Pushing Hands

yin yan

This is the thirtieth and final blog in the series, ‘Loafing and Lurking’. Over the new year, we moved back to Macao from Brazil, and in the last two weeks, I’ve resumed my post at the University here. The spare time for blogging that I enjoyed in Sao Paulo is likely to be swallowed up in a quicksand of new responsibilities. The University is also about to move campus to a new site across the river, and I anticipate that this migration is also going to take up a lot of my time in the next few months.

Still, I’ve enjoyed dipping my toe (the one I didn’t injure in an accident a few weeks ago!) in the blogosphere. I’ve realised that keeping a blog is in itself a prompt to keeping your eyes and ears open and an encouragement to think in greater depth about what you are reading and listening to … and what you are doing in your teaching and research. It sharpens your senses. I may be tempted back again when the dust settles.

It’s good to be back in Asia. The energy here is palpable, and I’ve already attended a typically challenging colloquium in Hong Kong, a fabulous city. The event was arranged at HK Baptist University to commemorate the translation scholar, Professor Martha Cheung, who sadly passed away last year. The respect and affection she inspired both locally and internationally was evident in the range of contributions from young graduate students to distinguished visiting professors, such as Sandra Bermann of Princeton University and John Milton of the University of Sao Paulo.

The colloquium was hosted by Douglas Robinson of HKBU on the theme of performativity in translation studies, the idea that travelling across languages doesn’t just involve exchanging information but rather it is a form of action, of ‘doing things with words’, to echo the British philosopher, J.L. Austin. Professor Cheung’s distinctive take on this idea was to conceive of translation as an idealised form of martial arts, a model of intercultural communication that she called ‘pushing hands’ or ‘tuishou’.

The notion seems similar in some ways to Brazilian capoeira: there are two performers, but in the Chinese discipline, the participants touch hands, then they attack and defend, developing over time a heightened awareness of the other’s likely manoeuvres, and attempting to deflect force not with opposing force, but by yielding and deflecting. One (slightly controversial) addition to Professor Cheung’s model, suggested by Douglas Robinson, was the actuality or even just the sense of an audience – actors whom he called ‘periperformers’ – who watch and judge the pushing of hands, according to a set of standards.

When you think about it, the metaphor is a powerful one for translation and for intercultural communication more generally. There is the essential nature of contact between self and other. There is the complex play of forces that result in a goal-directed performance with an unpredictable outcome. It involves the development of ‘ting jing’ or ‘listening power’, an almost innate sensitivity to the intentions of your partner. And, when watched from outside, the performance can be beautiful.

The pushing of hands seems like a fitting point at which to draw this series of posts to a close. Thanks for dipping and out of them from time to time. And may the new year – whether it’s the western one or the upcoming Chinese one – be good to you!

Cheung, M. P. (2012). The mediated nature of knowledge and the pushing-hands approach to research on translation history. Translation Studies 5:2, pp 156-171

Robinson, D. (2004). Performative linguistics: speaking and translating as doing things with words. London: Routledge.



I’ve just completed one of the most enjoyable years of teaching in my career, as a visiting professor at the University of Sao Paulo. One of my duties there has been to give an undergraduate survey course on 500 years of Scottish Literature – I got to teach it twice, once per semester. I don’t usually teach literature; usually I teach English language and linguistics, which I also enjoy, but this experience has been a special pleasure in many ways.

There is a perceived cultural shift between teachers of ‘language’ and ‘literature,’ based partly on the differing methodological assumptions of each discipline, and partly on mutual snobbery, but obviously that cultural divide blurs when you teach literature in a foreign language environment. It became evident over the two semesters that the ways of teaching language can be creatively applied to literary studies, and vice versa.

‘Why on earth would people in Brazil want to learn about Scottish Literature?’ This was my mother’s question when I told her what I would be doing this past year, and like most of her questions, it has a point. The students who signed up for my courses were a mixed bunch: they ranged from freshmen to students who had been attending USP for so long that they couldn’t actually remember which year they were in. Some were majoring in English, but a fair proportion was from other disciplines, either curious about Scotland, or just keen to practise their listening skills with a visiting native speaker. Few had much prior experience of the literatures of Scotland. So I had to figure out how to address the issue my mother had raised: what did I hope to achieve by the end of the course?

Well, first I wanted simply to introduce students to some interesting writers, some canonical (a few had already encountered a poem or two by Robert Burns in a poetry survey course, Walter Scott and RL Stevenson are well-studied at USP and I felt the students should know about other figures with an international reputation, like Muriel Spark. But I also wanted to introduce them to characters who might not be so well known here, like Henryson, Dunbar, Lindsay, the court poets of James VI, Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty, Ramsay, Fergusson, John Galt, Margaret Oliphant, and a selection of contemporary figures like Liz Lochhead, James Kelman and Alasdair Gray. I knew there would be huge gaps – the rich Gaelic tradition would only be referred to in passing, and I would not be able to cover figures of international importance historically, like James ‘Ossian’ MacPherson, the subject (I was later to discover) of a local graduate student’s PhD thesis. But  I was keen to look at Hugh MacDiarmid, since one of my illustrious predecessors at USP was Kenneth Buthlay, who later taught me at Glasgow University. He actually wrote his fantastic little introduction to MacDiarmid’s poetry while here, and copies of it are one of the few texts on Scottish Literature available in USP library. And I wanted to look at Edwin Morgan’s connections with and translations of the avant garde Brazilian poets, Augusto and Haroldo de Campos. In short, I wanted the students to read stuff – usually poems and short stories, but also two or three novellas like Galt’s ‘Annals of the Parish’, Stevenson’s ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ and Spark’s ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.’

