SPb at night

Information space

This post is a background to the session I’m going to do in the ESP conference this week.

When I arrived in Spb in 2000 I was surprised that, in this city of 5 million, you could hardly buy The Economist magazine anywhere. (The Economist tends to write rubbish about economics, but is a reasonable source for a broad view of what’s happening in the world. It also makes suitable reading for high-level EFL students.)

This Economist-shaped lacuna gives a sense of what we usually mean in Russian by the “informatsionnoe prostranstvo”. A term which might be lazily, or literally, translated as “information space”. It carries the idea of the things that are generally known, or which you can find out from the media, in a particular society. But what are the implications of this idea for applied linguistics and for teaching?

Information space – the English term, does not have the same meaning. It refers to the contents of a single information system which can be searched and where the relations between items mapped. That is to say, it refers to a single corpus from which a technical system can retrieve information. (It’s worth noting that with big data and AI techniques information can now be retrieved from collections that look totally chaotic to the human eye).

Now we can take a step nearer to the field of Applied Linguistics: I maintain that what we call in Russia the “informatsionnoe prostranstvo” is closer to being what French philosophy, from Foucault, calls “discourse”. Except that there isn’t just one “discourse” in society, there are many… and they sometimes compete or contradict each other. Different fields of expertise can be said to have their own discourses

Discourse is also a key term for Applied Linguistics. According to Pennycook (1994), “Discourse in this sense (John -Foucault’s sense),…does not refer to language or uses of language, but to ways of organizing meaning that are often, though not exclusively, realized through language.

Pennycook contrasts this with the two commonly-used concepts of discourse in the field of applied linguistics, and notes how they have fed into language teaching:

In standard discourse analysis – linguists look at larger scale patterns in texts such as the genre, the grammar of spoken English and different aspects of communicative competence. This approach has provided the theoretical basis for a lot of “communicative” language teaching.

In critical discourse analysis – sociolinguists consider how different social factors influence use of language. For example, they identify how large historical phenomena like colonialism or capitalism are present as assumptions in texts. This approach has led to attempts by teachers to incorporate more serious topics for reading and class discussion.

The Foucaldian idea of discourse can also contribute to the way we teach languages. Pennycook writes “Language teaching becomes a process of making the familiar unfamiliar, of linking the process of learning a second language to a pedagogy that seeks to question how we come to understand ourselves as we do”.

In some of the hard sciences the “discourse” is barely changed by a switch from Russian to English because a single world-wide discourse already exists. Language teaching for these kinds of ESP means accurately reproducing the context where the language would be used. In others, perhaps especially the social sciences, law and pedagogy, we are asking our students to move into a new and different discourse, as well as adopting a foreign language. In the example used at the start of this post “information space” is a word not only in a different language from the Russian term “информационное пространство” – it belongs to a completely different discourse.

In my next post I’ll say something about “spaces” for learning, and virtual learning environments.

PENNYCOOK, A. (1994). Incommensurable Discourses? Applied Linguistics, 15(2), 115–138. https://doi.org/10.1093/applin/15.2.115