The Reading Matrix
Vol. 4, No. 3, November 2004

The Sociolinguistics of Foreign-Language Classrooms: Contributions of the Native, the Near-native, and the Non-native Speaker American Association of University Supervisors, Coordinators, and Directors of Foreign Language Programs (AAUCS) Issues in Language Program Direction: A Series of Annual Volumes
Carl Blyth Ed. (2003)
Boston: Heinle
Pp. xiv + 294
ISBN 083840511-8
Cost: $ 34.95

Reviewed by Randall Sadler
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

This 13th volume of the AAUCS series “explores the applications of sociolinguistics scholarship to the teaching and learning of foreign languages in the context of American higher education.” Rather than attempting to discuss the full impact of the field of sociolinguistics on foreign language teaching—an impossible task in a single book—the collected articles all focus on the impact of the “native speaker construct” on the field. In five sections, the book examines the native speaker, the pedagogical norm, the heritage speaker, the use of English, and concludes with a debate of the native/non-native dichotomy.

The first section examines what it means to be a native speaker of a language, and the impact of this construct on teaching foreign languages. The first article in this section, by Robert Train, investigates the concept of the native standard language (NSL) via the lens of sociolinguistics. He argues that the idea of a NSL is problematic in that it fails to take into account the variation present in all languages and among “native speakers” of those languages. He believes that language educators should endeavor to instead encourage “critical language awareness” for their students, allowing them to develop a fuller understanding of the complexities of the language(s) they are learning. Anke Finger continues to examine the native speaker, focusing on the native speaker model as it applies to teachers. Finger argues that this model must be abandoned, and that foreign language teachers should instead take the role of “cultural informants” for their students. This model allows the teacher to depart from the role of all-knowing (and linguistically perfect) native speaker, and encourages both teachers and students to access a wide range of cultural and linguistic informants while learning language.

Thisfirst section brings up a number of important issues. For example, is a French speaker from Quebec any less a native speaker than an individual from Paris? How about someone who grew up in Haiti? While the Haitian dialect would certainly not be considered the NSL to someone from Paris, does this mean that the Haitian should not teach French at an American university? However, does this mean it is the responsibility of a language teacher to expose his/her students to the full range of dialectal variation in the target language? If so, what impact would this have on students’ mastery of that language? These questions go largely unanswered in this section.

The second section answers a question left unresolved in the first—how can we determine what to teach in our classes given the wide sociolinguistic variation discussed previously? Albert Valdman argues that attempting to teach students—and especially beginning students—this full range is counterproductive. Instead, he argues that pedagogical norms must be established based on a number of linguistic, sociopsychological, and acquisition-related factors. As students master these norms they may then be introduced to a progressively wider range of language variations. Julie Auger applies this idea to the teaching of Québec French in the Montréal area versus in the United States, with different pedagogical norms for each location. For students in the U.S., Auger suggests the use of literary works and songs to expose students to Québec French, and she maintains the goal should be to teach such students to understand the dialect rather than having them attain full communicative competence in this variety.

The third section discusses an increasingly common issue in U.S. classrooms, the presence of heritage learners in foreign language classrooms. Manel Lacorte and Evelyn Canabal focus on three dimensions relevant to these students: their social and cultural backgrounds, the pedagogical conditions of foreign language (FL) classrooms, and affective dimensions of the relationship between these students and their FL instructors. They conclude with pedagogical implications of their research. Stacey Katz continues this theme by describing her own experience teaching Haitian immigrants at an American university. She argues that these students do not fit the “heritage learner” description when attending French classes since most Haitians see themselves as native speakers of Haitian Creole.

Both of these papers briefly touch upon—but do not substantially develop—a topic worthy of further development—courses designed specifically for heritage language learners. While it is certainly true that these students can be a wonderful resource in the FL classroom, it is also clear that the needs of heritage language learners are often vastly different from native speakers of English. For example, while native speakers of English have typically learned the FL via a textbook, with accompanying discussions of grammar, etc., a heritage language learner would likely be mystified by a teacher discussing the use of “articles” or the “past perfect.” In schools with a substantial number of heritage learners, heritage language learner courses should be an option.

In the fourth section, the authors examine the use of English in the foreign language classroom, examining both the potential problems and benefits of this practice. Monika Chavez sees language use in the FL classroom as diglossic, beginning with “the assumption that learners associate certain language functions with either the L1 or L2.” Chavez’s study, based on a large-scale survey, found that students did indeed see the FL classroom environment as being diglossic, with “the most pressing and genuine communication [carried out in] the L1.” While she admits that this is not in keeping with a Communicative classroom, she argues that the “L2 classroom represents a unique speech community in need of unique rules.” Julie Belz also focused on the use of L1 in the FL classroom, finding that this allowed students to use their “multicompetence” (L1 + L2 competence) to attain L2 competence at a higher level than is possible in a classroom that only allows the use of the L2.

As implied by the name of the organization behind these volumes—the American Association of University Supervisors, Coordinators, and Directors of Foreign Language Programs—the book is not meant to be a activity-based classroom guide to dealing with the native and/or near-native speaker in the FL classroom. Although some of the articles—most notably Julie Auger’s—do provide some activities that might be used by teachers, this is not really the focus of the text. If you are looking for practical advice and activities for better meeting the needs of these groups, you might be better off looking elsewhere. However, if you are searching for a series of articles that give an excellent overview of this increasingly important group in U.S. FL classrooms, this is a book that will be quite useful.


Randall Sadler is an Assistant Professor in the Division of English as an International Language (DEIL) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and co-editor of book reviews for The Reading Matrix. His research interests include L2 writing, the use of technology in the classroom, and qualitative classroom research.