Engaged research in applied linguistics: Reflections from practice
Department of English, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
My positionality as an engaged researcher
‘Engaged’ (also ‘engagement’) has now become a popular term in applied linguistics. Yet, it remains undertheorized. The purpose of this blogpost is to discuss the major theoretical and methodological dimensions of engaged applied linguistics research. I will do this, first, by telling my personal history that sets up the background for my engaged research. My perspective of applied linguistics research as an engaged social activity for building just and multilingual communities largely stems from my own ‘being’, built in the ‘trialectics of historicality, sociality, and spatiality’ (Soja, 1996). I grew up in an Indigenous community, Yaakthung (also known as Limbu), in a small village of Nepal. Immersed in an agrarian Indigenous lifestyle, my worldviews about language, education, environment/nature, and community are all shaped by cho?lung [also cho:tlung]. As an ideal, open, and imagined space of the ultimate destiny, Yaakthungs embrace cho?lung as the space of collectivism, freedom, dignity, prosperity, and achievement (Subba, 2019). Tangsing (literally, coming together in Limbu) is performed collectively to achieve cho?lung. As a dialogic performance, Tangsing unfolds in a series of dialogue between fedaangmaa (ritual performers of Limbu) and nature and ancestors for the wellbeing, freedom, and prosperity of the community members. Narrated orally, I learned the importance of cho?lung from tumyaang (community elders), yebaa, saambaa, and fedaangmaa (all Limbu cultural performers) who perform everyday rituals in the form of oral and artistic poetic narration, Mundhum. As a fluid, oral and folk practice, Mundhum has taught me the power of folk linguistics, tribal narratives, Indigenous imaginations, and epistemologies in the building of an equal society.
A Yaakthung teenager weaving a traditional Yaakthung clothe, Dhaakaa. She learned this skill from her parents at home. Photo: Prem Phyak
But as a schooled subject, I experienced a huge gap between the community and school. Following the national policy, we were not allowed to speak the Yaakthung Paan (the Yaakthung language) in school; we had to speak Nepali. The ‘national’ textbooks were all in Nepali (except for the subject of English) and their contents did not include anything about the local community, and Indigenous cultures and epistemologies. I remember our teachers teaching us to speak in a standard or shudda (pure) Nepali and correcting our Yaakthung accents. I feel lucky that I did not drop out of school. Many of my childhood friends chose not to complete their schooling. Despite what may be seen as failure to achieve or deficiency from a neoliberal and colonial perspective, for me, they are contributing to the community in many ways; they are protecting the lands, forests, rivers, languages, cultures, crops, and the community as whole. Each villager is a storehouse of knowledge, with the ‘authentic experiences’ (hooks, 1994) of being linguistically, socio-culturally, and politically marginalized. Their language practices (often non-standard and oral), knowledge, and ways of knowing are rarely recognized in school. Education policies present Indigenous and ethnic/racial minority children as ‘languageless’ (Rosa, 2016) and knowledgeless subjects to be surveilled and disciplined to maintain dominant language orders for the modern technology of knowledge that is coded in textbooks, often in ‘national’ and ‘global’ languages (e.g., Nepali and English in Nepal), and in the rubrics shaping pedagogical methods (Foucault, 1977). In other words, Indigenous and ethnic minority children are subjugated, alienated, and disenfranchised through unequal language policies and practices in the state mechanisms, including education.
Theorizing ‘engaged’ in applied linguistics research
The above situation reminds us of the core principle of applied linguistics as a ‘practice-driven discipline’ to address ‘real-world problems’ around language (Brumfit, 1997). If applied linguistics is an ‘interdisciplinary’ field and ‘a problem-solving enterprise’ (Grabe, 2010), what approaches should we adopt to address the real-world problems of the historically marginalized Indigenous and ethnic/racial minority communities such as Yaakthungs? How can we applied linguists investigate the ‘deficit ideology’ of Indigenous and minoritized languages that the modern neoliberal education system has constructed and reinforced? How can we collectively resist such ideologies to create an equal space for Indigenous and minoritized languages? What could be our roles to subvert the erasure of Indigenous and minoritized languages and epistemologies and to promote social justice agenda? These are some of the broader questions, among others, that the engaged approach seeks to address.
While grappling with theorizing the notion of ‘engaged’ (engagement) in ‘engaged language policy’ (Davis & Phyak, 2017), we first noticed the need for a critical interdisciplinary edge not just to interpret the experiences of the marginalized, but to recognize and reinforce their values, agency, and activism as ideological tools for transformative policies. Reading beyond the field of applied linguistics has been very helpful to address that need. Decolonizing theories, critical pedagogy, engaged anthropology, human geography, transformative education, social justice, and works on world-systems theory and neoliberalism provide a tentative yet critical interdisciplinary framework to understand ‘engagement’ as an act of dialogue (Davis & Phyak, 2017) that is grounded in the ‘authentic experiences’ of marginalization and inequalities. As an ideological concept, engagement is a bottom-up and participatory process to examine ideological meanings of language policies and practices. As a form of commitment to social justice, engaged research focuses on creating a “reflective space [...] for a deeper understanding of the views and experiences from the field” (Ghorashi & Wels, 2009, p. 246).