But I also wanted to tell a story. The survey was organised in a routine chronological fashion, but the title of the course, I discovered on arriving, was in fact ‘Non Hegemonic Literatures in English’, a convenient umbrella title that allowed local and guest lecturers to deliver courses in (usually) African, Caribbean, Indian, or Irish literatures. In conversation, I figured out that these courses fall into a post-colonial template of resistance to British imperialism, nationalist affirmation, and globalized self-questioning. Scotland doesn’t quite fit that template, but on reflection I had a possible narrative: we would begin before the Treaty of Union with a ‘pre-colonial’ phase in the 16th century; we would consider the consequences of the Union in the 18th century; and then we would look at ways in which Scotland accommodated itself to Unionism in the 19th century and then began to question it in the 20th. In a way, part of the course reversed the ‘non-hegemonic’ expectations of the course description, since during the 17th century the ‘hegemons’ were actually Scottish members of the Stuart dynasty, who ruled over countries not their own – including England. Anyway, if the students followed the course attentively, they would at least have a better understanding of the debate leading to the independence referendum that is scheduled for September 2014.

The first semester went well enough – I enjoyed it and the feedback from students was generally positive. Yet over the mid-semester break, I was slightly dissatisfied. From the students’ assessments (a mid-semester close reading and an end-of-semester theoretical reflection) I wasn’t really sure if I had addressed my concerns – I wasn’t really sure that the students were reading as much as I wanted them to (not an uncommon concern!) and I wasn’t happy that the assessment procedure actually challenged the students very much. They wrote good-to-middling academic essays, picking away at a poem or a novel and responding to some of the theoretical issues in usually a fairly superficial way. In particular, it struck me that the written English of the students was not likely to improve if I only asked them to write a longish essay twice per semester.

After some stimulating conversations with a graduate student who had taken a more advanced seminar with me, I decided to do two things: first, I decided to add short, weekly written tasks as part of the assessment process. These would not be your standard academic essay, but they would ask students to respond to the course reading in more creative and unusual ways. And second, I would ask students to contribute to a ‘Digital Companion’ – which we eventually imagined as a website that covers part of the course (1500-1900, i.e. before copyright gets difficult) and which features content based on my lectures, the tasks I set the students before each session, and recordings of the students giving model responses.

These decisions revolutionised the second semester. I asked the students to do ten of a possible fourteen weekly tasks; by simply reading the course texts and uploading a short (c. 200-word) response, they could get 30% of the course grade. I asked them to spend no more than an hour per week doing this – though I later learned that some of the more assiduous were spending much longer. Unsurprisingly, I immediately lost a few students who were unwilling to commit to a regular regime of coursework. But those who stayed benefited a lot. And they began to demonstrate a very high degree of imaginative interaction with the materials.

I tried to vary the tasks as much as possible. The students were asked to update two stanzas of Henryson’s ‘Testament of Cresseid’ into modern English and then we compared their versions with those of Seamus Heaney and the Canadian poet, Fred Cogswell. The students imagined how they would stage a scene from ‘A Satire of the Three Estates’ and then watched a scene from the recent Edinburgh production online. They were asked to write a sonnet, using the ‘reulis and cautelis’ of James VI, and they devised 4 or 5 characteristics of their own ‘universal language’ in response to Thomas Urquhart’s. Some wrote a short ballad using traditional ballad formulae and some Scots words, culled from the Dictionary of the Scots Language online. They wrote love letters in the style of Burns and Clarinda. They provided pleas for or against clemency to the judge at the end of Walter Scott’s ‘The Two Drovers’.

In one of my favourite tasks, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, they turned Galt’s ‘The Annals of the Parish’ into a series of tweets – and I began to realise the power of hashtags in bringing out the themes underlying an extended piece of fiction. They were forced to confront issues of narrative reliability by attempting to dramatize ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ and they psycho-analysed the disturbed narrator of Margaret Oliphant’s ghost story, ‘The Library Window’. They translated some Scots-rich paragraphs of a kailyard novel into Portuguese, and wrote down a think-aloud protocol of their encounter with one of MacDiarmid’s early lyrics. They turned a scene from ‘They Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ into a film script and then compared it with the Ronald Neame version on YouTube. And to finish off, they devised their own concrete poems, before looking at how Edwin Morgan translated some of the de Campos brothers’ verbo-visual texts. They worked incredibly hard.

A number of things emerged. First, I became confident that the students were reading the set texts with a greater degree of engagement than before. Some, naturally, invested the tasks with a greater degree of enthusiasm and engagement  – and talent – than others. But each week I was surprised by a thoughtful or reflective or just downright witty response from a different student. People responded in different ways to the different tasks. Secondly, for the substantial proportion of students who regularly submitted their weekly assignment, the level of their written English slowly improved. There was still quite a range of written competence by the end of the course, but there was clear improvement. And finally, the understanding displayed in the close reading and theoretical essay was deeper.

