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Spirituality, Social Justice, and Language Learning

David I. Smith and Terry A. Osborn, Eds.
Published by Information Age Publishing in 2007

This collection of essays explores the intersection of language learning, social justice and spirituality. Discussions of the relation of spirituality to language teaching have opened up only recently, sometimes with alarm and acrimony by secular critics of Christians in the field of teaching English as a second language. David Smith has authored or coauthored four of the book’s eight chapters, with his coeditor Terry Osborn and six others contributing the remaining four chapters.

What do the authors mean by “spirituality” and by “social justice” and how do they perceive the relationship between the two? Osborn writes: “Social justice may be described as sharing social power and benefits equitably” (5). Marginalized people seeking justice may perceive “spirit” as one component of justice. Social justice cannot “be reduced to measurement and control” (6). “Spirit” has a quality that makes it a mysterious force beyond what we can measure or predict, something beyond our understanding (7). Osborn says that if we are really concerned about social justice, we need to talk about spirituality. Without the element of spirit, social justice will be superficial and will not really challenge the status quo (9).

The rationale for taking the spiritual into account in language education is laid out in the first two chapters of the book by Osborn and Smith. They maintain that positivist approaches to language pedagogy are inadequate because without considering the spiritual, we cannot account for the whole and complex humanness of people nor can we give an adequate account of what social justice means. Drawing on Claire Kramsch1 and Jet vanDam,2 Smith contends that ecological models of language teaching create space for considering a wider range of variables that affect language teaching and learning, for example “how teachers’ beliefs about…ethics or interpersonal relations or human flourishing might affect their classroom behaviors” (16). This is one of the first of several helpful connections between his thinking and contemporary theories of language pedagogy that Smith draws in his essays.

In Chapter 3, Smith presents several narrative vignettes from his own experiences to demonstrate how integral moral and spiritual concerns are to the processes of language teaching and second language acquisition. His examples culminate in one that describes how he began to challenge the shallowness of traditional language textbooks, which present human beings who merely transact business or order meals in restaurants. Smith wanted his learners to encounter real German people – not false, dehumanizing stereotypes, but people who “suffered, hoped, believed, doubted, prayed, wept, sacrificed for a cause, or died” (41). And so, through the content of his lessons, he integrated a spiritual dimension into the language teaching.

As Smith and Osborn call on an ecological model of language education in order to make room for spiritual and ethical concerns, John L. Watzke takes an ecological approach to foreign language teacher formation by exploring the emphases that Catholic educational tradition brings to the process (Chapter 4). Watzke expands on the proposition that “teacher formation is the on-going social practice of teaching that finds spiritual expression in communal and reciprocal student-teacher growth oriented toward justice and the Common Good” (emphasis Watzke; 59). Foreign language teachers are “called to serve as a social bridge from classroom to language community and to view this work as spiritual expression that serves social justice and the Common Good” (79). As Watzke sees it, mutuality is at the heart of justice: we learn a language to function effectively in the host culture or “to serve as host to the stranger” (79).To develop as a good teacher is to serve students so that they develop into responsible agents of change.

Two articles on classroom practices follow—one by Smith’s colleague at Calvin College, Marilyn Bierling, and one that Smith co-authored with three of his students. The authors illustrate how they integrate language learning and practice with personal narratives that raise social, political, moral and spiritual questions that engage students. Smith and his colleagues connect their pedagogical advice helpfully to another strand of language learning theory, namely Guy Cook’s work on imagination and play in language acquisition.3 Further, they critique the mundane and banal transactional language that is the focus of many foreign language texts and introduce in greater detail the use of biographical narratives as a base for teaching because narratives help to bring “coherence and meaning to our lives”4. Literary texts, they point out, also have this potential, but do not provide the same ethical motivations as do stories of real persons. Grammar study, for example, can be motivated by ethical values if students are reading the story of a person with whom they can identify humanly. If students do not process the grammar accurately, they risk misunderstanding the story of a person whose voice may have been marginalized in the past, but who now has a chance to speak to them.

