Following the Drove Roads

In the last blog, I raised the issue of integrating ‘values education’ with the teaching of a second or other language. A critical reflection on the values of your own culture, and that of the ‘other’ is an integral part of intercultural language education. There are issues about how to do it; one of the enjoyable but often confusing characteristics of conferences on intercultural studies that I attended in the 1990s was their eclectic mix of sociologists, cultural geographers, educationalists, EFL teachers, linguists, translators, literature specialists and critical theorists – all trying to find (or failing to find) a common language. It is not easy being interdisciplinary: you have to open yourself up to other people’s goals and methods of analysis. Often there are territorial lines drawn up between, say, linguistics and literary studies, practitioners in each discipline eyeing the other with deep suspicion. To cross a disciplinary line is itself a kind of intercultural wandering, or stravaigin, as we say in Scotland.

For the past 3 months I’ve been teaching a survey course on Scottish Literature at the University of São Paulo, in Brazil. This has been the source of some amusement and incredulity to those in my family back in Scotland who have long believed that employment in a university is a cunning means of avoiding real work: ‘What do Brazilians want to learn about Scottish Literature for?’ The question nagged me, before I started, for rather different reasons. I was anxious about crossing disciplinary lines. After all, I’ve never taught a course entirely about literature before, having traded professionally on my knowledge of English language studies up to this point. Would there be a mutiny in the lecture room when I turned up with my reading list of poems and fiction, many of which are in an unfamiliar language variety – Scots?

 I shouldn’t have worried. The students have turned out to be a lovely mix of undergraduates in various years of their studies, ready to chip in with an enthusiastic response to the appearance of the devil in a ballad, or a Marxist slant on courtly love poetry or satire. The main course I’ve been assigned to is actually an elective called ‘Non-hegemonic literatures in English’ … Brazilian academics don’t go in for snappy titles. And so I should know my place: proudly at the margins of literary studies, wearing a kilt.

And yet.  Last week we got to Sir Walter Scott. There are clearly problems treating Scott as a marginal, or ‘non-hegemonic’ writer, since his work was so popular and he practically invented certain ways of telling stories: the romantic personal narrative that takes place against a historical upheaval. He was Scottish, but he was also a great supporter of the Union, and you can argue that his portrayals of highlanders and Jacobites as doomed romantics was a way of containing, even neutering the more unsettling aspects of Scottish national aspirations. And yet…

We looked last week at one of his shorter stories, from Chronicles of the Canongate, a narrative called ‘The Two Drovers.’ My attention had been drawn to it by Kenneth McNeil’s excellent chapter in a recent guide to teaching Scott, edited by Evan Gottlieb and Ian Duncan. The story can be read as a tragedy of incommensurate cultural values.  It revolves around the friendship of a Highland cattle drover, Robin, and an Englishman, Harry, who is in the same trade. They drive their cattle to a market in the north of England, where there is a failure in communication about grazing rights, causing the two friends to fall out. The consequences of the miscommunication escalate, so that, egged on by locals in a pub, Harry challenges Robin to a wrestling match. It is an uneven contest that Robin seeks to avoid, but Harry forces him into a confrontation in which the Highlander is beaten. To avenge his honour, Robin takes his knife and murders his friend, before giving himself up. The story ends with a judge’s summing-up of the affair: he regrets  that a clash of honour codes has resulted in an unnecessary death, and he expresses a sympathy for the Highlander’s dilemma – and then he sentences Robin to hang, a judgement that the Scot accepts as just.

McNeil presents the story as a parable exploring the limits of multiculturalism: the two drovers build their friendship on shared professional experience and expertise, but their different backgrounds have bred into them a fundamentally different set of values that, given a slight provocation, cause an escalation of violence, leading to death. Scott skilfully structures the story as an almost ethnographic description of the two drovers’ backgrounds, followed by an account of their quarrel, and, finally, a transcript of the judge’s speech, which functions as a kind of unreliable ‘moral’ that forces the reader back to the narrative, to reflect on its significance – and to wonder if there could at any point have been effective mediation to prevent the tragedy from occurring.