Progress on the ‘digital companion’ was slower, but by the end of the semester a small group of keen volunteers was ready to make recordings of some of the course readings, and of model responses to the weekly tasks. We begged and borrowed classrooms and equipment to make some rudimentary video-clips. As of yesterday, we have all the material we need to complete the course companion, but there is a fair amount of editing and uploading to be done before the course goes public on WordPress (at http://scottishliterature.wordpress.com) – we are aiming for Burns Night, on 25th January 2014.  A sneak preview of one of the video clips is given at the end of this blog.

When it does appear, I hope that the website will encourage others to deliver similar courses on Scottish Literature elsewhere. But even if it doesn’t, it will serve me as a reminder of one of the happiest teaching experiences I’ve ever had. My grateful thanks go to all who made it so.


Putting stories to work


On Friday 22nd November, I found myself back in Parana, this time at the kind invitation of the Curitiba chapter of Braz TESOL, to give a day’s worth of presentations and workshops on intercultural language education. This will be the last of my trips out of Sao Paulo this year, and, as ever, my hosts in Curitiba were exceptionally hospitable, and the audience for the event was lively and receptive.

As usual, with such presentations, at least when you get to my age, you end up recycling and revisiting some material you have previously presented elsewhere. This can be a useful experience since the reception of the material always differs in some respects, or you find yourself listening more critically to your own words, as they tumble out of your mouth. Or someone asks a question you hadn’t thought of before.  At any rate, you take away a new perspective on topics you thought were familiar.

This time I found myself thinking more about a quotation from Ron Barnett that I often use, from one of his books on the limits of a competence-driven approach to higher education:

“A higher education designed around skills is no higher education. It is the substitution of skills for insight; of strategic reason for communicative reason; and of behaviour for wisdom.” (Barnett, 19984: 61)

This becomes a more startling quotation if we substitute the words ‘language teaching’ for ‘higher education’; thus, “language education designed around skills is no language education.”  Now, as a professional who routinely described his function as teaching the “four skills” of reading, writing, listening and speaking, that is a sobering idea. What would a classroom look like if we were to move beyond trying to teach competent “behaviour” (often codified as learning outcomes in curricular statements and lesson plans) and also tried systematically to engender “wisdom”? How do we teach wisdom in the classroom?

One truism is that wisdom comes from experience, and in Curitiba we explored the way that experiences can be shared and interrogated through stories. Stories are an obvious way of blending language activities (we encourage past-tense narratives all the time) and genuine experiences that can be shared and learned from. In a useful guide that is freely downloadable on the web, Tomkins (2009) guides teachers on ways of using stories to encourage critical reflection. There are several steps that the teacher and class are invited to follow:

1.       Story finding: this involves keeping your eyes and ears open for stories – in newspapers, magazines, fiction, gossip, conversation, social media postings or blogs, that serve as useful illustrations of issues you want to raise in the classroom. The teacher needs to develop a nose for a good story; but this is ultimately something that needs to be passed on to learners, so that they can find their own narratives to learn from.

2.       Story-telling: the learners then read, or listen to – and ultimately tell their own – stories that illustrate some issue. These acts of reading and listening go beyond the development of the receptive ‘skills’ of comprehension; they involve making sense of the story in a framework of cultural value, and within everyday ethical and moral systems.

3.       Story expanding: crucially, in Tomkins’ approach, the stories are then retold and expanded upon by the listeners. The listeners make their own meaning from the stories they hear, which usually involves seeing the events from a similar or different cultural, ethical or moral perspective.

4.       Story processing: once the stories have been shared and retold, the group of learners discusses the original narrative and the responses. What are the gaps, points of contention, similarities of judgement?

5.       Story transformation: the final stage is simply to reflect on what has been learned from the story; what can we as storytellers and audience draw from the story and the responses, to add to our lived experience?

These steps can give language teachers a procedure to follow when using stories to blend language learning with the kind of values education that is typical of intercultural studies. Ideally, as noted, the teacher would ask a multicultural class to share stories on a particular topic – but this activity demands a high level of mutual respect and empathy amongst the learners, and needs to be sensitively set up. When Andrea Assenti del Rio uses techniques from ‘The Theatre of the Oppressed’ to dramatise stories about the abuse of power, she spends necessary time building an atmosphere of trust and collaboration in the classroom.

Another way of establishing the process of storytelling and responding is for the teacher to search out useful stories to bring to the classroom. There are numerous possible sources –factual and fictional – but one that is rich and accessible is the Internet. Blogs and forums are full of brief, pointed, everyday stories of human experience – and many also come complete with comments and responses. These websites can be used as a source of stories for critical cultural reflection.

I noticed one simple story on the topic of a tourist disaster on a forum called ‘Woman and Home’.  I adapted it slightly so that it reads as follows:

Flight cancelled again!

Our daughter has now been stranded in Lanzarote since last Friday and now the flight today has been cancelled too. That’s three flights that have been cancelled now. She is so upset and was sobbing over the ‘phone. We feel so helpless but what can we do? Very distressing. I joked that she might be home for Christmas. Wish now I had kept quiet.

