The Foreign Language Appropriation Conundrum

Micro Realities and Macro Dynamics

by Thomas Szende (Author)
Monographs 278 Pages


This monograph’s title reflects the need to articulate the classroom actions and strategies of an increasingly efficient technological environment with symbolic, cultural, and political issues, namely the multi-dimensionality of affiliations, which today condition the practices of learners, teachers, tool designers, and the dissemination (or not) of languages throughout the world.
Reflective testimony of a teacher who is passionate about his work, this book is also the result of research conducted by a linguist wishing to raise the field of foreign language education to the level of a coherent and rigorous discipline capable of presenting teaching/learning options to all languages/cultures.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • 1. Introduction
  • 1.1 Learning and Teaching a Foreign Language
  • 1.2 Self-Image and Image of the Other
  • 1.3 A Multidisciplinary Framework
  • 1.4 You Must Die and You Must Rise Again
  • 2. Global and Digital Setting
  • 2.1 Where Are the Learners?
  • 2.2 Non-Native Status
  • 2.3 Audible and Inaudible Languages
  • 2.4 Languages Near and Far
  • 2.5 The Safe Haven of Indescribable Purity
  • 2.6 Teaching/Learning and Theories
  • 2.7 Mega-Goals
  • 2.8 Exposure to Language and Culture
  • 3. Multilingualism and Multiculturalism
  • 3.1 The Linguistic Landscape
  • 3.2 The Lingua Franca
  • 3.3 If We Say English
  • 3.4 Modernity and Identity
  • 3.5 A Fairy Tale
  • 3.6 An Amazing World Resource
  • 3.7 Managing One’s Capital
  • 3.8 Transparent Segments
  • 3.9 Skills and Shortcomings
  • 3.10 I can… / Je Peux
  • 4. Learning in the Classroom
  • 4.1 Lesson Zero
  • 4.2 The Free Zone
  • 4.3 Co-Presence
  • 4.4 Specific Language Configurations
  • 4.5 Tinkering, Trial, and Error
  • 4.6 Optimizing Data
  • 4.7 Drivers and Passengers
  • 4.8 Stories of Life and Survival
  • 5. Learning Anyplace, Anytime
  • 5.1 Cyber-Learners and Cyber-Teachers
  • 5.2 The Third Medium
  • 5.3 Multimodal Literacy
  • 5.4 The Daily Score
  • 5.5 Tutorials and Blended Learning
  • 5.6 Social Networks
  • 5.7 Autonomy
  • 5.8 There’s No Data Like Less Data
  • 5.9 The Glass Metaphor
  • 5.10 Taming the Distance
  • 6. The Linguistic Material
  • 6.1 From Scholarly Knowledge to Teachable Knowledge
  • 6.2 The Lever Is Heavier Than the Burden
  • 6.3 The ‘Pièces de Résistance’
  • 6.4 The Ultimate Test
  • 6.5 The Baker’s Killer’s Knife
  • 6.6 The Ham Sandwich Is Getting Restless
  • 6.7 Knowing What – Knowing How
  • 6.8 Form and Meaning
  • 6.9 Sprint or Marathon?
  • 6.10 The Fifth Competence
  • 6.11 Translinguistic Transfer
  • 7. Social Action
  • 7.1 Native-Like Fluency
  • 7.2 The Tasks
  • 7.3 Collaboration and Training
  • 7.4 Fading into the Background
  • 7.5 L2 Pragmatics
  • 7.6 Intercultural Good Will
  • 7.7 The Transferability of Knowledge
  • 7.8 Euphoric Sharing
  • 7.9 A Practice Rooted in the Body
  • 7.10 Carnivalesque Moments
  • 7.11 Professional Proficiency
  • 7.12 Mobility
  • 7.13 Between Preservation and Innovation
  • 7.14 Fashion and Expectations
  • 8. Normative Pressure
  • 8.1 Conformity and Deviation
  • 8.2 The Ideal Speaker
  • 8.3 A Ball for Losers and ‘Nobods’
  • 9. Conclusion
  • 9.1 Between Dreams and Reality
  • 9.2 Striking the Right Balance
  • References

