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Transcript: RFTRW S09E03

Overcoming inequalities in multilingualism through education and experience

Dr Ruanni Tupas

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00:00:02 Female voiceover  

You're listening to an IOE Podcast, from the UCL Institute of Education. Powered by UCL Minds.  

00:00:22 Male voiceover  

This is Research for the Real World. Conversations with researchers about the paths they've taken to to shape our everyday lives. 

00:00:45 Dr Keri Wong 

This is Research for the Real World. Hello, I'm Keri Wong. I'm an assistant professor here at the IOE. In this episode, I'm delighted to be talking with Dr Ruanni Tupas. Ruanni is a lecturer in applied linguistics, and part of the Centre for Applied Linguistics. Based at the IOE, he also holds an assistant professorship at the English Language and Literature Academic Group of the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. 

Ruanni is an international speaker, book author and multi-award teacher, known for his contributions to improve the quality and impact of our education system for the future. He is currently a member of the Advisory Board of Language Teaching, Board of Reviewers of Malaysian Journal of ELT Research and the Editorial Board of Asia-Pacific Education Researcher. 

For more than two decades, Ruanni’s work has focussed on teacher education. He is well-travelled in Southeast Asia - especially the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand - and has worked extensively in Singapore’s teacher education and curriculum development during his tenure. Ruanni has undertaken research and teaching that centers around the inequalities of multilingualism and has found creative new ways to engage with the public including interviews with young Filipino music fans and curated articles on his blog. We are delighted to have Ruanni here today to learn more about his research on teacher education, his travels in South East Asia, and involvement with Filipino pop music! Hello Ruanni, welcome to the podcast. 

00:02:23 Dr Ruanni Tupas 

Hi Keri, thank you very much for this invitation. I'm excited to be talking with you. 

00:02:29 Dr Keri Wong 

Welcome, welcome my first question to you is what made you get involved in education? I think from your notes you've come from a family of educators, correct? 

00:02:41 Dr Ruanni Tupas 

Yes, that's right. Yeah, practically everyone's an educator from my grandparents down to my mom. So it really runs in the blood. But you know, I myself got interested in it because of you know my work in the University of the Philippines from college and from then on it was no turning back. It has always been education. 

00:03:03 Dr Keri Wong 

That's amazing, sounds like a true passion of yours. I ask then how specifically did you get involved with languages and linguistics? Which languages do you speak? 

00:03:14 Dr Ruanni Tupas 

Well, I mean, I'm from the Philippines, so we are generally multilingual speakers and so much of my interest in language studies has primarily been always personal. 

Because I come from a province in the Philippines where many languages are spoken. You know, aside of course from English and the national language, which is Filipino, I also speak a couple of other Philippine language. My mother tongue is Aklanon and I'm also fluent in original language which is Hiligaynon. And because of that my experience, it is my experience speaking these different languages that has somehow pushed me to think about the theories that I learnt in college. For example, I have been in a sense uncomfortable with the theories of language or the nature of language that I have that I learnt in college because they didn't seem to speak to me as a multilingual speaker of you know from the Philippines and that basically started my interest, how my own experience and how the multilingual experience of Filipinos can feed into what we learn about languages. 

00:04:35 Dr Keri Wong 

That's really fascinating. Thanks for sharing that. So you know, I understand that you've worked in Singapore. You did your PhD there. So what are some of the differences that you see between Asia and the UK in terms of teacher education? How about it when it comes to learning English? 

00:04:55 Dr Ruanni Tupas 

Fascinating differences, but I consider these differences always as learning points for me as a teacher and as a person. You know, in general in Singapore teacher education of course is I mean there is one teacher education institution in Singapore. So there is a high high level of collaboration, if you call it that between what we do in the classroom. In other words, teachers in the classroom and teachers in, let's say local institutions such as the elementary or basic education institutions as well as government policymakers as well as the Ministry of Education. So it is always that triumvirate of groups of people who are involved in the teaching of students of our students. So there is the challenge is how to basically bring together different voices from these group of people who are involved in education. My experience in the UK, I definitely cannot generalise it at this point because my experiences with the Institute of Education, so of UCL, in a sense there is a little bit more room for individuality in terms of the content of your course, of your modules. Being able to design or redesign your lessons in a way that you probably might find interesting or relevant to your own students as well. So in other words, you know the kind of collaboration, of curriculum development that you are involved in is at the level of the Institute, whereas in Singapore my experience is the kind of collaboration that you are engaged in has to be beyond the institution, be beyond the teacher education institution. So you have to be working with a couple of other stakeholders in education which also brings in or brought in a lot of other challenges but fascinating challenges that is of course. 