Having noticed the story (step 1) , the teacher can ask the learners to listen to it, or to read it (step 2). As well as checking for reading or listening comprehension, the teacher can ask the learner to share their own three key points about the story. Are their perspectives similar? In this way the learners retell and expand upon the story (step 3). How do your learners comment on the posting?

Since this is a forum, the learners’ suggested responses can be compared with some actual comments made on the original posting:

1.       I can understand why your daughter is so upset. We got stranded in Lanzarote at Easter because of the volcano and although it sounds wonderful to be getting an extra week added to your holiday it is actually really stressful. Is the airline looking after your daughter? Has she been offered accommodation etc?


2.       I am sorry to read of your daughter’s situation. It must be hard and a worry for you and her. Still as you say she has some insurance and at least she is with friends and her situation isn’t her fault. I am sure she will be home soon.  Her employer sounds level headed and fair so try not to worry too much!


3.       After our experience earlier in the year I am really glad that we booked our flight with Thomson. The RyanAir people had to fend for themselves as your daughter is having to do. It is good that she is with people who are looking after her – let’s hope she can get home soon.

We can see even from these brief responses the importance of being able to articulate emotions clearly when responding to personal stories: ‘I can understand why X is so upset’, ‘it is really stressful’, ‘I am sorry to read/hear of…’, ‘it must be hard and a worry for you’, etc.

The learners can then be invited to re-tell the story, perhaps from the daughter’s perspective. How does she feel about the situation now, after the phone call? How does she feel about her parent’s failed attempt to cheer her up?

Now that the story has been understood, expanded and seen from another perspective, the learners can compare the difference between the different narratives and responses (step 4). The teacher can elicit the function of each of the narratives – the parent might be seeking reassurance; the daughter might be looking for acknowledgement of the parent’s tactlessness, or she might be more forgiving, depending on how the learners imagine her story. The first two responses show empathy and seem to respond to the parent’s desire for reassurance; the third, however, seems less empathic: the author seems to be congratulating himself on choosing a superior travel option, although, more charitably, he may simply be giving advice for the future. This is an example of a ‘second story’ in which the writer (a) narrates a shared experience and (b) observes that his outcome was better than that of the person who tells the ‘first story’.

Finally, we can look over the activity as a whole and ask what it can teach us (step 5). One thing is that blogs and forums express personal narratives, often written by people who share their experiences, good and bad, for others to comment on. They may be self-congratulatory or they may be seeking comfort. The commentators may take up the invitation to reassure the story-teller, or they may give advice based on their own experience – possibly in a way that will make them appear to be smug. A small nugget of practical, everyday wisdom to come from this kind of story might be that we should restrain ourselves from making poor jokes when we are talking to someone who is upset.

And so we go through life, ideally learning from our own experiences or the experiences of others, transformed into stories. Ideally. Sometimes we need to practise that kind of attentive learning. In the words of Stroobants, Chambers and Clarke:

“We do not learn from experience. Experience has to be arrested, examined, analysed, considered and negotiated in order to shift it to knowledge.”

The language classroom can be a wonderful place to make this happen.

Further reading

Barnett, Ronald (1994) The Limits of Competence. Buckingham & Bristol: The Open University Press

Stroobants, H., P. Chambers and B. Clarke (eds) (2007) Reflective Journeys. A Fieldbook for Facilitating Lifelong Learning in Vocational Education and Training. Rome: Leonardo da Vinci REFLECT Project Publication, Instituto Guglielmo, Tagliacane,

Tomkins, A. (2009) Learning and Teaching Guides: Developing Skills in Critical Reflection Through Mentoring Stories. Higher Education Academy Network for Hospitality, Leisure, Sport and Tourism http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/assets/hlst/documents/resources/ssg_tomkins_mentoring_stories.pdf

Word fashions

Word fashions

The past weeks have been so hectic that I’ve had little time to stop, think and blog. But a report on the BBC yesterday made me pause: the ‘Oxford English Dictionary’ has proclaimed ‘selfie’ as its word of the year. The ‘word of the year’ is an interesting cultural indicator in English-speaking society: the choice is usually linked to technological innovation, a shift in social attitudes, or a set of political changes that affects everyone. Sometimes all three are involved.

But the selfie seems to be largely an indicator of technological change and social attitudes: the predictably outraged comments that follow the BBC reports on the ‘selfie’ and its crowning as ‘word of 2013’ suggest a move towards a vainer society, facilitated by the ability to take a snapshot of yourself on the phone and distribute it instantly via social media, usually for approbation. I guess you could call the overall procedure, ‘fishing for likes’.

The thing that really interested me about the BBC report, however, was the statistic revealing that, though the expression ‘selfie’ in its current sense, is first recorded in 2003, its use has risen 17000% in the past twelve months. That’s 17000%! First of all, the surge in usage is astonishing; secondly, how do the nice chaps at OED work this out?

