April 13, 2017
Richard Beach, Professor Emeritus, University of Minnesota
My son, his father-in-law (a former Clemson University basketball star), and I attend a Golden State Warriors game every season. As we watch the game, we engage in the activity of sports talk. We identity each team’s unique strategies—for example, at our March 2017 game, the fact that the Houston Rockets primarily employ a strategy of individual players driving to the basket or shooting three-point shots while the Warriors employ more of a passing game to create a difficult-to-guard situation to create a player who has an open shot. We simultaneously bemoan breakdowns in defensive play and cheer well-executed plays as a chorus-like ensemble.
We don’t talk about our personal lives, other than the father-in-law sharing his own experience playing college basketball. Most of the time, we’re continually sharing and testing out our explanations for successful versus less successful team play. While it could be assumed that we’re talking “just basketball,” the interaction in this activity serves to enhance our family bonds based on our shared engagement in participating in this annual activity itself.
Explaining the use of language in this interaction requires going beyond speaker/audience communication as well as conversational analysis (CA) of turn-taking moves. Rather, it requires considering how the meaning of our talk resides in co-constructed activity constituted by language as social action evident also by other fans’ talk at the game, as well as television and radio sports play-by-play analysts and sports-talk shows.
One explanation of the similarity in this sports talk has to do with the notion of “languaging” as a social activity. Underlying the notion of “languaging” is the “enactivist” theory of distributed cognition (Cowley, 2011) that posits that cognition is not simply housed in individual brains, but that it can be “distributed” within a system such as navigational devices on a ship or airplane (Hutchins, 1995). As Popova (2014) notes, the process of “languaging”
highlights the active, spatially and temporarily situated, and interactive nature of how we speak to each other. It draws attention to the fact that meanings in language are made and not simply retrieved. It connects with the enactive view of human cognition in its recognition of the fundamentally social and co-authored nature of human meaning-making, and gives it a description unavailable in more traditional linguistic theories. (p. 8)
As David Bloome describes in his post on this blog, languaging underlies activity associated with engagement in social action. It therefore reverses the notion of learning language as a code as a prerequisite for communication to posit that –
languaging dynamics precede—or rather are the precondition of – any instantiation of a language system, like a grammar. In that sense, the common assumption that a person uses a language—as is inherent in the notion of “language use” in most linguistic theories—is rejected or rather reversed. (Jensen, 2014a, p. 73)
This means that language is not first and foremost seen as a system, it is not just about words, and it is not conceived of as a channel that transfers information; nor is language understood as merely a social phenomenon devoid of a biological dimension. On the contrary it is grounded in a naturalistic approach to language that sees language as evolved from and completely intertwined with the complexity of human behavior (Jensen, 2014b)
The fact that languaging precedes activity such our ensemble responses to the Warriors basketball game suggests that all activity is co-constructed as a “languaging landscape in which languaging is a “medium” constituting speaker relationships in events” (Bertau, 2014). As Bertau (2014) notes:
Language mediates self to other and to their common reality; in this, it has a formative power well beyond “information transmission.” It is a medium abundant with individual and community meanings which are in intense dialogic relations any time one speaks to another (be this other actually or imaginatively present). (p. 435).
A languaging perspective shifts the focus from single agents engaged in an interaction to interaction based on in-between meaning derived from past and potential interactions (Bertau, 2014a). Languaging serves as a medium constituting the meaning of these interactions. As Bertau notes:
Language as language activity is the medium of human beings understood as related selves, this medium exists as a movement between these selves, as forms in specific performances: the sensorial, experienced, perceived forms of the verbal performances in time and space. (2014b, p. 530)
This includes the use of languaging in both specific situations as well as through chaining across situations based on traditions (Bertau, 2014b; Linell, 2009). Linell (2009) refers to this chaining as “double dialogicality” (p. 52) based on linking current to past events, as well a speaker quotes words from a previous situation.
This medium is enacted in the “‘spacetime of language’” (Bertau, 2014c, p. 446) given that in any language:
performance happens and generates a specific space situated in time and informed by the flow of time. Space is not understood as a container, it is not the eucledian three-dimensional space independent from time. Rather, it is a space built up and altered by language activities, a moving and wandering of interdependently emerging forms across time, such as words and utterances, entangled with gazes, postures and positions, mimics, gestures, and whole body movements….Hence, the spacetime of language performed at the office of a male professor by that professor and a female student at a German university is for instance markedly different from a similar spacetime 100 years ago (1914)—it sounds different, and it looks different. (p. 446).
For Bertau (2014a), languaging also allows for “displacement” of meaning beyond the immediate context through use of imagination mediated by languaging. Because the meanings of language use are not contextual, then the meanings of an interaction are
generated by language itself, hence language constructs its own context (or field)…it is now the meaning, set first, that defines what is aimed: it defines, so to speak, a reality. An example would be: “I think culture is an interesting field of study” where the meaning of the words is the starting point for a specific reality. Hence, the symbol emancipates the language users from their actual and perceptual reality and they become able to construct other realities. (p. 450).