But similarities, you know, students, because they are all in the field of education. The passion is there. The questions are there. I mean, this similar questions. Basically you know back in Singapore, in the Philippines, and here the kinds of language issues generally are similar because students face these issues in their respective classrooms as well. So yes, there are differences. But in terms of classroom experiences, you know there is definitely a lot of dialogue there between these groups of students and groups of teacher educators. 

00:07:36 Dr Keri Wong 

It sounds like you're drawing your experiences across cultures, and then perhaps all of that informs your way in which you're teaching and conducting teaching as well in the classroom and outside of that. I know that you do, you know, spend a lot of time in South East Asia. It means that you can access places very easily. I know you've spent a good long time travelling across South East Asia as well and working with teachers and students across different aspects of practice or curriculum development. What were some of your most memorable moments being in the field? 

00:08:13 Dr Ruanni Tupas 

Oh definitely actually travelling outside in a formal, my formal institution has always been the most some of the most exciting parts of my career back in Singapore and in South East Asia. It's deeply multilingual and also deeply multicultural so even within particular countries, you get to be immersed in different cultural groups as well. I guess the most fascinating experience to me., it's really not one particular moment, but the fascinating part of my experience travelling South East Asia because of my work is really to just simply spend time with teachers and students. 

You spend time with them, not in the classroom, but you spend time with them outside the classroom. They pick you up in your hotel or hostel. You ride their motorcycle. They bring you to their own homes, introduce you to their own families and children as well. It is that kind of interaction I think that this to me very, very memorable. Because you get to know what's behind, you know the history and the stories behind these teachers and the students, because a lot of time when we do research, we go into the classroom. 

We observe what they do. We, you know we make comments on what they do under the classroom practises but very little time is spent really knowing more about the students and their teachers. Because after all these are, you know, these are everyday ordinary people who also have to work on other things in life. After classes they go home to, you know they go to the market to pick up to buy vegetables and cook and then so they ask you to join them for lunch at home and then you go back again to their classes and to their offices. It is this part, I think to me that that has enriched my experience as a researcher because you get to know them more as human beings and the struggles that they go through in life other than just simply being teachers and students in our research. 

00:10:24 Dr Keri Wong 

Yes, I agree. I definitely agree with what you are saying and relate to that. It's almost like you're contextualising them and their experiences as well. By understanding a bit more about their normal life, right? Because they are just like all of us. 

And how you've just described it. 

00:10:43 Dr Ruanni Tupas 

Yes, if I have to add to that it is these, you know these experiences that enriching experiences that have actually fed back into my work as a researcher. It is these, you know, information and knowledge about colleagues in the region that somehow have pushed my own theorising in the field as well. Most of the time or a lot of times we do come around to go around with own theories. You know with us using them to try to understand others, but my own experience is being immersed in with the lives of your own colleagues and your friends and students in the region. They actually help you rethink your own stance and position. You know your own thinking about languages, your own thinking about education, and I think that to me has made my work more appropriate in terms of its relevance to the region and to my own experiences as well. 

00:11:41 Dr Keri Wong 

Can you describe that a little bit more? Does this personal experience and interaction inform kind of your ideas about inequalities of multilingualism? Can you tell us a little bit about what that really means? 

00:11:56 Dr Ruanni Tupas 

Yes, definitely. My work has always revolved around inequalities of multilingualism. 

And whether I would do language policy or classroom discourse analysis or whether I do literacy development or even you know TESOL or teaching of English as a second language, all of that still addresses or attempts or aims to address inequalities of multilingualism. You know the idea behind inequalities of multilingualism is really basically the fact that when we talk about multilingualism, we simply just don't talk about languages that are distributed within communities. You know we typically we talk about multilingualism in these terms. You know there are many languages in this community. There are many languages in this nation in this country. That's multilingual, but that's only half of the story. The other half of the story, which I think it's more important and more critical, is that these languages are valued differently. 