The answer, of course, is that modern lexicography is based very much on monitoring the language with mind-bogglingly huge computerised corpora. Oxford and Cambridge University Presses have fantastic corpus resources of the spoken and written language that have revolutionised dictionary-making over the past quarter of a century. Before the rise of computers, the main reference dictionaries employed small teams of readers to sift through prescribed texts, ferreting out interesting or novel usages for the citations. This itself was a mammoth enterprise, and its early days are ably dramatized by Simon Winchester in his books, ‘The Meaning of Everything’ and ‘The Surgeon of Crowthorne’ (or, in its American edition, the rather more sensational, ‘The Professor and the Madman’) which are well worth reading. But now, rather than having teams of dedicated readers, writing down terms on slips of paper, we have electronic corpora that can search extensive archives of written text (and increasingly transcribed speech) that show how words and meanings enter the language, rise in popularity, remain stable, or fade away. Tracking their fortunes over time can tell us a lot about technology, culture and attitude. This is particularly true when you look at the impact of one word or language on another.

Take for example, the little Russian suffix, ‘-nik’, meaning ‘small’. We can track the cross-cultural impact of this little bit of a word in American English by interrogating the freely-available online Corpus of Historical American English, maintained at Brigham Young University by Professor Mark Davies and his team. By logging onto CoHA and entering ‘*nik’ as your search item, and choosing ‘Chart’ as your display option, you can track the progress of this little bit of language from 1810 to 2009, mainly, of course, in written texts.

The number of occurrences of ‘-nik’ is of course relatively small between the 1810s and 1940s, and on closer inspection, the words in which we find this suffix are generally names of a Slavic origin, or foreign words that are glossed, e.g. in the 1930s we find a reference to the ‘the General Stefanik Circle of the Slovak League of America’. But then in the 1950s, there is a sudden late surge in the frequency of this suffix – thanks, of course, to a ‘little moon’ that began to orbit Earth in the late 1950s, the first man-made satellite, ‘Sputnik’. Early references to this technological advance show the response of American commentators to this Russian achievement. In 1958, Time magazine reports, ‘Despite the Sputnik furor and the panicky cries that the U.S. was lagging behind the Russians in missilery, Convair and the Air Force stuck stubbornly to a schedule that was programed for maximum effort long before Sputnik.’ Even in this one sentence one can sense why the ‘-nik’ suffix was becoming so frequent.

The ‘-nik’ surge continued in the 1960s, but ‘Sputnik’ was being joined by a number of new English coinages that employed the Russian suffix that the little man-made moon had done much to popularise. ‘Beatnik’ is first dated to the 1960s in CoHA, and the use of the Russian diminutive conveys much of the general suspicion that these counter-cultural figures aroused, and the pro-Soviet sympathies they were assumed to share: in an issue of Harpers magazine published in 1968, we find the sentence, ‘As they worked, the two government officers had a friendly laugh together over the filthy cowardice of “beatnik pinko kids.”’

Then, once ‘-nik’ had been released into English as an attitudinal suffix, signifying a certain attitude of contempt and political distaste, other words joined the fold: ‘refusenik’, ‘peacenik’, ‘folknik,’ ‘vietnik’ and ‘freaknik’ come into the English language from the 1960s onwards. Over two or three decades the degree of political distaste fades but an air of obsessiveness remains – a ‘neatnik’ is still someone who is a little too compulsively orderly in their habits.

So are these coinages merely a passing fad, as someone complains of ‘selfie’ in the postings that follow the BBC report on the OED’s decision? Some are. If you look at the frequency of ‘peacenik’ in CoHA, it is first found in the 1960s, peaks in frequency in the 1980s, but fades away in the 2000s to its low 1960s level. It seems to be on the way out. But the relative popularity of ‘-nik’ as a suffix that conveys a cultural attitude remains: the usages in CoHA in the 2000s still include a lot of proper names, but in between them you can find ‘no-goodnik’, ‘retro-beatnik’ and ‘neo-beatnik’. And, of course, people are still talking about Sputnik, that alarming piece of technology whose influence changed the language. The selfie might have a long future ahead of it.

Further reading:

The rise of the selfie: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22511650

‘Selfie’ is the OED word of 2013: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-24992393

The Corpus of Historical American English: http://corpus2.byu.edu/coha/

Winchester, S. (2002). The surgeon of Crowthorne: a tale of murder, madness and the Oxford English Dictionary. Penguin UK.

Winchester, S. (2003). The meaning of everything: The story of the Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press.

Drama & Gardening

Drama & Gardening

Sometimes, when I get too serious about intercultural language education, I remember a student I once taught in my first job, in Salerno, in Italy. He was a lively Italian law student, and he drove a Fiat 500 with a maniacal fury along the winding roads of the Amalfi Coast.

‘Look, look at the culture!’ he would yell, as we overtook a nun on a moped.

‘What culture?’

He gestured to the vine and olive trees on the steep slopes above us. ‘The agriculture!’ he cried.

I was reminded of this student by the BrazTESOL Special Interest Group event on Intercultural Language Education that Andrea Assenti del Rio and I held last week in Sao Paulo, an event kindly supported by Martins Fontes bookshop and Cambridge Brazil. Somewhere between 30 and 40 participants turned up, which was just enough to fill the room, and they stayed for the day’s events. I did some of my usual stuff on understanding images, and on the cultural aspects of conversational interaction. Andrea talked about the cultural content of course-books, and how to supplement them, and she took us through some techniques from the ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’ that she has been using to combine language learning, critical thinking and conflict resolution. And she also talked about gardening.

