The role of Discourses in the English as an Additional Language Classroom

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Educational institutions are powerful generators of dominant ideologies and as such produce practices that both exclude and include. One of the ways that class and social privilege is reproduced is explained by Bourdieu’s (1984) notion of cultural capital. A widely used definition of cultural capital stems from Lareau and Lamont who indicate that cultural capital is ‘institutionalized, that is, widely shared, high status cultural signals (attitudes, preferences, formal knowledge, behaviors, goods and credentials) used for social and cultural exclusion’. Aspects such as attitudes, preference and behaviors are usually learnt from one’s home and community. Educational institutions tend to reward learners who carry within themselves ‘appropriate cultural capital’.

Discourse ‘is used in linguistics to refer to extended samples of either spoken or written language’ (Fairclough). ‘Language in use’ is how Gee describes discourse. Fairclough explains that if one takes the view that discourse is an extended sample of language, then the emphasis is placed on the interaction between the person who speaks and the one who listens, or on the person who writes and the one who reads the writings. In consequence to this the ‘processes of producing and interpreting speech and writing, as well as the situational context of language use’ are emphasized as well (Fairclough). He views language not as an individual activity but as a form of social practice. Therefore, language is produced and reproduced in social settings such as schools and higher education institutions.

The notions of positioning and power are critical in the shaping of these reproductions. Discourse models are ‘the largely unconscious theories we hold that help us make sense of texts and the world’. As humans, we tend to live with and act on these assumptions unless challenged. Therefore, it can be said that these models are the frame through which we ‘see’ the world. Furthermore, while one learns from one’s experiences, these experiences are shaped by the ‘social and cultural groups to which we belong’ (Gee). But these frames are culturally bound, leaving us to have limited perceptions of situations. Also, these frames can make us act in certain ways believing we are doing what is right, when in fact the opposite might be true. Fairclough believes that one’s ‘social identity;’ and ‘subject positioning’ are constructed by discourse. Discourse constructs social relationships among people. This is one of the main reasons that educators need to become aware of the power of their classroom and everyday talk to position their learners in ways that can reproduce inequality.

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