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Advances in different disciplinary traditions suggest that the classification of languages into standard and non-standard, official and popular, and school and home languages has more to do with power relations than factors intrinsic to language as such. Such classifications, in school space and beyond, articulate hierarchical relations constituted through interaction of class, race, and ethnicity in specific historic context. An examination of the process of classification of languages gives us important insights into the interrelation between social and learner identity of students in school and about discourses of power in general. Scholars from a political economic perspective have argued how identification and hierarchical positioning of languages as high and low status in school context contribute to the process of social reproduction of class based inequality through education. In recent years the reproduction framework has been challenged for being too rigidly framed on the grids of class while ignoring the gendered and ethnic identity of students that might influence and constitute the language practice of students. The approaches that view language use in school as an act of identity production have generated a number of interesting insights in this field, but these have also been subjected to criticism because of their tendency to essentialize social identities. Many of these have also been questioned for directly or indirectly employing a cultural deficit theory on the basis of class, race, or ethnicity. Such concerns necessitate a shift of focus toward examination of the process through which the very category of standard languages, considered appropriate for schooling, emerges. In this respect the work of Pierre Bourdieu is significant in highlighting the political economic context of how certain languages come to acquire higher value than the others. Another perspective emerges from critical studies of colonial encounters that relied on classification of languages as one of the techniques of modern governance. Investigations of such colonial pasts explicate how linguistic groups are imagined, identified, and classified in a society. Postcolonial scholars have argued that such colonial classificatory techniques continue to influence much of social science research today. Methods of research, particularly in the field of education, have been affected by these process to such an extent that our attempts at recovery of non-standard, multilingual speech forms are affected by the very process of investigation. Consequently, studying languages in the school context becomes a more complicated exercise as one is trapped in the very categories which one seeks to open up for investigation. The decolonization of school space, therefore, calls for a fresh methodological approach to undertake study of languages in the school context.


Margaret Kettle and Susy Macqueen

Language is fundamental to teaching and learning, yet is prone to invisibility in education systems. Drawing on work from applied linguistics that foregrounds language use in education, a “power” heuristic can be used to highlight linguistic privilege and its implications for students and their individual language repertoires. Language can be understood as a tool for performing particular interpersonal and ideational functions; its structure and uses are determined by context. For most students, experiences of language that is education-related reside in three core domains: the home and community, the school, and the nation state. Language expectations in these domains vary and position the linguistic repertoires of students differently. A key consideration is the student’s first language and its relationship to the expectations and privileged varieties of different institutions, for example, the local school and the national education department. By foregrounding linguistic privilege in education, the alignment, or misalignment, between students’ language resources and the prevailing language norms of educational institutions is made visible and open to change. Inherent in the level of alignment are issues of educational inclusion, access to powerful language forms and genres, and academic achievement. The concept of power affordances can be used to refer to the enabling potential of the relationship between language status, language affiliation and a student’s linguistic repertoire. Power affordances can operate as three broad potentials, capabilities or statuses: socioeconomic power, which resides in the language of global and state institutions ranging from government to schools and manifests in instruments such as national standardized tests; sociocognitive power, which enables the capacity to learn and recognizes the language intensity of knowledge; and identity power, which references social belonging and is strongly indexed to language. Conceptualizing language and its power affordances in education provides a useful framework for understanding the relationship between students’ language resources and the often implicit linguistic demands and practices of education systems. It also highlights the rich potential of applied linguistics in understanding education.