Rick Kern

Kern photo

March Guest

Interview by Terry Doyle

Rick Kern is Professor of French and Director of the Berkeley Language Center at the University of California, Berkeley, where he teaches courses in French linguistics, applied linguistics, and foreign language pedagogy. His research interests include second language acquisition, psycholinguistics, reading, writing, and technology. He is Associate Editor of the journal *Language Learning & Technology*, recently released a book for Cambridge University Press entitled *Language, Literacy, and Technology*, and is currently co-editing a book on visual and linguistic dimensions of online communication.


  1. Could you tell us about your academic and professional background? What factors influenced your decision to study French and become a professor of French? What led you to become interested in the research areas you have worked on in your career?


It was really kind of a fluke that I ended up studying French and eventually coming to teach it. I had taken Spanish all through junior high and high school, and was originally a Latin American Studies major in college, but in the middle of my sophomore year I decided to take a French course just to see what it was like, with the idea that I might at least be able to read a menu in a French restaurant. I was totally enthralled with the language from the very start, thanks to a wonderful teacher, Marie-José Renaudie, and I went on to take more courses. I ended up taking Italian and Latin too, and created an independent major in Romance Languages.

After teaching English in Barcelona and Paris for two years, I came back to the States and taught as a bilingual aide in Santa Barbara, California, where my supervisor got me interested in studying second language acquisition. I enrolled in the Language, Literacy, and Culture PhD program in the Graduate School of Education at Berkeley and studied reading with Robert Ruddell and second language acquisition with Lily Wong Fillmore, Susan Ervin-Tripp, and Guadalupe Valdes. While in graduate school, I taught in the French Department. When it came time to apply for jobs, I applied to both schools of education and French departments, and ended up taking the French path, which I have never regretted. I must say, I never dreamed I could become a professor, but it somehow happened, and it has been a wonderful career.


  1. In your books Literacy and Language Teaching (2000) and Language, Literacy, and Technology (2015) you describe in great detail “design of meaning.” In Literacy and Language Teaching you state that preparing teachers includes teaching them about the relationships among Available Designs in various communicative and larger sociocultural contexts. Could you explain for our readers how “design in meaning” can also inform English as an International Language?


Sure. The idea of design is that people draw on existing material and cultural resources (including language) to design meaning in various forms of expression, and that what they produce gets added to the stock of “available designs” or future resources for people to draw on. As linguist Roy Harris has pointed out, the meaning and value of any sign—whether it is a word, a text, or some other form of communication—is “radically indeterminate,” because “alternative contextualizations are always possible” (Harris, 2009, p. 81). I think this principle is important for English teachers who work with students from varying backgrounds around the world, since students’ interpretations of signs and texts will always be influenced by their experiences, knowledge, and attitudes, as well as the dominant discourses of their culture. Mastery of vocabulary and grammar is obviously a good thing, but it’s also important for learners to understand how meanings are not inherent in a given string of language, but rather influenced by where, how, and by whom that string of language is being used.


  1. In the chapter co-authored by you and Mark Nelson “Language teaching and learning in the postlinguistic condition?” which appears in Principles and Practices for Teaching English as an International Language, you write that trying to meet the needs of EIL through highlighting and teaching different characteristics and regularities of Englishes in different contexts would be inadequate. Rather you suggest that a pedagogical approach should be situated with “meaning-design activities”, in which all forms of design such as spoken-linguistic, written-linguistic, visual, audio, gestural, spatial, and multi-modal are examined. Could you discuss how teachers might implement these orientations in their classes? Also, how have your investigations contributed to the literature of WE/EIL/ELF? (as I think they have greatly!)