← 12 | 13 →

1.   Introduction

1.1    Learning and Teaching a Foreign Language

The reasons for choosing to learn a language are extremely varied, our needs and motivations constantly changing from one day to the next. We wish to approach and be recognized by the Other, to send and receive messages, to please our language teacher. We have a profound need for social recognition, such as passing an exam and obtaining the coveted international certificate, getting the dream job, moving to another country. We want to speak our father’s tongue, to develop an identity distinct from our mother’s, to discover our distant origins (real or imagined) or a culture for which we feel a particular affinity. We long to find the right words to woo a young woman, to understand songs, to talk to our neighbors, to read novels or scientific articles, to chat on the Internet or, for no other reason than to stay mentally sharp. We might insist on understanding the workings of the language we are learning or else we simply wish to speak it. Language is fascinating with its sounds, its spoken and unspoken words, feeding the most profound parts of our imagination, between attraction, reluctance, and rejection, even as the attitudes and actions of the Other are so often a mystery to us. The plurality of language and culture is part of the dynamics of humanity, and strangely, it appeals to philosophers, linguists, policy makers, teachers, and learners alike.

Foreign language acquisition is a complex process, an individual, singular, and unique experience that never fails to intrigue us. Some learn languages effortlessly and can “soak up a language like a sponge.” Others panic just at the thought of having to reconstruct their most basic ideas with new words – “What do you expect, I’m no good with languages” – or else remain completely impervious to learning a language, as though they would have to permanently give up their own. To put it quite simply, from one person to the next, communication skills are already very unequal even in their native tongue. Learning a foreign language is essentially a ‘late’ occurrence in life, happening at an age when a purely ‘natural’ acquisition is no longer feasible. The result is an ← 13 | 14 → intellectual and emotional exercise that is closely connected to the meaning given to it by teacher and learner. Language is synonymous with civilization and beauty (“Italian is heir to Latin and a cousin to French”), or with frustration and failure (“I can’t even order a glass of water”). But which languages should we learn? Those that open the doors of social success to the speakers of the world? Those of our neighboring historical enemies? Of migrants and asylum-seekers arriving by boat?

Language courses blend the individual destinies of their learners with the collective future of their respective communities of origin. We primarily teach what we know and what we are; the practice of teaching a foreign language relentlessly refers us back to our own experiences. All language classes are replicas of ourselves, born out of the experiences of teacher and learner, making them profoundly autobiographical. Based both ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of the world, the language class is like a double lock, with one lock allowing access to the imagination and the other allowing a return to reality. Teaching foreign languages – ‘science’ for its analytical dimension?, ‘art’ for its creative dimension?, ‘know-how’ for its practical dimension? – means bringing learners to think differently, to be free of the limitations of their language and their culture, to accept a different system of signs and values, to focus attention on unexpected distinctions. It means revealing that languages capture us and don’t let us go, without forgetting that from one language or culture to another, nothing is ever totally different, and nothing is ever totally the same. Indeed, what is this set of (more or less restrictive) standards, of (more or less predictable) regularities that we need to master to be able to use a language appropriately in a broad range of circumstances?

From the very first lesson, the learner of Hungarian, a Finno-Ugric language (of the Uralic language family), is confronted with many puzzles. It has no grammatical gender and no verb meaning ‘to have’. The verb ‘to be’ exists but tends to ‘disappear’ in particular syntactic configurations. And, if the subject even appears in a sentence, it is rarely placed at the beginning. Hungarian appeared in the Carpathian Basin a thousand years ago. Due to multiple exchanges and interferences over time, it is connected to other European languages, containing calques, proverbs, and loanwords from Slavic, German, Turkish… and English. For example ‘tréner’ = coach, trainer; ‘dzsem’ = jam, marmalade; ‘menedzsment’ = management, board, and so on. Teaching a language means offering the possibility of building skills when the quest for authentic, real, communicative, and non-scholarly ← 14 | 15 → experiences impacts the foreign language instruction more than ever, as does the hope for an actual openness to a foreign universe filled with voices, gestures, and bodies (“competences are the sum of knowledge, skills and characteristics that allow a person to perform actions”; CEFR − Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, 2001: 2.1).

