Re: Bakhtin and genre and... language learning

From: Jay Lemke (
Date: Sun May 11 2003 - 15:41:19 PDT

I am just between travels, so I've been reading but not writing lately ...
interested of course in the "thinking in L2" discussion ... some reactions:

Bakhtin very definitely regards speech genres as mediating between
historical social processes and linguistic evolution (he calls them "drive
belts" in an automotive or machine engine metaphor). Depending on the
timescale we imagine him to have in mind, he takes the social situation as
primary, but he is very sophisticated (read as a whole, not in each
sentence, which is partly what puts Ruqaiya Hasan off about his lack of
precision, but then much of his work has been published from versions he
had not yet finalized for publication!) about the balance between the
typical and the unique. Speech genres are meant to capture what is typical
about utterances, and the whole of the Speech Genres paper is part of a
larger analysis of the nature and types of utterances as units of analysis.
A speech genre for B. can be a unit much smaller than genres usually are
for Hasan or Martin, or most genre analysts. "Gesundheit!" said in response
to someone sneezing is a speech genre for B. Thus it is much closer to what
I would call an action genre, or specifically to the verbal component of
the action genre. It is verbal, but it is also social. Its typicality
arises because of the typicality of the social situation-type in which it

Hasan's, and many people's views of genre come from research on written
genres. When we look at genres as typicalities of text, we sometimes do not
think of these texts as being the product of writing _activities_, as being
traces of meaning-making in some actional context. This erasure of the
context of production is related to our cultural ideology which separates
talk from material action, and private activities like thinking and writing
from public ones. We can thus think of genres either as text-types (Hasan)
or as the verbal component of action-types (Bakhtin). Martin's view is
closer to B's, I think, and to AT. His notion is basically that once we are
in the context of a typical social activity, the language we use is
structured into syntagmatic units (stages or sequential functional parts of
the genre) and "pre-selected" or strongly biaseed toward particular
linguistic forms (genres guide the selection of registers). Halliday,
looking more directly at the connection between social context and
linguistic choices, lets register account for the whole process, but this
does miss the temporal-sequential structuring of genre text, and that is
why both Hasan and Martin include a separate notion of genre. For Hasan, I
believe, genres are just cultural-historical artifacts, typical ways we
deploy language. (Many people short-change Bakhtin by limiting his notion
of genre to just this and no more.) For Martin they are social-actional
forms that motivate language choice, but he defines them still mainly from
the linguistic point of view, not the social-activity point of view.
Bakhtin gives much more emphasis to the social activity, and this is why
perhaps he starts from notions of utterance and speech genre, even though
his project is to analyze written (literary) texts. In his view of the role
of "speech" in literary text, what the author is seeking to capture is a
social situation or a social type, both in its typicality and in its
uniqueness. So authors are sensitive to the literary uses of speech genres,
as to those of various social styles of speaking (social voices of
heteroglossia). B. is much less of a formalist and much more a
social-functionalist in his view of genre (and much else).

So what can all this tell us about language learning? First, that we do not
learn languages as such. That is a conceit of linguists. We learn to use
language as part of social activity. We learn the whole activity and how to
act our way through it, creatively as well as conventionally. A lot of L2
language teaching has recognized this for a long time, and the silly little
pseudo-dialogues of language teaching books try to capture something of
typical speech genres and their social-situational activity contexts. But
there is often not much of an "object" in the AT sense. We are rarely given
a specific task to accomplish, with language, within the activity scene. Or
to be less task-driven about it, we are not often helped to see what new
opportunities for us to make various language moves are opened up at each
point in the dialogue and action. What can we do now? What can we say now?
what are the options? Speech genres and action genres are just scaffolds,
or skeletons. We need to put flesh on the bones, take advantage of the
scaffolded opportunities, and DO something, in part with words. The point
should not just be to get through the sequence without embarassment.

Conversations with native speakers are intimidating for beginners and even
intermediate level learners. As Angel Lin pointed out, there are many
political-affective aspects to the power relations among speakers using
various languages in various cultural contexts. If the typical action
genres and speech genres are reproduced, I don't think it requires native
speakers, and in fact peers or slightly more able peers may work better.
There also needs to be a certain open-endedness and unpredictability to get
real functional language competence: not reproducing a scene, but
improvising within a scene-framework. I think there is a strongly political
fetishization of "good" pronunciation and "native-like" grammatical usage
... and it is these fetishes that privilege the native-speaker-as-model
approach. I am not looking to pass myself off as a native, I am looking to
be able to function with some understanding of what's happening in the
communicative situation I am participating in. Obviously there are more
ambitious goals for those who wish to have their speech or writing valued
by the prestige standards of another community, but that is rarely a
concern for most people who are learning languages in formal settings. So
far as I know no one actually tries to teach the really ambitious levels of
L2 subtlety.