I think the key challenge here (for learners, but crucially for teachers, since they serve as models) is to develop a disposition to perceiving and articulating relationships among the various semiotic resources that are being marshaled in a given expressive or communicative act. I think the first way to approach this is through heuristic questions that guide learners’ attention. For example, when exploring a text, the teacher can ask questions to get at relationships such as:

  • What are the contexts relevant to the interpretation of this text (e.g., material, situational, social, ideological etc.)? How might the text and context inform one another?
  • How does this text allude to, contest, build on other texts, even in other mediums?
  • How do linguistic elements interact with nonlinguistic elements to produce particular meanings?
  • How have conventional semiotic resources been appropriated, adapted, or recontextualized for individual or collective purposes?
  • How are time (e.g., rhythm, timing) and space (e.g., visual layout, movement) used to create particular meanings or effects?
  • More broadly, how do aesthetic qualities contribute to meaning and credibility?
  • How are traces of the communicator’s identity or persona signified?

Although this is perhaps beyond the scope of your specific question, I would add questions like the following, which get at social power relations:

  • Whose interests are at stake, and how are those interests identifiable?
  • Are beliefs, attitudes, myths, and assumptions marked as such or can they be mistaken for facts?
  • Are the meanings consistent with dominant discourses (often framed as “common sense”) or do they challenge dominant discourses?

Once learners have entertained these kinds of questions with a variety of texts and text types in class (and hopefully have begun to internalize them), they can incorporate them in their journals, where they keep track of their observations about their own and others’ communication.

As for your question about how my work has contributed to the WE/EIL/ELF literature, that’s hard for me to judge, but I think that my focus on literacy and technological mediation is particularly relevant in that so many communicative encounters in English occur in writing.


  1. You conclude chapter 4 of Language, Literacy, and Technology by discussing the key importance of the individual, who develops a unique repertoire of communicative resources. How does this importance of the individual alter both semiological theory and language teaching pedagogy? 


One of the points of that chapter is to show how people use language not only to be like others but also to be different from others. Another point is that individual innovations can sometimes turn into socially shared conventions. Traditional semiotic theories seem to be based on a priori sign systems, and assume broad social consensus about the meanings of signs, which are often abstracted from contexts of actual use. This leaves little place for individual innovation. Yet, as I try to show in the book, the meaning and value of a given sign can vary dramatically in different contexts of use, and individuals use this dynamic to express their individuality, to play with language, to produce humor, irony, and other effects. Like many other teachers, I think that learners should have opportunities to play with a language, to improvise with it, to make it their own—and to recognize where their creativity overlaps with socially-shared convention and where it does not.


  1. You begin your book Language, Literacy, and Technology with the premise that how we read, write, interrelate, construe and share knowledge is tied to a broad array of social conditions. In light of the points you make in this book, how has your job as director of the Berkeley Language Center changed from when Jesse Sawyer was the director in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s or even when Claire Kramsch was the director in the 1990s? Also, how has your job remained the same?


Prior to the early 1990s, the primary mission of the language lab at Berkeley was to provide language students and faculty with learning resources and facilities. When Claire Kramsch founded the Berkeley Language Center in 1994, its mission and scope of activity broadened considerably. It subsumed the language lab (which was redubbed the Language Media Center) and added many resources not only for the nuts and bolts of language teaching, but also, and crucially, to boost the intellectual status of language teaching on the campus. A lecture series brought in luminaries from applied linguistics, sociolinguistics, discourse analysis, education, psychology, anthropology and other fields. Pedagogical workshops allowed language lecturers to showcase their work. These events as well as reading groups brought language lecturers together and provided them with a sense of community that was often missing in their home departments (where they might be the only one teaching a given language). Added subsequently were Berkeley Language Center Fellowships for lecturers as well as graduate students wishing to pursue an independent research project related to language and/or culture. When I became director of the BLC, my goals were to develop outreach to secondary schools (accomplished by the very successful Berkeley World Language Project), to increase the international dimension of the center (accomplished by inviting international postdocs and visiting scholars as well as conferences), and enhancing instructional research and development, which we have done via small-scale projects such as the Lyon-Berkeley videoconferencing project, and larger scale projects such as our Library of Foreign Language Film Clips and Foreign Language Placement Test Template, both initiated by the University of California Language Consortium and further developed by Mark Kaiser. The film clip database is widely used by many universities both in the U.S. and abroad, and we anticipate that the placement test template will be as well. So, the scope of our activities continues to broaden. But the core mission of providing quality professional development opportunities for language teachers and students has remained a constant.