Teaching foreign languages means helping learners gather and store information, formulate hypotheses and establish priorities since we can never master everything all at once. In class, for example, we may concentrate on our passive skills rather than our productive skills. It also means making learners aware of the linguistic rules, helping each one to progressively develop a personal and inimitable manual for the language, culture, and interpersonal skills of the people already speaking that language. Teaching languages also means enabling learners to observe and manipulate a linguistic code. Out of pedagogical necessity, the teacher must ‘lock’ the students into a system of rules and conformities, and at the same time – through activities generating exchanges, socialization, and friendship – must make them discover the reality and variability of usage, and also the actual meaning of the words and expressions of the target community.

Learners are supposed to learn to speak, to talk about what affects them the most, to disagree, to argue, to compare, to classify and structure discourse intelligibly, all while being able to talk about their connection to reality. As the bearers of cultural knowledge, they learn not to hesitate to use facial expressions, metaphors, and onomatopoeia. As resources, teachers propose a certain progression for them, accompanying them increasingly beyond the classroom walls toward a context marked by the various contributions and experiences of globalization.

The teaching/learning of languages invites us to reflect on the notion of space being challenged by the communication technologies currently invading our world. We no longer teach in a hermetic classroom. Eager to engage in various partnerships, to share their results with distant learners, experts, and native speakers, with the whole world even, learners may find themselves simultaneously in the classroom and in another part of the real world, each with their own social rules and authenticity, building and enlightening one another.

The appropriation of language and any attempt to intervene in the process in order to optimize it raises many questions. Learning and teaching a foreign language (communication instrument, interpersonal/intercultural ← 15 | 16 → support, professional asset), is a succession of all sorts of decisions needed to regulate one’s behavior as well as the sum of various risks taken, however small they may seem: risks of confronting the unknown, of being misunderstood, and also of coming up against a hostile attitude.

1.2    Self-Image and Image of the Other

Consider the case of politeness, a basic component of interaction. Like other communicative processes, it is part of the speaker’s fundamental choices, involving the selection of socially appropriate terms from among a more or less large pool of competing phrases which depend on the habits and constraints of the moment. Speaking to someone means constructing an image of oneself and of the Other, negotiating status and establishing social position. Not uncommonly, politeness means reassuring a non-native speaker that their use of our language is more or less consistent with its expected conventions. The success of social relationships quite often occurs during short and seemingly insignificant conversations. The use of markers that regulate the fluctuating relationships between people of different sexes, statuses, proximities, and generations, and more generally, the language conventions structuring these exchanges are often at the root of intercultural misunderstandings and breakdowns in communication.

Every community regulates politeness through the expressions that punctuate daily life, each one having terms of use that allow them to become ‘effective’. Just being able to ‘say hello’ in L2 is not enough, we must also have the ‘social ability’ to do so, depending on the communication situation, the speaker’s identity, and the status of our interlocutor. Indeed, many communication zones or configurations within language impose behavioral constraints, as in the case of words, expressions, and gestures to be used at a particular time (greetings, thanks, apologies, compliments, arguments) and place (job interview, co-owners’ meeting, farewell drink between colleagues where everyone knows each other, exhibition where no one knows each other). Additionally, the discursive elements corresponding to ‘highly salient conversational functions’ (Bardovi-Harlig, 2012: 151) never fail to cause embarrassing situations. ← 16 | 17 →

Inevitably, the learner’s references in terms of politeness (whether, how, and when to intervene, which linguistic tools to use, whether to use a verbal greeting, handshake, or hug) as well as the initial and often unconscious representations related to politeness (clichés such as this ethnic group is ‘overly courteous’ or ‘impolite’, that group’s politeness ‘comes from the heart’) are those of their own community. In addressing the public in Hungarian, a person will naturally say ‘tisztelt egybe­gyűltek’ (= respected [people] reunited) or ‘kedves megjelentek’ (= dear [people] present).

Writing a business letter is a social task that can quickly prove to be a headache, as both native and non-native speakers wonder which particular simple, direct, and courteous formulas to use that are neither too cold nor too familiar, while adapting them to their interlocutor and depending on whether they are a supervisor or a subordinate. As for official letters sent to users by public services, they are also governed by writing conventions involving unusual verbal expressions. In Hungary, they regularly content themselves with the rigid initial formula: ‘T. Cím!’ = the first letter of the word ‘respected’ (tisztelt) + the word ‘address’. When taxpayers request additional time to pay their taxes, the administration’s response is never a terse ‘yes’ any more than it would be the phrase ‘It is with a tender heart that I have been rereading your message for the past three days’, both completely inappropriate reactions to the case at hand.

