The Big Tent: The Need for Global Theories in a Global Field

Now, this posting may make me seem like I’m waffling, especially when compared to last week’s post on deadheading some of the flowers (click here). In that post, I was arguing that certain theoretical approaches to applied linguistics add more noise to our outward facing message and can have adverse consequences for professionalization into the field. Here, I am arguing that room needs to be made in the applied linguistic tent for non-Western theories of language acquisition, teaching, and learning.

The initial response may be that, given the sheer number of non-Western researchers, theorist, and practitioners in applied linguistics, is this really a concern? I would argue yes, it really is. Here’s the reason. If we think about the body of English-language literature, it is mostly written by researchers and practitioners that have themselves been trained in the Western academic tradition and been exposed to a Western view of the field of applied linguistics as embodied in our central cannons. This means that, despite our best efforts and the fact that we are a truly global discipline, there is still a strong Western bent in the research and theory that is being produced and shared through mainstream channels like conference presentation, invited book chapters, and peer-reviewed journal articles. This is replicated through our graduate training, where there is little space in introductory courses for non-Western views of language learning, teaching, or acquisition. Thinking back to my own experiences at Purdue University, I can think of one non-Anglophone example, and that was a history of language teaching compiled by, if memory serves, Musumeci in 1977.

A good example of a place that could benefit from a non-western perspective is in theorizing on identity and how it might be actualized in and influence language learning and teaching. I can remember when I started my dissertation on a sociocognitive approach to identity in SLA, my then dissertation chair asked me if I’d read any non-western work on identity. How did Confucian scholars or Japanese theorists view the construct of identity? How had these alternative views been applied in applied linguistics? Well, after some searching—and perhaps not enough—I couldn’t find anything. This lack of perspective is potentially dangerous, particularly since we export Western-informed theories to other contexts around the globe. A good example of this comes out of the field of queer theory.

Queer theory, as many of us know it, is firmly grounded in Western academic traditions and identity politics. This is clearly shown by seminal texts in this area and how the categorization of homo/heterosexual can be linked back to the medicalization of sex, sexuality, gender, and desire in Western countries. However, Petrus Liu is quick to point out that there are non-Western traditions of queer studies, and that attempting to ignore these for Western interpretations of sex, gender, and sexuality is theoretically shortsighted. This shortsightedness arises because it ignores the highly situated ways that people in different national contexts experience and make sense of these issues. In building his queer Marxism in the contexts of the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China, Liu shows how the local version of queer theory is able to speak to and make sense of sexual desire and gender expression, and State sponsored responses to those expressions, throughout Chinese history in ways that Western queer theory simply cannot. He also points to potent lessons that Western queer theory might be able to learn from queer Marxism–lessons that would extend its analytical powers and begin to strip away a strong Western bias.

It would be worthwhile, I feel, for applied linguistics to ask itself the same question—and to begin to actively seek this perspective by creating value around local theories of language learning, teaching, and acquisition. What that might look like, I’m uncertain. But, it would make for an exciting disciplinary conversation that could lead us to a more robust understanding of the phenomenon under our study.

Source Materials

Lantolf, J. (1996). SLA theory building: “Letting all the flowers bloom!”. Language Learning, 46(4), 713-749.
Liu, P. (2015). Queer Marxism in two Chinas. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Musumeci, D. (1977). Breaking tradition: An exploration of the historical relationship between theory and practice in second language teaching. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Leave a Reply