  1. What would you say to a student who was interested in majoring in a foreign language, but who felt intimidated by the prospect of being a ‘nonnative’?” (Actually, when I came to UC Berkeley as an undergraduate, I wanted to major in Japanese, but I changed my major because I felt this kind of intimidation.)


I would say to dig in and go for it. There’s always an element of intimidation when you’re starting something new, no matter what it is. Learning a new language can be especially challenging, because it’s not only a skill and a body of new knowledge but a whole new way of being and of understanding the world. But I think the rewards come incrementally as one plunges in deeper and deeper. Writing one’s name in a new writing system gives one a new sense of self. Producing new speech sounds can be exhilarating. Learning new structures that have no analogue in one’s native tongue can be hard, but mind-expanding too. Learning to read gives one a fresh perspective on world events, stimulates the imagination in new directions, and broadens one’s aesthetic sensibilities. If the student was intimidated by “non-native” status, I would have him or her read Claire Kramsch’s article “The privilege of the non-native speaker.”


  1. As a nonnative French teacher, at the beginning of your career did you feel any lack of confidence because of your non-native status? Do you think there is any discrimination against non-native foreign language teachers on the same level as there is discrimination against non-native English teachers?


I think most non-native teachers feel most insecure about their ability to deal with culture in the foreign language because they haven’t grown up in that culture. So they don’t feel that they can have any real authenticity or authority. But that’s to look at culture as content matter – and the important content matter can be researched without having had to live it directly. But another way of approaching culture is through the language itself, and exploring how the language creates new categories and values, which teachers can explore together with their students whether they are native speakers or not. With respect to the language itself, it’s often said that non-native speakers are potentially better teachers than native speakers, because they have specific insights into the learning of the language, what is difficult, what kinds of strategies are helpful, and so forth.


  1. Have you ever received resistance or skepticism from educators about your idea of a ‘postlinguistic condition’? What was the critique and how did you respond?


I haven’t, but maybe that’s a sign that I haven’t ventured too far beyond my usual professional circles.


  1. In your opinion, what will be the future of English language teaching in international contexts and foreign language teaching at universities like your university in 30 years? What might the Berkeley Language Center at UC Berkeley look like then?


I think the current trends toward greater student mobility and experiential learning will continue and that universities will provide a “home base” for a lot of active exploration in the world, including language learning. Centers like the BLC can provide support for that kind of exploration through online materials and contact with teachers (who will always remain crucial).


  1. What do you like to do in your time away from teaching, writing, and research? Do you have any particular favorite ways or strategies for “getting away from” the stressful aspects of your work?


Besides spending time with my family, which is the single most important use of my time, I love to play the guitar and compose and record music. Short trips exploring nature, or even just getting out to walk the dog, are great ways to clear the head.


Harris, R. (2009a). The integrational concept of the sign. In R. Harris (Ed.), Integrationist notes and papers: 2006-2008. Bedfordshire, UK: Authors Online Ltd.

 Kern, R. (2015)  Language, Literacy, and Technology. Cambridge, UK:  Cambridge University Press

Kern, R. (2000) Literacy and Language Teaching.  Oxford, UK:  Oxford University Press

Nelson, M. and Kern, R.  (2012) Language teaching and learning in the postlinguistic condition. In L. Alsagoff (Ed) Principles and Practices for Teaching English as an International       Language. New York:  Routledge, Taylor, and Franciis Group

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About isabelavb

I'm a teacher, teacher developer and Academic Superintendent at Casa Thomas Jefferson, Brasilia, Brazil. I am engaged in lifelong learning and am eager to interact with other like-minded professionals around the world. I'm particularly interested in second language writing, methodology, assessment, NNEST issues, and 21st Century learning and leadership.

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