undergraduates come in with incredible linguistic resources and I know that at BYU you have people coming back from the field, but at Berkeley our—our classes say—our German classes or French classes, are full of people who have already under their belt possibly another native language then English, or at least two or three other languages that they don’t know very well, but they know to various degrees and we never, never capitalize on these other languages.  We always assume that they come in blank slate and that their common language is English. And that is not true. And I wish we would do more to find out what other languages they know and to put these languages in relationship with that new language that we’re teaching them, so to ask them to write multi-lingual journals or multi-lingual poetry.  Play around with different languages. So that’s what uh I would like to add.

International language. That is the excepted term for the use of English among—among people who don’t necessarily belong to Bradge Cachu’s (? spelling) circle, namely uh the Anglo-Saxon countries, Britain, United States, New Zealand, and Australia. Uh, English is used as the lingua franca, that’s another uh expression that is used uh to facilitate communication between Koreans and Chinese and Chinese and Greeks and uh yes.  And that creates interesting challenges as to what culture do you—do you teach. Uh, very often it’s the business culture. And I think it’s a shame that English has been reduced to business culture. After all, there’s Shakespeare, Don, etc., etc.  But that seems to be uh the popularity of English right now around the world is for it’s uh, global um, international possibilities. Um, that’s…

My father was French, my mother is English.  (interruption)  What influenced my biography to um say the things that I have said today? I was born and raised in France. I was born in Vance and grew up in Versay and my mother was British, came from England with not knowing a word of French and she married my French father. I was the first of the family so I assumed that she spoke English with me. But I grew up during the—during the war—during World War II and I was not with my mother at the time, I was with my French speaking grandmother. And so I had very little exposure to English. In fact, when my mother uh then uh came back from Paris and we were all together again, she knew by then more French and uh French became the language of the family.  I never took English in school because my father said that my mother was English so I didn’t need to take it, um, with the result that my English was very poor, although I understood enough to understand my English relatives in England. Uh, but I took German, Latin, and Greek in school instead and um—but it was only—and in France in those days, uh English did not have the prestige that it had today. Anybody with academic ambitions would have taken German, Latin, and Greek, which is what I took.  But at age 18, 19, then I got to go to English speaking countries and I became a little more fluent in English, but I still could not read and write really with any ease at all. I was much more fluent in German. And I became a Germanist and uh married a German and uh—and—but he was an Anglophile and he wanted to move to the United States. So I moved to the United States when I was 25 and uh—and then taught French and German for several years at MIT. Yes, and the rest is history basically.

I had difficulty understanding uh many Americans if they had two Southern of an accent. I had great difficulty understanding Americans in the beginning. And there were many things I did not understand. In fact, my first job was in the—in the record room of Moncosto Hospital up in uh upstate New York and I had to uh—to type the um—uh the—uh the operation reports. And I remember hearing things like oufrectomy and I had no idea what oufrectomy meant, but I had to go back to the Latin and I though ou-ou in English could only be oh-oh so ou-ou has to do with ovaries.  So ah that means—that must mean the cutting out of the ovaries.  That’s the kind of uh—but yes, I had difficulty. People did understand me. It was not like uh I was not understood. But sometimes they corrected my—uh made fun of my saying litrature instead of lit—literature or I would say wuter and they’d say, “What do you mean, water?”  And I couldn’t get that straight. And I constantly said converzation instead of conversation.  Things like that.  But in general, they understood what I meant.