To my surprise and relief, enough of the students had persevered to the end of the story to discuss it in some detail and with real engagement. Some saw it as a narrative of colonialism and its inevitable violence: the cards were stacked against the Highlander from the beginning. He was physically smaller than his friend and rival, he had journeyed into a foreign country, he was outnumbered in the pub where the hostile encounter took place, and he was ultimately tried and sentenced by the laws of the dominant culture. Had he been tried in the Highlands, some argued, the verdict might have been different. Others disagreed: allowing for the fact that capital punishment is barbaric, the English judge was acting according to the civilised norms of his time. Had he acted otherwise, he would have endorsed individuals seeking violent revenge. Some, happily, saw the entire incident as the fault of a constable who had failed to prevent the quarrel at an early stage – but how was he to predict its fatal outcome? By the end of the discussion, we all had a sense – I hope – of Scott as a writer who was concerned with cultural crossings and their outcomes; a commentator whose subtlety embraces the real difficulties inherent in cultural mediation, and the challenge of drawing easy conclusions from conflicts and their too frequently tragic consequences. Far from attempting to contain the unruly values of the Highlander in a neat narrative whereby civilised rules are reasserted by the power of law, he treats the judge’s final speech ironically, inviting the reader to make up his or her mind about the rights and wrongs of the incident.

In my background reading for the lecture, I learned that Scott’s story is, in fact, sometimes used in legal education to raise issues of cultural conflict. It can be used to illustrate the development of literature in Scotland as part of a survey course, too, obviously – but I guess my real interest is in how the story, nearly two hundred years old now, still has the power to disturb. Some students had worried at length about the judge’s summing up – did he adequately comprehend the nature of the cultural clash, and his own role in its unfolding?

One of the goals of intercultural language education is described by Mike Byram as savoir comprendre, or ‘knowing how to understand documents or events from another culture.’ To develop this aspect of intercultural communicative competence, learners are sometimes invited to reflect upon – and perhaps re-work – literary texts, such as Scott’s ‘The Two Drovers.’ They can mine the text for ethnographic detail that informs the characterisations, and plot the incidents that lead to a ‘critical incident’ such as the quarrel between Robin and Harry. They can learn how to understand how intercultural encounters can have a dark side. But, like the judge, they then need to take a stand, they have to act. Following Homi Bhabha and Claire Kramsch, we sometimes formulate the idea of a ‘third space,’ a liminal space between cultures where the intercultural voyager can appreciate the values of both, and seek to explain one to the other. The difficulty is – as one of the students pointed out last week – is that we can never fully disentangle ourselves from our own cultural values when we are making judgements. Decentring has its limits.


Bhabha, H. K. (1994) The location of culture. London: Routledge.

Byram, M. (1997) Teaching and assessing intercultural communicative competence. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters

Kramsch, C. (1993) Context and culture in language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McNeil, Kenneth (2009) The Limits of Diversity: Using Scott’s “The Two Drovers” to Teach Multiculturalism in a Survey or Nonmajors Course, in Evan Gottlieb and Ian Duncan (eds) Approaches to Teaching Scott’s Waverley Novels. New York: MLA, pp. 123-129

Scott, Walter (2000 [1827]) Chronicles of the Canongate, ed. Claire Lamont. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.


Handle with Care: Contains Values


It’s been a disturbing few weeks, particularly for friends and colleagues elsewhere. In La Plata, Argentina, Andrea Assenti del Rio, one of the authors of the Intercultural Resource Pack: Latin American Perspectives, has been working with neighbours to put back together lives and homes devastated by flooding. And in Cambridge, Massachussetts, where she is attending Harvard on a Fulbright Exchange, with a view to exploring language education and the medical humanities, my co-author Peggy Lu has been temporarily ‘locked down’ in her rented apartment as police searched for one of the two suspects in the Boston marathon bombing. The suspect turns out, so the early reports suggest, to be a medical student, of Chechen ethnicity. His older brother, who was earlier shot dead in a gunfight with the authorities, could also be considered to be an intercultural voyager: although resident in the USA for 12 years, he is reported to have made few American friends and to have complained on social media that his adopted countryfolk have no ‘values’. It is difficult to understand what professed values might induce two young men to fill home-made bombs with ball-bearings and nails, and deliberately set out to murder and maim unknown men, women and children.

I have always found ‘values’ to be a slippery word. After some consideration, Peggy and I decided to give our book on English in Medical Education the subtitle An Intercultural Approach to Teaching Language and Values. But we were still a little uneasy about the claim. On my part the anxiety has various sources. The first is – as I have already suggested on this blog – I was originally trained as a teacher in the 1980s, at a time when English was being pushed as an instrumental, ‘value-free’ medium of international communication. The typical classroom task advocated by the ‘communicative approach’, after all, was the ‘information gap activity’, whereby learners engaged in ‘authentic’ communication by passing pieces of neutral information from one to the other.

The publication of Robert Phillipson’s Linguistic Imperialism and Alistair Pennycook’s The Cultural Politics of English as and International Language in the early 1990s both subjected the notion of values-free language education to keen critical scrutiny, and yet deepened the anxiety that, consciously or unconsciously, EFL teachers were seeking to impose a liberal democratic set of values on an often resistant global population. At the same time, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the velvet revolutions in Europe had spurred language educationalists, particularly in Europe, to resituate language pedagogy explicitly in a wider, humanist curriculum where values could be explicitly addressed and subjected to critical scrutiny. And thus intercultural language education was born.