Tentative methods and steps
Keeping language ideological analysis at the center, my own research engages Indigenous villagers, youth, and teachers in interrogating the relevance and destructive impacts of nationalist and neoliberal policies on the ecologies and identities of Indigenous and ethnic minority people. At the methodological level, engaged research builds on the theory of ‘decolonizing methodology’ (Smith, 2012) and pays attention to dialogical engagement with the participants in an ideological analysis. The dialogue in engaged research takes multiple forms and strategies that recognize the struggles, voices, and epistemologies of the marginalized people. Adopting ‘ethnographic dialogue’ as a key method, engaged research tentatively follows four major steps: co-observation of phenomenon; ethnographic dialogue; collective praxis; and scaling up. For example, in my research, the community members, youth, and teachers, first, participate, as co-researchers, in observing language practices in school, community, and the public sphere. They participate in a series of formal and informal discussions on the issues around language with different actors such as community leaders, teachers, activists, and youth. They would also read and/or listen to the policy texts, newspaper reports, and public opinions about language issues. By doing this, the participants gather and understand multiple ideologies, values, perspectives, and the existing political economic conditions that shape language policies and practices in school, community, and the public sphere. The purpose of this first step in engaged research is to provide the participants with the opportunities to have a deeper background information about language policies/practices and the perspectives of different actors, including the nation-state. As a co-participant, the researcher plans collective activities and facilitates observations, discussions, and documentations of what happens in each event.
The main stage of engaged research is dialogic engagement. This stage focuses on dialogue with the participants on multiple issues such as knowledge, ecology, well-being, history/ancestry, and identity that are linked with language policies and practices they have lived with. The main agenda and questions for the dialogue emerge from the participants' own understanding about language practices and the other actors’ experiences and perspectives observed in the previous stage. In this stage, the researcher both facilitates and contributes to dialogic engagement with the participants by raising questions; pointing out the issues observed and discussed in the previous stage; and adding relevant information to the discussion. They collectively unentangle the sociopolitical meanings of language practices and perspectives they have observed in the previous stage, and critically discuss how they affect their identities (epistemic, linguistic, cultural, ethnic, and historical), community building, and the rights to speak. This means that engaged researchers interpret the ideological meanings of the data with (not without) participants. In the process of dialogical engagement, participants become aware of multiple and contested language ideologies and critically examine their own assumptions in relation to social justice. While providing participants with opportunities to connect lived language practices and their assumptions with hegemonic and deficit ideologies shaping language policies at the macro level, dialogic engagement positions the participants’ identity as an ideological subject and strengthens their ‘ideological self’ (Bakhtin, 1981). This leads to the next stage of engagement, praxis.
In the praxis stage, engaged researchers collaborate with their participants to transfer their ‘ideological self’ into open and doable actions. In my research, for example, Indigenous youth, teachers, and villagers collectively develop and implement alternative plans, activities, and pedagogical strategies to create space for Indigenous and minoritized languages in school and the public sphere (Phyak, 2016). In this process, each individual should be positioned as an ideological agent for making policies that are just and equitable. I found workshops (with youth and teachers), community-meetings (with community members), and co-teaching sessions (with teachers), with alternative lesson plans, useful strategies for a meaningful praxis. Dialogue remains at the center of praxis; ideological meanings, in relation to social justice, of each plan, activity, and event should be critically discussed and documented.
Scaling up is an important stage of engaged research. The lessons, challenges, and processes learned from engaged research could be scaled up to engage policymakers (national, local, and institutional level); communities of teachers, government representatives, activists, and youth; and the public in transforming unequal language policies in multiple ways. In my case, I used the lessons from the dialogical engagement with Indigenous villagers, teachers, and youth to engage journalists, local/national government agencies, teachers, students, and NGO workers in critical dialogue on language-related issues in education through public writing, media debates, workshops, consultation meetings, panel presentations, and community-based discussions.
Overall, engaged research is a form of ‘public engagement’ (Forman, 1993) and ‘anti-hegemonic science’ (Hymes, 1996; also, Blommaert, 2009) with a clear political purpose, building a democratic and just society where linguistic differences do not become the basis of discriminations. A point of caution however is that engaged researchers must not position their participants as knowledgeless and unaware docile subjects in the process of dialogical engagement. Rather we should be recognizing their understandings, voices, and values about the local language ecologies, policies, and ideologies and use them as resources to engage them in dialogue. Rather than being a neutral observer, engaged researchers take the position of a co-learner, co-participant, critic, and advocate of social justice by questioning the relevance of the existing language policies and practices in multilingual contexts and discuss those questions in relation to the broader sociopolitical conditions.
As Low and Merry (2010, p. 208) have argued, engaged research pays attention to (a) empowering communities through sharing knowledge, social critique, and collaborative actions; and (b) contributing to policy-making processes that recognize alternative ideologies, epistemologies, and identities. I conclude by saying that engaged research is not a linear, straightforward, and one-off project, rather it is an unfinished—often messy and entangled— work-in-progress, and a long-term commitment to work with the communities and individuals whose struggles, voices, and knowledge often remain unheard and invisible in national and institutional policies supporting neoliberalism. Engaged applied linguistic research is an act of undoing all forms of language-based discriminations and building communities where each individual’s cho?lung is protected. If we agree that applied linguistics is a ‘practice-oriented’ and ‘interdisciplinary field’ that focuses on ‘real-world problems’, we need more engaged research to make applied linguists’ impacts on the community (especially on the marginalized and underprivileged groups) visibly meaningful and sustainable.
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Dr. Prem Phyak teaches at the Department of English of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His research interests include language policy, teacher education, politics of English, and Indigenous language education. He has co-authored a book Engaged Language Policy and Practices and contributed articles to different journals such as Language Policy, Multilingua, Critical Inquiry in Language Studies, Current Issues in Language Planning, and Language in Society.