People are socialized to acquire the identities of dialogic selves through performing double-voicing of others’ languaging within specific spaces and time constituted by the “languaging landscape” (Bertau, 2014a) including construction of space and time. Pennycook (2010) posits that activities rather than space itself create the meaning of space and time:
Delivering a sermon in a church, calling the faithful to prayer from the minaret of a mosque, or giving a lecture in a classroom are not only language activities that reflect the space in which they happen, but also give meaning to that space” (p. 62). Space (place, location, context) is not a backcloth on which events and language are project through time. Rather, language activities are activities through produce time and space. (p. 56)
Similarly, van Leeuven (2008) perceives the meaning of spaces as constituted by language activities or actions: “Our understandings and representations of space derive from, and can be directly linked to, social action, the way we use space in acting our social activities.” He describes how the use of space of the first day of school is constructed through a set of activities designed to socialize students into a classroom space to help students acquire the activities of learning how to be a student, for example, learning how to move between different timed activities.
Emotions and Languaging
It is also important to consider the role of emotions in languaging as biological, embodied social activity (Jensen, 2014b). Given that languaging involves actions, then emotions function as the “grease” fostering use of those actions embodied actions in interactions. For example, in an interaction, people engage in adopting stances associated with fostering or limiting further interactions reflected in the metaphors of “opening up” or “shutting down” the interaction as evident in embodied actions (Jensen, 2014b). Emotions as “inter-affectivity” position the other as social actions, for example, the emotion of trust in the process of collaboration that creates an in-between embodied connection in which “emotions can be seen as the glue of dialogical systems” (p. 7). Students need to be able to experience trust in their teacher and peers regarding instances of disclosing personal experiences or concerns in activities involving addressing ethical or political issues (Zittoun, 2014).
This embodied languaging includes interlistening involving what Lipari (2014) describes as “polimodality” in interactions (p. 513). “Polimodality” includes not only embodied actions, but also a shared in-between parallel interaction between people as when dancers respond to each other’s physical movements and gestures in a coordinated manner or when a storyteller’s delivery is influenced by audience participation and reactions. It also includes use of voice related to vocal aspects of pitch, volume, tonality, or intonation patterns, as well as use of time or tempo in articulation, involving, for example, use of pauses in an interaction that convey meanings.
Languaging and Teaching English Language Arts
How is this languaging theory relevant to teaching English language arts? As evident in the English Language Arts Common Core Standards for grades 9-12 Language http://tinyw.in/6t5T: “Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking,” despite reference to contextual differences as in “Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening,” the prevailing focus of language instruction still presupposes the notion of language as a code that needs to be acquired as a prerequisite use in reading or writing as in “Vary syntax for effect, consulting references (e.g., Tufte’s Artful Sentences) for guidance as needed; apply an understanding of syntax to the study of complex texts when reading.”
An alternative focus based on languaging involves creating engaging activities that build on the medium of languaging constituting activity related to building relationships and making change in status-quo systems (for resources and activities: http://relationshipsela.pbworks.com).
This entails creating activities in which students employ languaging to gain agency through collaborative interaction. Through active participation in supportive spaces, students develop a sense of voice associated with a sense of agency to “have a voice” or to “be heard” or “honored” within the context of a larger project and respected for such voicing by others (Mitra, & Serriere, 2012). For example, young people from throughout the country under the sponsorship of Our Children’s Trust, are engaged in a lawsuit against the federal government for failing to address climate change http://tinyw.in/0Av1.
When students work collaboratively to generate a collective voice, they then experience an increased sense of attachment to and respect by their peers and school (Sanders, Movit, Mitra, & Perkins, 2007). For example, a group of fifth grade female students, the “Salad Girls,” organized a campaign to address issues in their school lunch menu. This led to their developing some alternative suggestions for improving the menus, resulting in their school being open to the students investigating problems with the menu in ways that enhanced their agency within the school culture (Mitra, & Serriere, 2012).
Underlying these activities is that use of languaging for building relationships through in-between meaning-making for fostering change.
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Bertau, M-C. (2014b) Exploring language as the “in-between.” Theory & Psychology, 24(4) 524–541.
Bertau, M-C. (2014c). On displacement. Theory & Psychology, 24(4), 442–458.
Cowley, S. J. (2011). Distributed language. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Hutchins, E. (1995). How a cockpit remembers its speed. Cognitive Science, 19, 265–288.
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Pennycook, A. (2010). Language as a local practice. New York: Routledge.
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van Leeuven, T. (2008). Discourse and practice: New tools for critical discourse analysis. New York: Oxford University Press.
Zittoun, T. (2014). Trusting for learning. In P. Linell & I Markova (Eds.), Dialogic approaches to trust in communication (pp. 125-152). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.