And because these languages are valued differently, and not everyone in the community, not everyone in the country or in a particular context, for example, has access to the languages that can give them, you know certain privileges in their society, then that's where inequality comes in. That's where the use of one language over another, and not just even the use of one language, but the ability to speak in a particular accent somehow privileges certain groups of people over other groups of people, so that is what I mean by inequalities of multilingualism that it is not just simply about the distribution of languages in society, but it's also about the hierarchy of languages in society and the impact of that hierarchy on the lives of people. So when I mentioned earlier about my personal experiences, it's really more about their engagement with you as a scholar. You know you come around and tell them you know this is a kind of you know approach that we might need. You know, because this is something that that works in the classroom and then they start telling you well it doesn't work. 

Here, this is what the students want. This is what the parents want, and even if you know these are fascinating theories, for example, you know at the end of the day these theories have to come to terms with the realities of the classroom. So questions you know, riding a motorcycle with someone for example when I talk about, let's say, World Englishes, you know the fact that there are many different varieties and accents when people speak English and try to share this information with the teachers that you are working with. 

You know, while riding with them on the motorcycle with a teacher, I was suddenly told, you know, I was suddenly taken aback by by a comment by one teacher who is now a very good friend of mine and said, you know Ruanni, World Englishes is a very very fascinating field of study. 

But let me bring you to our classroom by the beach alright and observe. 

What exactly do we need at the end of the day? What I think he was traced trying to say is that yes, these are sociolinguistic realities. These are, you know, the different ways that we speak, are things that we need to be concerned with. But when you get into the classroom, you have even more basic problems to be concerned about basic in terms of you just get them to probably write in sentences that will make them comprehensible. 

Or you just make them experience the learning of English because at the end of the day, they're doing it not so much because they want to speak English, you know in their daily lives. 

But basically because it's the language of school. So it's a question of priorities. I guess that I'm saying here that this personal comments that you know I got and I received from teachers from all over South East Asia and I myself a teacher as well. So there was that kind of engagement, all of that basically had somehow fed back into my work, knowing that the theories and methodologies that you think might work will have to contend with the daily realities or the messiness of the classroom in that sense. 

00:16:27 Dr Keri Wong 

That's very fascinating. I hadn't thought about language even in those terms or ways. 

Or thinking that language can be used as a tool to communicate, but also maybe people are learning a different language to get them somewhere else and so forth. I guess this leads nicely to my next question too, do you find that more people are speaking English over traditional language in particular maybe in the Philippines? 

Some people would argue that perhaps that's you know due to globalisation or you know us consuming lots of Hollywood movies and things like that. What do you think? 

00:17:06 Dr Ruanni Tupas 

Well, there is definitely a push. Again, my travels in South East Asia and I guess also my own reading of research on other regions in the world basically tell me that there is definitely a push towards English, and even in the context of the Philippines, there is an increasing again pressure to reintroduce English as sole medium of instruction for example. So when you talk about English you are talking about this what we might call the symbolic power of English that it is language that is desirable because it is supposedly the language that will help people get jobs. You know people will you know that give them access to many different privileges in society and that is where of course my own research comes in because a lot of these you know desires for English while they are legitimate when these actually come face to face with reality so to speak. Meaning you know the daily needs and realities of people. You will find out that there is a need for more languages. There is a need for encouraging people to use their own local languages as well. 

Because these are languages that can facilitate learning, facilitate literacy development as well, so there has you know there is definitely that push towards English, that desire towards English because of what I referred to earlier as the symbolic power of the language, but it also needs to be, in a sense, viewed in the context of whether or not everybody who learns English or who wants to learn English actually benefits from it, because that by itself access to the learning of English is also unequal, so in a sense the desire to learn the language is definitely a legitimate desire, but the actual learning of the language and the resources that you have to put into the learning of English are not equal when it comes to groups of people and communities so there is also that kind of inequality or unequal access to the learning of the language too, which also exacerbates inequalities as well because language is part of social, what you might call different forms of social inequality too. 

00:19:29 Dr Keri Wong 

Yeah, so speaking of access and also you know engaging with new audiences, do you have any ideas in terms of how we should best engage new audiences and make linguistics more accessible to them? 

