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Invariably, most communicative events are layered with hidden agendas, implicit power displays and shades of biasness. This is especially so in the world of commerce where the notion of efficiency and a sense of professionalism dictate the use of language. Likewise, the teaching of Business English in many polytechnics in Singapore is synonymous with the teaching of definitive text-types such as responses to complaint letters. This notion of pragmatism is further reinforced by the state language ideology, linguistic instrumentalism (Wee, 2008), which favours a rather prepackaged approach to address complex language phenomena. Unfortunately, little emphasis seems to be focused on preparing students to manage the dynamic sociolinguistic realities that we operate in.
In light of the above, this study examines the feasibility to adopt Critical Language Awareness (CLA) in the teaching of Business English to polytechnic students. CLA is concerned with empowering students to use language reflexively, by emphasizing the role of language in mediating social relations. Fairclough (1999) postulates CLA as a “basic concern in language education” (p. 71), since critical awareness of language, in particular how language manifests implicit displays of power relations, is a “prerequisite for effective citizenship” (Fairclough, 1992, p. 3) in the democratic world. In this study, Stevens and Bean’s (2007) Critical Literacy model, which draws from the inspiration of CLA, is used as the implementation framework. Giroux’s (2001) categories (accommodation, opposition and resistance) are also drawn upon to explore students’ responses to the effects of the state language ideology.
The three research questions are:
1. To what extent are students’ dispositions toward the learning of English influenced by the ideology of linguistic instrumentalism in Singapore?
2. Was students’ use of metalinguistic resources in reconstructing texts adequately and consciously informed by the metapragmatic purpose of the written tasks they were given?
3. Is Stevens and Bean’s (2007) model feasible to be used in similar future modules at the polytechnic level?
In the second research question, metalinguistic resources refers to linguistic categories that were used to talk about language with the students, and metapragmatic purpose refers to the writer’s aim in using language to express social meaning in context.
Over a period of four weeks, I implemented the CLA project at a local polytechnic using Stevens and Bean’s (2007) model. The lesson structure adhered to the model’s basic features - maintaining cycles of deconstruction (textual analysis) and reconstruction (creation of alternative texts), using metalanguage as teaching tools and in maintaining a democratic classroom environment. Over four weeks, 156 student participants learnt not only about writing technical business correspondence, but also about the pervasiveness of power displays in all communicative events and, more importantly, how they could respond to them by manipulating linguistic resources (e.g. address forms, lexical choices).
Analysis of three different data sets indicated that the study raised the students’ awareness of the relation between the manipulation of linguistic resources and the social effects of their written tasks. It also affirmed the benefits of the CLA project, especially in terms of the basic features of Stevens and Bean’s (2007) model.
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