Finally, a note on "thinking in a foreign language" ... which I suppose
really means thinking WITH a new language. I tend to agree with several
people who have written that our inner speech tends to hybridize across the
various language codes we know ... and here again we have to set aside the
conceits of linguists. There are no "pure" languages; that's a creation of
modern nationalism, and indeed ethnocentric and chauvinistic nationalism.
What is fundamental in our thinking, i..e our making meaning by action and
of action, including speech and written signs, is the meaning ... and just
as we can word our meanings in various ways in "one" language, so can we do
so across the resources of multiple languages. Vera wrote from her
experience, and I have talked about this with many others -- we can keep
the languages, or dialects, distinct by an effort, but when we are reaching
for something subtle or new, trying to say or think something that is not
wholly typical, we reach for ALL the resources at hand, from whatever
official language box, and including visual images, gestures, ASL signs,
postures, artifact manipulations, kinesthetic proprioceptions ... in ways
that take us from initially more idiosyncratic combinations to ones that
can eventually make our meanings more sharable with others. In general we
may rely more on one such "code" than others, from familiarity or
affective-political preferences, but if some element of another code is
more right for a special need, our instinct is to freely mix it in. It is
only power relationships that inhibit us from doing so publicly just as we
do privately.

Which leaves me at a point I often come to with this topic: What about
FEELING in a foreign language? what about our language-indexed identities?
what about how we feel in our bodies when we are speaking different
languages? It might be amusing to try to capture the feeling of a native
speaker, but more realistically, are there just DIFFERENCES in how we feel,
in our habitus, our dispositions towards others and toward situations, when
we are in the experiential world of speaking-X vs. speaking-Y? And
recognizing that speaking here is always just part of acting, being, doing
... but perhaps in a different key?


At 04:21 PM 5/11/2003 +0700, you wrote:

>Gordon and All,
>Thanks for the summary of the differences between Martin and Hasan's
>notions of genre and register. Actually, what inspired me to look for
>clearer links between Bakhtin's work and genre/register was Hasan's paper,
>"Speech genre, semiotic mediation and the development of higher mental
>functions", Language Sciences, Vol. 14, No. 4, 489-528 (1992). I won't
>summarise her arguments here, but the part that I am nutting out right now
>is that she claims, in fact, that Bakhtin does point to a notion of social
>context (hence the link with register) as well as a higher category -
>speech genre (linking with cultural context?). Hasan quite rightly
>criticises Bakhtin for his lack of theoretical precision with the term
>social situation/social context/social milieu, inhibiting the degree to
>which we can infer relationships between wording and social situations.
>I'd appreciate any comments on this from any interested readers.
>My applied interest is to seek a model that helps second language learners
>understand the relationship between what is said and the situation in
>which it is said (Jay Lemke describes this as the way that language and
>social context metaredound) . As learners' spoken texts unfold, how do
>utterances shape (and mis-shape) the immediate social context, and how
>does that context shape the language choices that the students will make
>in ensuing turns? In environments where the learners have restricted
>access to communities of target language users, this model (I hope) will
>be of value. I am sure we have all had instances where we have said (or
>had said to us) something in another language that unintentionally alters
>the interpersonal relationship between the speakers (the tenor),
>inadvertently changes the topic (the field), or corrupts the cohesion of
>the conversation (the mode). Granted, this, too can happen in a first language.
>To me, this is the value of looking at spoken genres and register in role
>play as a language learning activity, especially when we can bring to the
>activity some of Bakhtin's other important constructs. This area is
>partially covered (although not in a pedagogical sense) by the work of
>Suzanne Eggins and Diana Slade: Eggins, S & D Slade 1997, Analysing Casual
>Conversation, Cassell Academic, London, where they use SFL in a
>descriptive and analytical model of everyday conversation.
>I'm finding this an interesting study!

Jay Lemke
University of Michigan
School of Education
610 East University
Ann Arbor, MI 48104

Tel. 734-763-9276

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