00:19:44 Dr Ruanni Tupas 

Well, that's where my work in Filipino or Pinoy pop music comes into the picture. I think it's we're not really just simply talking of hundreds of people in in this particular community we're talking in terms of thousands of people in this community, and my experience is that these are people who have who have the potential to have a great impact on transforming education, not just in the Philippines, you know, but actually also anywhere else in the world. 

Because these are the people who are very much in tune with contemporary pop culture. 

And so looking at what they do, how they engage, let's say in social media, the kinds of thinking that get into the conversations and you know communication, online or offline, is to me really something that is fascinating. But it's something that is not accessible yet in terms of what we know about, you know the young. 

And that's where I come in because when it came in into this community. It's not because I wanted to do research. I was really just simply fascinated with the work. You know, I have three children. I wanted to know more about their interests and to cut the story short I got interested myself in Filipino pop music and things you know, somehow developed in a way that I became, you know, a Stan of one of them - you might call a Stan in one of their Filipino groups at this right now, which is called SB19. It's one of the most formidable Filipino groups at this point, so I was following them not so much as a researcher. I was following them as a father. I was following them as someone who you know has his eyes open as to what they can offer me. You know, as an educator. 

And then at the end of the day, I realised that when you actually be participating in their conversations, and I was legitimately participating in their conversations and dialogues everyday, there are just so many language issues that they you know that they engage in as well. So I told myself somehow I should try making sense of what's going on. And I think it works very well with my own research as well, because in the end my perspective on research is that you don't impose on communities what you think they should be doing. 

You start from listening to them. You start from hearing voices from the community. What are the kinds of debates? What are the kinds of conversations and you start from there. So going back to your question, I think that's the first thing I think we need to immerse ourselves in communities. It doesn't have to be the, you know, the Filipino pop music, culture or community. Any community is always speaking and talking and listening community or communicating community. I think that's the first thing that, we should do as you know, scholars in the field to just simply feel what's going out there. What's going on in these communities and start from there instead of going in already with your own understanding of what they should be doing. 

00:22:58 Dr Keri Wong 

I really like that tip of, you know, going into the community, listening to what people have to say, and before even making any kind of judgement or anything like that. Sounds like you're also a really cool Dad and you're getting in on the things that you know your children are exposed to in the culture there as well. 

Well, do you think P-Pop is another way for people to reach out to learn more about their culture and also mother tongue? 

00:23:25 Dr Ruanni Tupas 

Yes, I can give you 2 examples. One of course is because people you know come together, you know, Stans come together. Let's say online or offline and you know a lot of these fans or fans if you call them talk that speak different Philippine languages really and so what happens really is that when you analyse the kinds of conversations and dialogues, you know that we participate in these conversations. It's not just English, or it's not just the national language which is Filipino. It's a combination of English and Filipino. And then you in they infuse them with you know, different Philippine languages and what is fascinating here of course is that there are times when, let's say members of SB19 would speak in a Philippine language or Philippine language that is not as used, as they say, English and Filipino which is the national language. And yet people come together and try to figure out you know what does it mean? What exactly did let's say Ken of SB19, say and then you know the kinds of strategies that they engage in just to, you know, continue the conversation. So of course those who are, let's say, speakers of that language would help others explain what it is those who don't speak the language well go and look for their parents or their friends or boyfriends or girlfriends who speak that language for help, some also would draw on their own knowledge of their own other Philippine languages because there are similarities and coming together. I think the point here really is that the language issue the language used, or the languages used did not did not become barriers to communication. 

But that even if initially they did not understand each other, there is like a pool of, you know, resources and energies coming together trying to understand each other, and I think that to me is really fascinating because when you're actually outside these communities. You know talking about language policy and so on, people will always say, oh, let's only have one language in this society. Let's only have one or two languages, because the more languages we speak, the more difficult it is for people to communicate. 

But actually on the ground, that's not the point. If there is a desire to understand each other, languages do not really matter as much. It is your attitudes towards people. If you want to know more about people, definitely you will find ways. So language barriers really are just simply probably initial challenges in communication, but they do not really pose a great challenge, at least as far as these conversations on the ground or concerned. So I think that to me is fascinating information and some knowledge that needs to feedback into education as well in policy making. 