Verbal and non-verbal strategies as dictated by one’s language and culture may become inadequate if we attempt to transfer them to a foreign language, as in the usual opening and closing discursive sequences, as well as the formulas expressed during a trivial incident. The analysis of the specific mandatory and optional formulas available to a speaker in a specific communicative act and consistent with the circumstances will reveal many of a society’s characteristics.

An ordinary statement like “I’ll call you next week” may be a neutral affirmation or a solemn promise, and a multitude of other secondary messages arising from the immediate context can be grafted onto these values. Every act is potentially flattering or threatening, with a series of levels in between, and the same statement can be perceived in a positive or negative manner depending on the cultural environment. Through their lexical stock, their grammatical resources, and their pragmatic standards, speakers each communicate their own rules of politeness, rudeness, and vulgarity (Mugford, 2008), and their degree of honesty (House, 2010). Discussions ← 17 | 18 → are subject to incessant negotiations between linguistic potentialities, social conventions, discourse strategies, and communicative styles.

Learning a language means developing new habits. But old habits are hard to break. Any attempt to switch from one language to another, whatever it may be, requires a special effort to escape the powerful constraints of previously appropriated linguistic systems. To recall a traditional teaching illusion, the best way to learn a new language is to clear the old one from the learner’s mind, is it not? Such ‘brainwashing’ is neither desirable nor possible (Defays & Deltour, 2003: 29). Learners ‘do not forget’ their primary language, that essential trait of their identity; on the contrary, transfers allow students to save time. The most precious teaching resource they bring with them to the foreign language class is their native tongue, a naturally acquired language. Throughout their learning journey, they are guided by previously existing, automatically acquired language and culture. The appropriation of a new language means constructing it by using existing skills, which will be ‘exported’ to the target language one way or another. According to J.-P. Narcy-Combes & Miras (2012: 38), what we commonly refer to as a ‘calque’ is, in fact, a form of code-switching where the speaker activates two languages simultaneously. Learning a foreign language is a contact process and a confrontation mechanism.

When trying to communicate in a foreign language, readjustment is constant and admittedly energy consuming, be it purely linguistic, lexical, stylistic, or pragmatic. At this point, we come upon questions directly related to classroom practices: 1) What are the teacher’s methods for implementing the appropriation of particular knowledge? 2) Which parts of language can be acquired through formal exercises and targeted activities in a controlled and guided environment? 3) Which classroom procedures are actually capable of stimulating the ‘survival’ skills gained in a non-controlled and unguided environment? Segalowitz & Trofimovich (2012: 187) thus formulate two requirements: what target L2 processing skills does the learner need to acquire during instruction for later transfer to different communicative situations both in and outside the classroom? What is the best way for instruction to optimize this transfer?

Namely, how can we ‘compress’ the knowledge of politeness matrices to create operational data in traditional learning tools (manuals, grammars, dictionaries) and paperless systems within the classroom? Should we create ‘routine lists’ and ‘survival kits’ corresponding to the language’s specific sub-contexts? Or should just we settle for making learners aware ← 18 | 19 → of the issues of pragmatic fluency and the connections between linguistic forms by drawing their attention to the notion of usage and its conditions that allow speakers to construct their interactions in compliance with local conventions? We may also wonder to which extent are the codes of behavior and communication rituals globalized in our multicultural society, exposed as it is to television and the Internet.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (September)
Bruxelles, Bern, Berlin, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 223 pp.

Biographical notes

Thomas Szende (Author)

Thomas Szende is a Professor of Hungarian and Applied Linguistics at INALCO (National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations, Paris, France) and the Director of the PLIDAM (Pluralité des Langues et des Identités : Didactique, Acquisition, Médiations) Research Center. His academic interests focus on second language acquisition as well as Hungarian grammar, bilingual lexicography, and translation. He has published several books, including Second Culture Teaching and Learning (Peter Lang, 2014).


Title: The Foreign Language Appropriation Conundrum