The objectives of the language lessons suggested by the authors include competence with linguistic structures, but go beyond that to foreground issues of “faith, perseverance, self-sacrifice, family unity, hospitality” (117) and so forth so that learners:
•have their stereotypes challenged,
•examine issues of truth and distortion of the truth,
•make personal connections with immigrants and receive invitations to take action on their behalf,
•become receptive to ethical challenges from persons of diverse cultural backgrounds, and
•“respond to what they hear, see, and feel with truth and compassion” (122).

Following these practical illustrations of how spirituality and social justice can be integrated in the language curriculum, two final essays return to theoretical perspectives. Carolyn Kristjánsson’s essay on Paulo Freire highlights the neglected and sometimes suppressed spiritual threads in his thought. She seeks to uncover the influence and images of Freire’s faith that shape his views of people and pedagogic process, drawing on his own writings and his interpreters. She lifts up Freire’s view of humanization as “a transformative process that occurs in the context of committed, cointentional partnerships, initiated by love and self-giving on the part of the educator” (140). For many language learners and teachers, a commitment to “social transformation, justice and equality” depends on their religious commitments (146). Kristjánsson does not advocate for focusing on religious exploration in the classroom, but for at least allowing real-world issues of social [in]justice to be examined through a spiritual lens.

Smith’s essay on Pieter Verburg and Mikhail Bakhtin concludes the volume. His purpose in examining the linguistic theories of the Dutch Reformed philosopher and the Eastern Orthodox scholar is to show that the relationship between theory and spirituality is flexible: variations are possible in the interpretation of theological motifs and in the way these motifs combine with theory. Certain theological commitments, he shows, do not necessitate certain theories of language learning or use. We need to read theoretical sources for language learning with a consciousness of the spiritual roots to which they may be connected.

The essays in the book are exploratory and are helpful in spurring discussion of how certain understandings of spirituality and social justice intersect with language teaching. The dominant spiritual perspectives in the essays are linked to Reformed and Catholic traditions in Christianity, though we do get exposure to other traditions as Kristjánsson presents Freire’s Marxist-hued Catholicism and as Eastern Orthodox views are filtered through Smith’s discussion of Mikhail Bakhtin. There are vague references to the effects of Muslim and Buddhist spirituality and only one mention of Jewish spirituality (21). Watzke in Chapter 4 draws on his experiences with teacher education programs at the University of Notre Dame and Brandeis University, but writes about graduates of Notre Dame’s M.Ed. program almost exclusively, missing the opportunity to give any insights about becoming a language teacher in the tradition of Judaism. Since the authors begin with a rather broad understanding of what spirituality is, it seems a little surprising that they did not try to draw persons other than self-identified Christians into the discussion.

I appreciate the care that most of the authors have taken to connect their work with major theoretical developments in second language pedagogy. In several respects the book is a groundbreaking statement by Christian scholars in terms that take developments in contemporary foreign language teaching seriously. It has the limitations of many books that are comprised of collected essays, but the editors have worked hard to shape the book into a coherent statement. Perhaps one day they will deliver a more connected and comprehensive discussion of Christian spirituality, social justice and language pedagogy. But for now, this volume provides insights into language teaching that will guide Christian language teachers and could even stimulate those in other disciplines to consider how to proceed with integrating spirituality and social justice concerns into their curriculum.

Cite this article
R. Michael Medley, “Spirituality, Social Justice, and Language Learning”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 38:3 , 397-399


  1. Claire Kramsch, Context and Culture in Language Learning (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
  2. Jet van Dam, “Ritual, Face and Play in a First English Lesson,” in Language Acquisition and Language Social-ization: Ecological Perspectives, C. Kramsch, ed. (New York: Continuum, 2002), 237-265.
  3. Guy Cook, Language Play, Language Learning (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
  4. Roger I. Simon, Teaching against the Grain: Tests for a Pedagogy of Possibility, (Toronto: OISE Press, 1992), 109.

R. Michael Medley

Eastern Mennonite University
Dr. Michael Medley is Professor Emeriti of English at Eastern Mennonite University.