By Jihoon Kim and Melissa Enns
The scholarly discussion surrounding corrective feedback (CF) has mainly focused on how to correct, when to correct, what to correct, and who should correct errors (for an overview, see Elllis, 2017). What is often missing in this discussion is the social dimension of CF. That is, when a teacher corrects a student’s error, he/she first compares the student’s utterance to a certain language norm, and then he/she presents or tries to elicit the linguistic form that conforms to the norm. For example, consider the efforts many of us make to ensure that our students speak, and especially write, “proper” English (or whatever the target language may be). Depending on our training and attitude toward language change, we may feign misunderstanding when a student asks if he can borrow a pen or insist that our students avoid ending sentences with prepositions, despite the fact that both of these things are common practices in everyday English.
There is certainly a time and context for developing strong skills with academic language, but the problem is that the norms of a linguistic community are hardly value-neutral. That is, CF can be a powerful medium to espouse the specific linguistic ideology of a linguistic community. These ideologies go far beyond traditional grammatical rules, reflecting deeply embedded social attitudes (Van Herk, 2012). The very idea of considering one register of a language to be of more value than others reflects a subliminal attitude that the people who use that particular register are of more consequence than those who do not.
For example, Friedman (2010) portrayed how corrective feedback functions as a tool for disseminating specific language ideologies. In her ten-month long linguistic ethnographic study, Friedman observed two fifth-grade Ukrainian language and literature classrooms in a small Ukrainian town between 2003 and 2004.
The timing of her observation was quite significant because after winning independence from Russia in 1991, the Ukrainian government reinstated Ukrainian as the sole official state language and put forth tremendous efforts to raise its status. Owing to these efforts, by the early 2000s, the use of Ukrainian became more visible in Ukraine, but there was an undying concern about the residual traces of Russian in Ukraine. This concern was widely shared by the general public. As a result, the code-mixing between Russian and Ukrainian was regarded as a form of linguistic pejoration, or an instance in which use of language which would once have been considered neutral came to have negative associations.
The negative attitudes towards the code-mixing, or mixing of the two languages (also sometimes called translanguaging) slowly but surely seeped into the language classroom. Consequently, Ukrainian language and literature teachers in Friedman’s study often employed CF to eradicate the remnants of Russian phonology, lexis, and grammatical features from the classroom. In other words, if a student used Russian pronunciation, words, or grammatical features, she would be “corrected” to using the Ukranian form.
Upon observing events as they unfolded, Friedman raised a very important, yet widely ignored question of the meaning calling one form of a language “correct” (over all the others) carries. In this article, she rightfully viewed linguistic correctness as a socially constructed concept that favours a certain variety over others and endows the chosen variety with legitimacy. Within this light, she argued that “while serving the pedagogical goal of teaching children to speak Ukrainian ‘correctly,’ these [corrective feedback] practices were also socializing children into a particular understanding of what ‘speaking correctly’ means.” (Friedman, 2010, p.364).
Similar social norms are imposed in any context where one language, dialect, or register is treated as “correct” over all the others. Despite the fact that creoles or “Spanglish” or many regional “uneducated” dialects are considered “incorrect,” each one is a valid and functional means of English communication, and each one reflects important aspects of speakers’ values and identity (Van Herk, 2012). The post titled Oppression, Power, and Policy in the Classroom on this site offers more examples of how social attitudes are reflected in language teaching. Corson (1993) suggests teaching the dominant register based on the contexts where it is useful rather than based on a skewed notion of “correctness.” Our understandings of “correct” language use may be shaped by values pertaining to politics, class, ethnicity, or other factors, and it’s important to recognize them so that we can build feedback-giving strategies that reflect more inclusive values in our classrooms.
What do these realities mean for language teachers? First of all, they provide a good reminder to engage in continuous self-reflection on our practices; what language norms are we enforcing in our classrooms? What are the social messages underlying the CF we give? Given the contexts of our classes, the ethnic and social backgrounds of our students, and the values we wish to espouse, are there any habits or CF-giving practices we should change? This doesn’t necessarily mean ignoring the standard dialect and register; rather, it might mean teaching it but emphasizing the contextual nature of its value and also offering students instruction on other registers that may be relevant to their lives and language acquisition process. It might be as simple as verbally acknowledging the validity of other ways of using language in CF-giving, for example, by telling a student that it’s appropriate to say how’s it going? to your friends but not your teachers or supervisor. Another strategy would be to teach formal and informal ways of saying things concurrently and explaining the contexts where learners would use each; then CF could be given based on the context rather than a socially “loaded” concept of correctness.
What do you think? What wider social values do your CF-giving practices reflect? Do these values promote equality and inclusion? In what ways do you think you could adjust your feedback to portray more inclusive values while still equipping learners with the language skills they will need in their particular context?
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Corson, D. (1993). Language, minority education and gender: Linking social justice and power. Philadelphia: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Ellis, R. (2017) Oral corrective feedback in L2 classrooms: What we know so far. In H. Nassaji & E. Kartchava (Eds.) Corrective feedback in second language teaching and Learning: Research, theory, applications, implications (pp. 3-18). NY: Routledge.
Friedman, D. A. (2010). Speaking correctly: Error correction as a language socialization practice in a Ukrainian classroom. Applied Linguistics, 31(3), 346–367.
Van Herk, G. (2012). What is sociolinguistics? Malden: Wiley-Blackwell.