The impulse to integrate language pedagogy with a kind of ‘values education’ has since developed in the explicit adoption by several of the pioneers and main proponents of intercultural language education – like Manuela Guilherme, Mike Byram and Alison Phipps – of citizenship education, or forms of social activism, like the Glasgow network for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. For Andrea in La Plata, her work with intercultural language education (so she tells me) complements and shapes her contribution towards rebuilding her damaged community.

As for Peggy and me, our interest in values education was influenced by work being done by medical educators in America and, to a certain extent, in the UK on ‘cross-cultural competences’. There has been a profoundly practical realisation that doctors need more than clinical training during their medical degrees; they also need to reflect actively and productively on how they respond to patients from different social and cultural backgrounds, who present themselves with diverse beliefs and attitudes. The aspiration of intercultural language education more generally parallels this specific instance: we trust that by addressing cultural issues in our language classes, and by exploring differences (both apparently trivial and obviously profound), learners will scrutinize their own values and beliefs, and those of others. The educator’s article of faith is that learners will come to a more informed, less alienated understanding of the attitudes and emotions that drive them and others.

A lot of this thinking may seem wishful, even trite. I remember wincing some years ago, while reading a low-circulation British Council document that expressed the wish that intercultural education supported by UK foreign investment might turn a potential young Afghan terrorist away from militant activism and towards a productive and happier involvement with his community. I winced not because I disagreed with the desire, but because I feel that intercultural language education cannot be a quick fix or a universal panacea for humanity’s long-ingrained impulse to violence and exploitation. And, of course, there is a lot of inconvenient colonial and postcolonial history that the document conveniently erased. But at least issues of potential conflict were not being swept under the carpet.

Accepting that values can, and indeed should, be addressed in the intercultural language classroom is, of course, only to recognise a challenge, not to surmount it. As noted elsewhere in this blog, large ELT publishers understandably shy away from controversy – the three taboos of sex, religion and politics – in their textbooks. I do have some sympathy with their concerns. I have myself felt uncomfortable when, occasionally, textbook writers slip free of these constraints and do address, for example, issues of sexual violence or media reporting of violence towards children in a commercial textbook. The commodification of potentially disturbing intercultural issues in the form of off-the-peg learning materials might not be advisable. It is better, in my view, to look at the training of teachers in ways of addressing sensitive issues sensitively – but (speaking as someone to whom basic tact is often a stranger) sensitivity is a character trait that it is difficult to shape in a training course, whether the course is for novice doctors or trainee teachers.

And, of course, the big question is whose values are to be taught. Some educators are clearly situated in the liberal, democratic humanist camp. Others are critical educators, influenced for example by the work of philosophers like Paulo Freire and Henry Giraux. (I’m not suggesting that these two positions are incompatible!) The concept of intercultural communicative competence (ICC) draws on these traditions – humanist as well as critical – and others. As formulated by Mike Byram and his colleagues, and embedded in the Common European Framework of Reference, ICC is conceptualised as a set of kinds of knowledge and skill that underpin developing attitudes that – we hope – will promote mutual respect and counterbalance alienation.

In future blogs, I will reflect in more detail on this formulation of ICC. Suffice it to say, for now, that every teacher knows that the mere statement of a learning objective does not mean that it has been or will be achieved. For many intercultural educators, the process of learning, and its attendant challenges, are much more complex and rewarding than the formulation of a set of desirable curricular goals. Indeed, there is the danger that the formulation of a set of desired goals could be a reductive activity, reducing nuanced attitudes and beliefs to a bland set of formulae. The upsetting events of the past weeks – and indeed years – remind us that no matter whether we are focused on the dynamic praxis of intercultural education, or on formulating its outcomes, the tasks ahead are urgent, formidable and worthwhile.


Byram, M. (2008) From foreign language education to education for intercultural citizenship: Essays and reflections Bristol: Multilingual matters.

De Matos, A., A. Assenti del Rio, N. Aparício Medina, T. Martins and S. Mobília. (2007) Intercultural Resource Pack: Latin American Perspectives. Rio: British Council

Del Rio, Andrea Assenti (2011) Intercultural Communicative Competence. IATEFL: Global Issues 11

Guilherme, M. (2006) Is there a role for critical pedagogy in language/culture studies? An interview with Henry A. Giroux. Language and Intercultural Communication, 6(2), 163-175.