The participants were wonderful. I like working with Brazilian teachers – there is no problem in getting them to respond. It is more of a problem stopping them from responding; but that is a very good problem to have. So they enthusiastically shared their ideas on making and understanding art in the classroom, questioned the use of phrasal ‘chunks’ in conversational stories, told us of their rich experiences in adapting course materials to their own ends –and participated whole-heartedly in Andrea’s dramatic exploration of critical incidents.

The drama techniques of ‘The Theatre of the Oppressed’ can be understood as a metaphor for cultivation. There is the stage of germination when the ‘spect-actors’ – those who both spectate and act – have to build up trust. A simple way of doing this (while revising numbers) is to stand in a circle and see if you can count from 1 to 10 without anyone overlapping. It’s not easy. Like cultivation, it takes patience, and quite a few failures. One person says ‘one’ and three people immediately call out ‘two’. Or they let a pause elapse. But how long a pause can we stand? Or more precisely how long a pause can Brazilian teachers stand? When it works well, an almost palpable sense of trust develops in the silences between the calling out of numbers. We stop shouting and we begin to listen. And gradually, out of the failures, the group develops its own rhythm.

From the listening and trust-building we become ready for a more elaborate technique. Small groups – of around four or five – identify an incident in which they feel someone has been abusing his or her power over someone else, and they act out that incident together before the whole class. In the sessions I’ve attended, there have been different kinds of everyday oppression portrayed – people using their size to jostle for space on a metro train or bus; migrant workers labouring in sweatshops with no basic working privileges. Since we usually work with educators, the incidents frequently involve teachers, parents, secretaries and pupils – sometimes a parent is abusing a teacher, sometimes it’s a director of studies browbeating junior colleagues. Sometimes you can see the ‘oppressor’s’ eyes light up as he or she channels an incident from memory. The sap rises. Language flows.

The audience then reflects on the critical incident that has been performed, and the teacher asks for suggestions on how to subvert or challenge the oppression. But because the audience is composed of ‘spect-actors’ they can’t simply make their suggestions; no, they have to join in and perform their interventions in a replay of the original incident. So the erstwhile viewer takes on the role of the bus passenger who is being jostled; or turns one of the migrant workers into a kind of shop steward or negotiator; or finds some words to say that might calm an angry parent or soften the attitude of an unreasonable boss. Then, we discuss whether or not that intervention would have worked in real life, and perhaps act out some further alternatives.

Again, it is a simple technique that works surprisingly well in generating language and cultivating – there’s that word, again, ‘cultivating’ – critical thinking. We may not agree with the solutions put forward in the scenario, but we are prompted to think hard about possible alternatives. And in the shared experience, and in the discussions that pool that experience, we are encouraged to grow.

So it seemed appropriate that when Andrea was describing the work of her school in La Plata, Argentina, she also talked about a gardening project that the younger learners are currently engaged in. Her city was dreadfully affected by flooding earlier this year, and many of her neighbours lost their lives, or know people who were suddenly and terribly bereaved. The community is coming together in a number of initiatives, and one that Andrea’s school has initiated – small though it might be – is a garden project. The children are bringing seeds and learning about the vocabulary and grammar of gardening in English. The springtime lettuces that are beginning to germinate in La Plata are more than just a resource for learning language; they are a symbol of rebirth, renewal.

Or, as my Italian student said so many years ago, of ‘culture’.

See http://www.homeintercultural.com.ar/engl/home_engl.html



I’m now safely back in Brazil after a very enjoyable week in Vilnius, giving a plenary presentation and a workshop on intercultural language education at LAKMA, the Lithuanian English teachers’ association’s biennial conference. It was good to meet up with old friends like David Hill, and make new ones like Ėgle Petronienė (chair of the hard-working LAKMA committee) and her colleagues at the Lithuanian University of Educational Sciences, Vilma Bačkiūte of the Ministry of Education and Science, Loreta Chodzkienė and her colleagues at Vilnius University, Andžej Račkovski of Cambridge University Press and Geoff Tranter, a freelancer, wine-lover and bon viveur. I was very grateful that Cambridge University Press and the British Council sponsored my first trip to the Baltic states, a part of the world I have long wished to visit. I wanted to travel there 25 years ago, when I was working in Moscow … but getting permission to do so was difficult in those days.

Like the FAAPI conference in Buenos Aires, a few weeks ago, the theme of the LAKMA conference – ‘Intercultural Competences in the Global Village’ – indicated that intercultural language education is increasingly moving centre stage in ELT. There were a variety of plenaries and sessions on different aspects of ILE and it was a pleasure starting off the proceedings in this beautiful Baltic capital city. Augusta and I spent a week there, enjoying the autumn colours as well as (on my part) the stimulating presentations. As usual, at conferences with an intercultural focus, the style and content of the sessions was never quite predictable – like the architecture of Vilnius Old Town Centre, there were always surprises around the next corner.

