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Fifth Annual Language and Society Centre Lecture - 2012

Title: New Definitions of English Proficiency and Changing Pedagogical Priorities

Presenter: Professor Suresh Canagarajah, LASC Distinguished Visiting Professor


Debates about assessment of international English have revolved around two important questions: Whose norms should we apply? How do we define proficiency in the English language? The answers to these questions have been dominated by positions belonging to two well-entrenched ideological camps that I would label the World Englishes (WE) perspective (see Lowenberg 2002) and the Standard English (SE) perspective (see Davies 2002). SE would argue that the norm for testing should center on one of the dominant varieties—standardized British or American English. WE proponents would contest the relevance of these exogenous norms for postcolonial communities with institutionalized varieties of their own, and would argue that correctness should take into account local norms. As for proficiency, SE proponents would measure it in terms of the “native speaker,” defined as the monolingual speaker from the homogeneous “inner circle” speech communities that have traditionally claimed ownership over the language. For WE proponents, proficiency means the ability to engage in meaningful social and institutional functions in multilingual communities according to local conventions. While scholars are engaged in this debate with considerable shrillness, unknown to us the ground has been shifting under our feet. We find ourselves in a new geopolitical context with different communicative needs. What I call postmodern globalization rules the previous arguments irrelevant and calls for a more complex orientation that moves the discourse on proficiency to a totally different level. I discuss the new orientation to norms and proficiency that should inform assessment. It is clear that we have to move away from the previous paradigms of teaching to creatively devise new practices that would address our emerging communicative needs.

About the presenter:

Suresh Canagarajah is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor in the Departments of English and Applied Linguistics at the Pennsylvania State University. He had his early education in Sri Lanka where he taught English language and literature for a decade at the University of Jaffna. Later, he joined the faculty at the City University of New York (Baruch College and the Graduate Center) where he taught multilingual urban students for a decade. His research on the literacy concerns of African American students has appeared in composition journals. He has also studied issues in bilingualism and English language teaching. His book Resisting Linguistic Imperialism in English Teaching (OUP, 1999) won Modern Language Association’s Mina Shaughnessy Award for the best research publication on the teaching of language and literacy. His subsequent publication Geopolitics of Academic Writing (UPittsburgh Press 2002) won the Gary Olson Award for the best book in social and rhetorical theory. Critical Academic Writing and Multilingual Students (University of Michigan Press, 2002) applies composition research and scholarship for the needs of multilingual students. His edited collection Reclaiming the Local in Language Policy and Practice (Erlbaum, 2005) examines linguistic and literacy constructs in the context of globalization. His study of World Englishes in Composition won the 2007 Braddock Award for the best article in the College Composition and Communication journal. Suresh edited the flagship journal of the professional organization for English language teachers, TESOL Quarterly, from 2004 to 2009. He is the past President of the American Association of Applied Linguistics.

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