Little, D. (2007) The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Perspectives on the making of supranational language education policy. The Modern Language Journal, 91(4), 645-655.

Lu, P. Y., & J. Corbett, J. (2012) English in Medical Education: An Intercultural Approach to Teaching Language and Values. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Pennycook, A. (1994) The cultural politics of English as an international language London: Longman.

Phillipson, R. (1992) Linguistic imperialism. London and New York: Routledge.

Phipps, A. (2012) Voicing solidarity: Linguistic hospitality and poststructuralism in the real world. Applied linguistics, 33(5), 582-602.

Seeing the Signs


I ended the last entry in this blog by observing that sometimes we have to train ourselves (and our learners) to look afresh at the familiar, the everyday. This fact struck me again last year, when I asked a group of undergraduates in Macau to look at the languages used in public spaces in the city – especially at the English used in signs and advertisements. They returned with a lovely – and very funny – set of powerpoint slides of ‘Chinglish’ signs that they had found on the internet. Their presentation was good, but it was not what I wanted: ‘Why didn’t you look at the English used in signs in Macau?’ I asked them. They looked confused. ‘There aren’t any,’ they said. ‘Only Chinese and Portuguese.’

It was my turn to look confused, since this was manifestly untrue. Macau has many English signs, ads and warnings, from the ornate names of apartment blocks (Prince Flower City) or local services (Clean Shoes Shop) to the handwritten warnings pinned to a wall that advise passers-by not to let their dog urinate in a doorway. Indeed, for years English has been seeping into what has become known as the ‘linguascape’ of most cities and towns around the world. The study of language and landscapes has become a thriving field of academic discourse more generally (e.g. Jaworski and Thurlow, 2010), but anyone with an observant eye and a digital camera can begin mapping their local territory. Learners too can observe, and then reflect on, the local appropriation of English in their communities.

The serious analysts of ‘linguascapes’ focus on the distribution and function of competing languages in public spaces. Which languages in the public space inform you, command you, or seduce you? Are there any differences between, say, an international airport and a local bank or government office? How about shopping malls or advertisements in the street? English is emerging as a language of global commercial seduction. As I have wandered around the globe on working trips and holidays, I’ve started snapping examples of English used in different countries, from the cute coffee shop Just Love You in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, to the slightly more alarming Foo King Coffin Shop in Kuala Lumpur. Some signs are banally obvious in their intent (Coffee to go) though some are weirdly opaque. In Poznan, in Poland, I happened across a fashion store called Off the Lip. I thought it had to be a direct translation of a Polish idiom – but no. It meant whatever ‘off the lip’ means … possibly a good example of English being used just because it’s English. Over time some broad – possibly too general – tendencies have begun to emerge. South Americans like their products to be ‘original’ or ‘genuine’, as in the shoe shop Authentic Feet, a place that always worries me. What’s an inauthentic foot, and why? Asians, on the other hand, prefer ‘happy’ as in the hotel in Southern Taiwan Happy Babe City, which is again a slightly troubling place to enter.

A simple way to begin working with local names in English is simply to ask learners to compile an alphabet of pictures, though I myself have never been able to advance beyond Yellow’s House, a retailer of household commodities in Sao Paulo. They can then begin to classify them into groups and reflect on why English is being used to promote a particular product or inform and command a particular group or readers. How do signs in English position their readers – as polyglot natives, as tourists, or as immigrants?

As a paradoxical result of benign legislation, Sao Paulo is a much poorer site than it used to be in terms of its linguascape. Advertising hoardings are now banned from public spaces, which means the city looks better, but the visual babble that stimulated and dazed me when I first knew the city 15 years ago has diminished a lot. I do miss it in some ways. I came across my favourite billboard some years ago, before the laws kicked in, on Faria Lima, one of the main streets in the city – it is the one in the photo, for the local chain of coffee shops, Casa de Pao de Queijo. I love the subversive way it uses Portuguese and English: what it says about the indigenous ‘cheese-bread’ that is its speciality, is ‘It’s fast, and it’s food, but it’s not fast-food.’ It’s a joke, but it is also a sly dig, of course, at the processed fare of its American rivals, the MacDonalds and the Starbucks that can be found on many corners of this Brazilian city too. The English language is being turned against the symbols of Anglophone globalization. And that is the cleverest trick of all.


Jaworski, A., & Thurlow, C. (2010) Semiotic landscapes: Language, image, space. Continuum.