Among my fellow plenary speakers, Chris Hall of York St John University in the UK and Marlene Wall of the LCC International University in Lithuania, and Adrian Holliday of Canterbury Christ Church University, also in the UK, all worried away at the complexity that naturally arises when speakers from different linguistic and cultural communities, speaking shifting varieties of English, interact. Chris argued that intercultural communication in English must embrace what he calls a ‘plurilithic’ set of norms rather than a monolithic ‘native speaker’ standard. Acceptance of the inevitable variety of English norms available in intercultural communication is not only sociolinguistically sensible, he argued, it is psycholinguistically effective. Learners move from use to competence, not from knowledge about a standard to use, and so intercultural communication needs to encourage use of its multiple norms. And, he pointed out, when you consider the variety of non-standard forms of spoken English that thrive within the so-called ‘native-speaker’ domain, the notion of multiple norms is not without precedent, even in the traditional Anglophone speech community. As a Scottish speaker of English, I could easily relate to that observation, as indeed could several of the Americans seated near me.

Marlene Wall also addressed the complexity of intercultural interactions, and argued that a sensitive intercultural curriculum must embrace a ‘post-methods’ approach to teaching ELT, one that moves beyond the traditional concerns of accuracy and fluency, and challenges the concepts of foreignness and otherness. She drew upon ethical and practical notions of ‘hospitality’ to frame the intercultural curriculum, citing Henri Nowen’s definition of hospitality as ‘the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend.’

Adrian Holliday, in a plenary that was typically considered and gently provocative, presented his developing and – yes, complex – ‘social action grammar of culture’, a model that seeks to account for the little ways in which individuals, with their idiosyncratic backgrounds and personal histories and desires, interact with languages, political structures, broad cultural processes and given cultural products. He drew upon Karen Risager’s concept of ‘linguaculture’ to suggest that teachers be trained to support learners in the often difficult process of using their own cultural frames as an initial basis for reaching out and comprehending the other. In a way, Adrian’s ‘social action grammar of culture’ was another way of conceiving of Marlene’s ‘hospitality’ – both were concerned with the triggers that prompt learners to explore the other culture with respectful curiosity, rather than knee-jerk suspicion. And as the plenaries unfolded, as often happens, they entered into unexpected dialogue with each other and I began to realise that what the teacher and teacher-trainer needs to develop, in many ways, is something I’m often accused of having in short supply – namely, tact. The teacher and trainer needs to recognise those situations when a gentle prompt can support intercultural dialogue, and those situations in which the teacher’s butting in will kill dialogue stone dead. That kind of tact arises from an understanding of the nature and purpose of intercultural dialogue, a sense of the students’ personalities, and the experience of having taken part in many such dialogues before.

Once I started thinking about tact, I began to reconfigure the content of many other presentations around it. Daryl McCarthy, the director of an NGO that organises visits and exchanges amongst American, European, Middle Eastern, African and Asian university students and staff entertained us with anecdotes of his experiences and his reflections on the basic training given to sojourners in other cultures. His mantra, delivered to novice intercultural travellers – ‘It’s not good, it’s not bad, it’s just different’ – is obviously an encouragement to open-minded hospitality, but, as he admitted, it only takes you so far. Then, it seems, critical judgement has to take over, and you need tact to know when and how to resist the other’s cultural practices.

I also worried about tact in relation to the numerous sessions on online intercultural exchange that were springing up like autumn mushrooms throughout the conference. A determined couple of Lithuanian schoolteachers, Loreta Jusienė and Staselė Riškienė, distributed ipads to all participants in their workshop and frogmarched the participants into registering on the spot for eTwinning programmes that support the digital connection of teachers and pupils [see http://www.etwinning.net ]. They were wonderful champions for the project, and as I looked at the map of eTwinned schools across Europe I lamented the almost total lack of participants in my home area, the west coast of Scotland. In some ways, the native speaker English community is in danger of missing out on the richness of intercultural education.

But my own sessions – the plenary and the workshop – were partly concerned with the challenges of practising online intercultural exchanges. Like the other conference participants, I was charmed and inspired by the plenary and workshop given by Liliane Sakamoto, a Brazilian who has been long resident in Dublin, where she teaches at the Alpha College of English. Liliane gave two lively sessions on ‘digital realia’, in which she urged participants to join learners in their everyday use of social media like facebook, twitter, google+ and youtube. She entreated us not to destroy this experience by turning it into a ‘learning task’ but to ‘keep it real’ and exploit the transformative potential of authentic communication via social media to encourage language use and acquisition. The multiple linguistic forms of online postings called to mind Chris Hall’s session on plurilithic norms.

Liliane was also energetic and wonderful, and clearly devoted to enriching her students’ linguistic and cultural experiences. And yet. In my own workshop on the experience, of over a decade, of using online exchanges between students in Scotland, Brazil, Argentina and Taiwan, my colleagues (Wendy Anderson, Peggy Lu, Andrea Assenti del Rio and Alison Phipps) and I grew sensitive to the pros and cons of ‘keeping it real’, of the difficulties of knowing when to intervene and encourage exploration and reflection, and when to refrain, and let learners explore (or fail to explore) themselves. We found the use of social media encouraged students to talk about themselves, but not always to elicit information from others. We found that they responded to posts in different ways – some with cold indifference and others with warm engagement. Some, in Marlene Wall’s terms, were hospitable and others were less so – in Adrian Holliday’s terms, their ‘linguacultural engagements’ flowed or froze. So to Liliane’s zeal I would add only a minor qualifier – teachers need to acquire a difficult-to-quantify but absolutely essential element of intercultural competence that is necessary to enhance learning in the global village. We need to acquire the sensitive knowledge of when to intervene and when to refrain from intervening in the learners’ own intercultural dialogues.