00:26:22 Dr Keri Wong 

I definitely agree with you and it sounds like you know. Instead of seeing language or multiple different languages that we may not understand as barriers. It's so important that we actually see them as opportunities to learn more about others or go and find out different ways to learn more about the certain culture. 

00:26:43 Dr Ruanni Tupas 

There's another one that has just come up and one group which is Alamat and the group is a multilingual group. It was formed, it now has nine members. It was formed by bringing together 9 different artists from different regions in the country and so there you know their advocacy is promoting Philippine music through the different languages that we speak, and I think that to me is something that I am very much interested in personally and as a researcher. 

Because now I am, you know I am seeing different emotions coming out in comments. You know, different, you know, like feelings of excitement of being, you know, just some fewer sentence is, you know, you know how it feels. You know how effective how emotional one could get listening to someone's language that hasn't been heard in music that hasn't been heard in songs being played on air and now suddenly you have this particular song or this particular, you know group that sings in different languages, and so that's also another fascinating development right now in Philippine music, where there is very much more interest, there's a developing interest in Filipino music in other Philippine languages. 

00:28:10 Dr Keri Wong 

That's incredible, definitely sounds like it's going to bring more people together in the community as well. 

I'm gonna try and look up some of these groups and check them out later as well. Now to my final question of the interview. I guess you know this past year has been really difficult for people and I guess you know my question now relates more to people learning another language as we spoke about. Do you think the best way to learn learning a new language or these, you know language apps that we know that we can all get on our phones and stuff. Is that the best way or is there another way that you think is better? 

00:28:50 Dr Ruanni Tupas 

Well, there are many ways and I can actually share with you what my wife and I have been have done for the past year being in three lockdowns in London. 

Yeah, and in fact that you know the past year precisely because much of the work much of communication was has been online for me and the kids. I actually took the opportunity for me to introduce them to language learning online and I did not even use softwares. You know, I use songs. 

And so songs for example in Philippine language, songs even in English and but also Filipino and Philippine languages. So it in its sense, it helps address so many things while you are being being stuck in the house. One is you get to let them, you know learn words in the language or in this different languages. 

Number two, you get to let them learn by enjoying the learning of you know these languages instead of just giving them all the grammar. I think sensitising them, you're making them comfortable with the language through the music is something that you know I think we really need to look into. And another thing, of course, is you know through music you know it's one of those things that you could do at home because it's you know for the past many weeks it has been really very very cold outside as well, so you couldn't go out, and aside from the fact that there are certain restrictions. 

00:30:24 Dr Ruanni Tupas 

What kept them going basically is music. What kept them going is you know singing in these different you know languages and it's something that they they don't really resist because it's something that excites them too. 

So it's it's hitting like in a sense, so many birds with one stone. You know their mental health, learning language and also learning about the Philippine culture. And I think that to me can also happen in other contexts too. And for me it didn't feel like and for my wife it didn't feel like, you know we are doing any work at all. We're just all singing together. 

00:31:02 Dr Keri Wong 

That's really good suggestion. I'm sure you guys are good singers too, that's why. 

Not sure if I'll get the same effect if I was singing, but Ruanni it has been really interesting talking with you. I learned a lot. Thank you so much for joining us on the podcast and sharing your work and insights. We wish you well with your research. 

00:31:26 Dr Ruanni Tupas 

Thank you, thank you very much, Keri. I also enjoyed, you know talking to you and sharing my experiences. As you know, as a researcher and as a father too. So thank you very much. It's been a privilege to be with you. 

00:31:41 Dr Keri Wong 

That's amazing, you can follow Ruanni on Twitter @TupasRuanni and you can learn more about his research via the links in the episode notes. We've had some fascinating guests on the podcast are real variation in topics and expertise across social science and education. 

And search 'IOE podcast' from wherever you get your podcasts and to find episodes from Seasons 1 to 8 of Research for the Real World, as well as more podcasts from the IOE. And if it's a musical interlude you're after, there's a Spotify playlist too featuring songs chosen by our guests and the IOE podcast team. I'm sure Ruanni is going to add a couple of SB19 tracks to all that is available on our website. Just search 'Research for the Real World'. I'm Keri. See you next time. 

00:32:35 Female voiceover 

Thanks so much for downloading and listening to this IOE podcast from the UCL Institute of Education, University College London.