Acronyms for the Future

Literally the very first thing I learned in my Master’s program was a long list of acronyms regarding the field and its various subfields. ESL, EFL, ESP, EAP, ESOL, and so on. And of course we discussed the name of our degree itself, TESOL (which is just ESOL with “teaching” in front of it).

Now, I tend to refer to the field as “ELT” because it’s the acronym I feel straddles the line between being recognizable among professionals and less stigmatizing.

On the one hand, look, if I make up an acronym, no one will pay attention to what I’m saying. And on the other hand, if I continue to use acronyms I’m not very fond of, I feel as though I’m being disingenous to some extent.

Although I have this degree, I’m becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the “O” in TESOL (or ESOL). The acronym is an improvement over the narrow term ESL, but my entire driving purpose is the fact that our field in its current state perpetuates the othering and marginalization of minoritized groups. With that said, if I am referring to past research about the field, maybe I should actually use “TESOL” because its glaring lack of self-awareness is something we should keep in mind. In other (ha) words, if I try to use a more progressive acronym to describe what exists now, it would be somewhat dishonest.

So the dilemma is, do I use a term that represents my aspirations in the field? Or do I use a term that reflects the present and past?

Where I come down on this is this perhaps wishy-washy conclusion: The acronym is going to keep changing anyway, so I might as well adopt the newer terms within the field and then continue to update my terminology with new developments. Truthfully, what would I use if I wanted to propose a new acronym? What would accuately convey my meaning?

Would it be something like “TSE,” for “Teaching Standardized English?” That would certainly be more accurate than many of our other acronyms, but it wouldn’t push the terminology forward, so how much better is it really than “TESOL?” However, if I continue to use “ELT,” in a way I am pretending that the decontextualized teaching of language is harmless or neutral, which is decidely not the case?

But I stil speak and write in what is commonly considered standardized English. I am not in a language education classroom right now, but if I were, although I’d avoid correcting students reflexively, I’d still be promoting the standardized by virtue of being the teacher and holding the relative power.

And I need to refer to the field and the practice as… something.

So for now? I think ELT works. The key, for the moment, is to push everyone’s understanding of what that “L” really means. Language is not just words, grammar, text. Language requires context, culture, and RACE. So if I do my work correctly, ELT will encompass the work I do, and it won’t ignore the marginalized or further other them.

I want to add that I don’t blame those who have taught me for using the older terms, or focusing on relatively decontextualized language. It was never entirely decontextualized, but the context was often, say, the different ways language speakers might pronounce phonemes, or holidays and heroes. Nevertheless, we can all increase our multiple forms of literacy beyond the initial understanding we were all given. And for now, ELT is, I think, the best we have for describing the past, the present, and what we could be in the future, so long as we come closer to having a full, honest grasp of what the hell language really means.

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