It was a hot summer day in Montreal and I was sitting on the terrace of a Greek café with a couple of friends. We gathered once a week to read short stories and discuss literary theories. We were having a discussion about Bakhtin, the Russian literary critic, and his ideas about Dostoevsky, when I saw a seagull swoop in to filch the leftovers from a nearby table.
Learning about Bakhtin while watching the seagull gave me a moment to ponder about my own doctoral research–– which is about how multilingual newcomers operate in the Quebec society. Being surrounded by different languages floating in the café, it struck me that multilingualism is not only about the different languages one uses, but it can also be about thinking multiple thoughts simultaneously. Several times, I’ve experienced thinking about the same concept in different languages, and each time having new understanding of it. The different languages spoken by individuals from a variety of linguistic backgrounds might carry different connotations of the same concepts. For me, this is particularly true when dealing with academic concepts such as Bakhtin’s (1981) social theory. Bakhtin believes that individuals learn to speak by taking utterances from “other people’s mouths” and “other people’s intentions” (p. 294). But how do individuals take the words from other’s mouths and intentions? How do they engage in the social interactions?
Language learning theoretical controversies aside, the linguistic repertoire of second language learners is largely developed through their participation in social interactions. To further develop my French language repertoire, I needed to do something beyond taking French courses. I needed more interaction, more communication with French speakers, and more social engagement. But this is not always easy. Challenges may arise when entering this game of social engagement. Either the host may not be ready to play the game, or the invitees may not know how to play it. As for the newcomers, designing a language show— or creating fake interactions with others –– is a possible solution!
My friend is a French language teacher, and we used to go to public places—a department store for example—and ask the assistant’s advice in French. In these ‘language shows’, I would listen to my friend’s interactions carefully and later recount what I had heard, and he would pinpoint and correct my mistakes. Then, sometime later, when I had the guts to get into conversations with French speakers, I did my best to maintain these interactions in French. We engaged in a similar language show with my friend – who was not proficient in English – as part of a mutually agreed-upon linguistic exchange plan!
I learned some tricks through these language shows. If folks didn’t speak French to me upon hearing me speak, I would continue the show. I would pretend that my English is not good either, to make them speak French with me. In one situation, for instance, a barista at Tim Horton’s switched to English. I jumped in rather hastily would say, Je suis désolé mais je ne comprends pas bien l’anglais! Even though I was telling a white lie, the barista wouldn’t continue to speak English with me, as I would need to hear more French, tu me comprends!
Have I become a city-dwelling seagull, stalking on several occasions and swooping in to pilfer the language leftovers of conversations, to satisfy my insatiable appetite for learning? The social turn emphasizes that language learning is not just an individual and cognitive process, but also a socio-historical situated phenomenon. To put it bluntly, the language researchers who are attracted by the social turn perspective may or may not be aware that the ‘socializing’ part is not always a mutual agreement between individuals in the host society and newcomers. Thus, when language learning transcends the formal learning environment, and becomes real in real-life situations, how might we engage with the social turn? This is a question of utmost importance, as the ultimate goal of language learning is for purposes of communication and social interactions. Is the host society ready to engage in this game to help newcomers benefit from authentic language learning opportunities? Or, are newcomers ready to freely engage in the language opportunities provided to them? Who, then, defines the rules of the game?
As I sat pondering these issues in the Greek Café–staring at a seagull–I was interrupted abruptly; my friends were about to begin reading their stories to each other and I was asked to read mine. I was thinking about the story, which had just come to my mind though!
Bakhtin, M. (1981). The dialogic imagination: Four essays by M.M. Bakhtin. Austin: University of Texas Press.