Again, in a word: tact.

For more information about LAKMA, see http://www.lakmaonline.lt/

Roots and Routes

Roots and Routes

I am between conferences. Last week was FAAPI in Buenos Aires, next week we are at LAKMA in Vilnius. In both events, intercultural language education is taking a prominent position, which is encouraging to see.

The FAAPI conference hosted around 800 language teachers, at the Universidad Católica Argentina, which is part of a network of beautifully refurbished dockside warehouses on the renovated waterside area of Puerto Madero. The participants were treated to a rich menu of presentations by local and visiting speakers, many of which touched on cultural topics and intercultural education. As usual, to the uninitiated, the variety of approaches and presumptions must have been slightly bemusing.

The territory was sketched out in Cristina Banfi’s opening plenary, which surveyed the increasingly crowded landscape inhabited by language teachers in the 21st century: a time of competing demands for our attention and a proliferation of digital and multi-literacies. The profession has a number of roots: a local obligation to empower students by giving them access to different languages, a practical and theoretical interest in how languages are cognitively acquired, and a wider aspiration to foster intercultural understanding between different language-speaking communities. The routes we follow as language teachers are complex, and their ramifications, as the succeeding sessions showed, are enormous, especially in a world where physical movement between cultures is complemented by the pervasive reach of digital media and the internet.

I did not get to see all of the many sessions that addressed these ramifications. Among those I did squeeze into was a session by Myriam Met, one of the architects of the American Council of Foreign Language Teachers’ Standards for Foreign Language Learning, which is rather like the North American version of the Common European Framework of Reference document. Like the CEFR, it gives necessary but perhaps often rather abstract guidance on the integration of culture and language education. Myriam’s practical session focused on different cultural products, perspectives and practices embodied in language and contained one crucially important piece of advice: teaching language and culture begins with the eyes. A pillar of intercultural language education is the development of observational skills that can be expanded into an ethnographically-aware toolkit. We need to provide learners with the means to become cultural investigators and that is founded on learning how to see.

A classroom example of learning how to see was given in a session by Rosana Greco, in a session intriguingly entitled ‘Interculturality in a Beer Can’. Illustrating that you can begin to explore the hidden depths of culture by beginning with the tip of the iceberg, Rosana took a television advertisement for Texas’ Lone Star beer as a jumping-off point for a workshop that explored the national and local stereotypes that characterise the Lone Star state, and invited a comparison with the national symbols often bound up with commercials for beer elsewhere. She looked at similar ads for Quilmes, the Argentinian beer – and I was prompted to recall strategies used in Scotland, England and Ireland to associate beer with national culture in particular. I have fond memories of Tennants’ lager featuring adverts aimed at a home audience but showing trendy young Japanese pub-goers in Tokyo hunting down the Scottish beer because they found it ‘exotic’ – perhaps an implicit acknowledgement that for many, drinking beer is an affirmation of their roots while for others it is itself an exploration of other cultures. Tennants’ marketing people clearly wanted to appeal to both types of consumer ,and so they developed an amusingly intercultural beer commercial that invites the Scottish audience to see itself, for a minute or so, as the Other.

The most enjoyable part of any conference, as I noted in an earlier blog post, is meeting old friends and making new ones. I thoroughly enjoyed a workshop session given by Andrea Assenti del Rio, Maria Eugenia Sardina Kuchen and Rocio Montes – all members of the Home Intercultural Learning school in La Plata. Andrea directs a small but incredibly lively operation, and the Home team livened up the Friday afternoon by showing vividly how techniques borrowed from Brazil’s Theatre of the Oppressed can be adapted to develop both language proficiency and strategies for conflict resolution. Through Andrea, I was encouraged to attend Susan Hillyard’s equally dramatic session on developing spheres of intercultural activity through performance. Susan’s perspective on interculturality is that we start first with the exploration of our own identity, and her use of childhood play in encouraging this was enthusiastically adopted by those teachers present. And the conference (for me) was rounded off by another elegant and often quite moving presentation on encounters in the cultural contact zone, given by Claudia Ferradas. Claudia again showed the richness of literary texts by writers as diverse as Jorge Luis Borges and Benjamin Zephaniah in opening up cultural topics for classroom exploration.

My participation in the conference was sponsored by Cambridge University Press, whose team, ably led by Paula Coudanes, were tremendously supportive and hospitable over the four days of the conference. I was pleased that Cristina Banfi’s dire prediction in her keynote presentation that few people were likely to attend a lunchtime commercial presentation proved to be ill-founded, and the room was packed for both my presentation on the Intercultural Language Activities resource book, and a later workshop on the use of visual images in the teaching of language and culture. All in all, we went home full of ideas, good food and – it goes without saying – excellent Argentinian wine.
And I had the strong sense from FAAPI that intercultural language education is becoming well-established as a diverse but coherent and increasingly recognised strand in the wider tapestry of English teaching and learning. Tomorrow I head back to Europe for a week, to Vilnius in Lithuania, and another conference that has intercultural language education at its heart. The next blog should be a report from the Baltic States. Watch this space.