Re-thinking community language schools moving from in-between to beyond the nation-states

Janica Nordstrom

PhD thesis, conferred 2016

Community language schools, which aim to pass on heritage languages and “cultures” to children, have only recently become the focus of research despite providing education to more than 100,000 students each week in Australia alone. There is a body of research indicating conflict between the goals, expectations and practices of the schools, parents and students. Schools are often found to privilege static notions of language and culture, using traditional pedagogies and inauthentic learning to impose heritage identities on a diverse population of young people (e.g. Blackledge & Creese, 2010; Li Wei & Wu, 2010). These relate more to traditional notions of learners in the countries of origin rather than bilingual/bicultural young people who use their languages in flexible ways and see heritage language learning as a way to engage in contemporary culture. In our current globalised society such static notions of language and culture have come into question. With increased movements and technologies, language is recognised as contextualised semiotic resources rather than bounded systems tied to nations and communities. The Internet has been proposed to encourage more authentic language use in these schools and to promote a stronger connection with the target community, although such claims have rarely been tested.

Addressing this gap, this study explores how a community language school with blended learning meets the needs of its students and their families. With an ethnographic approach, this research focused on one Swedish community language class in Australia which alternated between face-to-face classroom and synchronous online distant lessons: exploring the goals of the participants and how teaching and learning are constructed in face-to-face and online learning environments. The study is framed by a situative approach to learning (Greeno, 2006; Lave & Wenger, 1991) and emphasises language and language use as social constructs (Heller, 2009). Data includes participant observations, interviews and video recordings of students during online lessons. Using thematic and multimodal interaction analysis, the study found that goals for Swedish community language learning were embedded in notions of belonging but also perceived as valuable cultural capital in Australia and internationally, but that these values were rarely endorsed in classroom interactions and activities. Contrary to findings elsewhere, the notion of culture had little importance to the participants. Yet there was an assumed relationship between the language and the nation, although students and teacher negotiated this construction. In face-to-face teaching there was a strong focus on teaching static Swedish “culture” and the use of Swedish language for the classroom interactions, resulting in less proficient students being limited in participation. In online lessons, the construct of “culture” was less evident, with a stronger focus on using Swedish language for meaning and interaction. Video recordings of students’ online home learning, however, showed increased participation through use of bilingual resources that were “hidden” from their online interlocutors.

These findings have important implications for teaching and learning in community language schools, suggesting that pedagogy and classroom practices need to reach beyond the notion of “past” to find reference points that are motivating for the diversity of present students.

Supervisor: Professor Ken Cruickshank