Challenging the standard
UCI professor studies how languages change, blend
By Annabel Adams and Charity Lindsey
There is a popular quote used in education that says, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
Jerry Won Lee, an associate professor of English, anthropology, East Asian studies, and Asian American studies at the University of California, Irvine, takes the concept of that quote a step further.
“At what point do we decide if climbing the tree is desirable in the first place?” he asks. A scholar of multilingualism, what Lee seeks to challenge is the idea that there is one “standard” English from which peoples’ proficiency should be measured. Lee, who grew up in a Korean-speaking household, is passionate about exploring how languages are used, translated, and blended over time and across space.
As director of the UCI Program in Academic English, which serves over 1,000 students a year, Lee sees the overarching goal of the program as developing students’ academic literacy in English while acknowledging, simultaneously, that there is no such thing as one correct way of using English, especially in the context of the multilingual realities of our global society.
“Students hear from others that if they don’t speak Standardized English, they won’t be able to get a job, but when I talk to recruiters and employers, that’s not necessarily the case.” In fact, in Lee’s research, he has found that employers, especially those in linguistically and culturally diverse geographic contexts, are aware of the broad range of communicative styles for today’s multicultural workforce and oftentimes care less about “language” abilities than they do about subject matter expertise and other intangibles.
In another ongoing, collaborative study, Lee seeks to understand how international graduate students teach and communicate successfully in STEM fields. He is interested in not only conventional measures of “spoken English proficiency,” but also the extent to which nonverbal resources, such as gestures, pacing, and spatial repertoires, such as the whiteboard and other technologies, are used to communicate successfully. This information will impact how multilingual graduate students are assessed in the program's Test of Oral English Proficiency (TOEP).
While Lee is a proponent today of people speaking languages in a way that makes sense for their communicative needs, this wasn’t always the case.
“I remember when I was learning Spanish in high school and my teacher complained about how some Spanish speakers in the U.S. would say ‘troca’ for ‘truck,’ instead of the ‘correct’ word, ‘camión.’ At the time I remember thinking, ‘yes, I agree, we shouldn't carelessly mix languages like that!’”
While pursuing his Ph.D. in English rhetoric at the University of Arizona, however, Lee began to learn more about linguistics and collaborated with scholars in other disciplines to broaden his perspective. During a project with a student in linguistic anthropology, Lee was inspired to take up his longest-running project so far: the semiotics and space of global Korea. Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols as an integral part of communications.
Breaking away from traditional textbook training in 2012, Lee began to travel to different Koreatowns around the world—including those in Los Angeles, Osaka, and São Paulo. His initial goal was to study public signage to see how people mixed Korean and other languages in innovative ways. However, as the research progressed, he became more interested in how language (not always Korean) and other resources (such as building materials, makeshift signs, historical allusions, or even food waste) facilitate different forms of national belonging.
Now having been to more than 20 Koreatowns, Lee is preparing to publish his research as a monograph. As a precursor, he recently published with Jackie Jia Lou, a sociolinguistics professor at the University of London’s Birkbeck College, an analysis of Korea’s Chinatown. The article aims to understand the complexities of producing the idea of “China” as a discrete national entity through linguistic, semiotic, and spatial resources. “What we found is that ‘China’ and ‘Korea,’ in the very effort to emphasize Chineseness in Korea, come to be blurred rather than differentiated,” he says.
Similarly, Lee explores language mixing in a book (forthcoming in 2020 with Routledge), Translinguistics: Negotiating Innovation and Ordinariness, co-edited with Dr. Sender Dovchin, a scholar from Mongolia who is now based at Curtin University in Australia. “People use language in fluid ways,” he says. “How has it become a hot topic in the last few years when it’s just not an interesting thing that people mix languages?”
As Lee prepares to welcome a new set of students to campus this fall who will need help adjusting to the confines of academic English, he believes more and more people are acknowledging the fluidity of language.
“One popular concept among scholars is ‘translanguaging,’ which reflects the reality that individuals who use more than one language do not always see the boundaries between two languages, even, for instance, two seemingly disparate languages such as English and Chinese, as fixed,” he says. “This reminds us that people have the capacity to blend languages in innovative ways but also that the blending of languages is not necessarily a ‘bad’ thing. Today, though, I don't see one choice as better or worse than the other, and this is essentially what I argue in my earlier book on The Politics of Translingualism, which reflects my general philosophy toward language: that people should use language in whatever way that makes sense for them to achieve their diverse communicative needs, for it’s not always about right and wrong.” But Lee also acknowledges that it’s highly possible that his own position can change as he learns more from his research and from his students. Like languages themselves, Lee is always evolving.