‘Fools are fain of flitting.’ This 17th century Scottish proverb, which means ‘only fools enjoy changing their place of residence’, seems particularly appropriate this week. My wife and I have moved into a rented flat in Vila Madalena, in Sao Paulo, and so we’ve been spending most of our time retrieving and unpacking boxes that have been stored away, and we’re still trying to squeeze their contents into the very pleasant but slightly cramped space of our new home. The main problem, of course, are our books, which are spilling out from our few bookshelves to take up occupancy on tables, windowsills and staircase.

Being married to a Brazilian, I am always struck by her rather different assumptions about domestic space. Like other Brazilian women I’ve met, she has an abhorrence of certain things that seem perfectly reasonable to me, like having a washing-machine in the kitchen.

‘It’s where the plumbing is,’ I protest. ‘It’s the obvious place to put it.’

‘It’s unhygienic, she says. ‘I hate cooking where dirty clothes are being washed.’ I don’t understand her concern. I worry about the logic of muddy jeans in a washing machine somehow contaminating vegetables that are being stir-fried in a wok, but there you go. I don’t mind at all having the washing-machine isolated in its own little laundry area, and intercultural relationships are about the art of compromise.

Another domestic habit that used to niggle me was my wife’s habit of leaving doors open in the flat. When I went around religiously closing them, with my grandmother’s admonition ‘Were you born in a field? echoing in my memory, she went around opening them again. I slowly realized we were the products of different social assumptions regarding door opening and closing: I was conditioned to prevent icy Scottish draughts from whistling through poorly-insulated houses; she was conditioned to let cool, fresh air circulate throughout the dwelling.

These differences in assumption are small, even trivial, examples of what Michael Agar calls ‘rich points’ in his stimulating book, Language Shock. When we flit from culture to culture, we come across differences in thought and habit that often strike us immediately (and perhaps illogically) as just wrong. But underlying these differences are often rich strata of sometimes unarticulated beliefs and attitudes that have grown up over generations. If we pause to reflect on them we can begin to quarry the rich seam of cultural attitudes that can help us to understand other people’s seemingly weird ideas – even if we never quite get around to accepting them ourselves.

Meanwhile, we continue to unpack the boxes. Some boxes are more interesting than others: the cutlery, clothes and linen all have particular places to go that do not require much in the way of decision. But ornaments, pictures and posters are another matter. What will we put in the living spaces; what will we put in the more intimate spaces of the bedrooms? What public faces will we show and what will we present as representative of ourselves at this stage in our lives?

An interesting classroom activity that prompts slightly older learners to reflect on their use of domestic spaces simply asks them to describe, in pairs or small groups, what pictures or posters they put on their bedroom walls (a) when they were 14 or 15 years old and (b) now, assuming they are at least four or five years older. And then you can ask how their different choices demonstrate how their personality has either changed or remained constant.

In my experience of doing this, the learners’ responses are remarkably consistent across cultures: women have a tendency towards having posters of animals (often horses) and male pop and television stars on their bedroom walls as mid-teens; there is a wider diversity later. Males tend towards sports teams, racing cars and rock stars. In any class there is usually at least one person with more unpredictable tastes, and the conventionality and unconventionality of the choices can be discussed as a class.

In my own case, I had posters of science fiction films on the bedroom wall as a teenager; this evolved later in life to art posters, particularly of Pieter Breughel’s winter scenes, like The Census at Bethlehem. One might see this change as a maturing of tastes, or possibly a shift towards pretension. I would rather see the later choices as a natural extension of the earlier ones: one of my favourite science fiction films was – and still is – Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, which is where I first came across Breughel’s icy, sociable depictions of outdoor village life. They decorate the Russian spaceship orbiting the sinister planet that turns its inhabitants’ nightmares into reality.  I also first associated his Fall of Icarus with a short science fiction story by Brian Aldiss, long before I discovered the allusion to the same painting in W.H. Auden’s beautiful poem, Musée des Beaux Arts. So my later choices were linked by a widening and deepening network of personal associations and memories. The challenge to our learners is whether they see their own later choices as linked to, or breaking free from the choices of the past.

In my book, Intercultural Language Activities, a section is devoted to exploring our own domestic spaces, trying to make the familiar ‘strange’. The places where we live are often so unremarkable to us that we do not notice their culturally distinctive nature. I remember Mike Byram telling a story in a seminar about taking classes of school pupils from England to France on language trips; afterwards he asked them to compare French houses with their own. The activity initially failed, since the pupils simply had not observed their French accommodation in much detail. So he then asked later groups of pupils to take time out during their visit to draw a French house or flat. The pupils returned with a wealth of detail and observations about differences between French and English domestic spaces. Sometimes, we have to be trained to see.

Agar, M. (1994) Language Shock: Understanding the Culture of Conversation. New York: HarperCollins

Corbett, J. (2010) Intercultural Language Activities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.