Scenes from a museum

Scenes from a museum

In the last blog I posted, I talked about ways of using art in learning language and culture. The use of visual images in language education has, of course, a long history, but it has been given an added boost by the Web. Gone, for most teachers, are the days spent cutting images from magazines and pasting them onto card, or even laminating favourites for use in the classroom. Now we choose a topic – e.g. ‘intercultural explorer’ – log onto Google Images and pick from the hundreds of images that come up.

There is still a place for the physical encounter, though, and ‘blended learning’ is a convenient phrase that suggests the dynamic interaction of web-based material and physical experience. To move from images to objects, local museums are, of course, spaces that are designed for encounters with artefacts that, in some way, represent our own and other cultures. Museums are also contested spaces, especially those in countries that acquired their objects in the process of colonisation or conquest. The British Museum, for example, is in an extended dispute with the Greek government over the ownership of the so-called ‘Elgin Marbles’, which were removed from the Parthenon in the early 19th century.

In some ways, then, the British Museum’s joint project with the BBC to put online 100 of the objects in its collections that tell the story of the world can be seen, in part, as an attempt to justify its continued curatorship of diverse cultural artefacts by giving them back to the world in a virtual form. The project also fulfils those institutions’ public service role by offering the objects as a tactile (though digitised) history of diverse civilisations.

A blended learning approach to using this resource might combine classroom learning with a visit to a local museum after hours. The teacher chooses an object from the British Museum’s digital collection and invites the learners to consider its cultural significance. Among my own personal favourites are the Lewis Chessmen, a group of 12th century chess pieces, carved from bone, found on a beach on the Scottish island in 1831. They were probably carved in Norway.

The chessmen are beautiful to look at and can be used simply to elicit descriptive language: a grumpy queen sits, resting her head on her hand, staring into space with wide eyes. What is she thinking? But they can also be used to explore the way leisure activities have travelled across cultures and times: chess is thought to have originated in India, before being taken up by the Muslim world and disseminated through trade links in the mediaeval world. What sequence of events led to the chessmen being carved by Vikings in Norway, shipped to Scotland, and buried on a beach?

We can also consider the meanings of chess in today’s world. It is a game, arguably, associated with the intellect and civilized values – perhaps not the qualities we associated immediately with Vikings. We can consider what the games we play tell us about our own civilization and values – are there chess clubs in the local community? What do the chess pieces look like – are the king, queen, bishops and knights abstract tokens, or do they represent actual characters? Where were the pieces manufactured?

What other games are played by learners – does anyone participate in other games: card games, online games or role-playing games? Do these games cut across the cultural divides of age, gender, nationality? Does someone who plays chess also play Grand Theft Auto or World of Warcraft? If so, do they see the activities as related – or different?

The classroom discussion can then lead to preparation for the museum visit. Learners can be encouraged to visit a local museum in pairs or small groups, choose an object and think about it. The teacher can guide them through questions to ask; for example:

• What kind of culture does the object represent – local or global?
• How did the museum acquire the object?
• What kind of behaviour does it represent: a sacred ritual, working life, domestic chores, leisure activities, political organization, etc?
• How was the object produced – individual craftsmanship or mass production?
• Why is it on display? In its original setting, would it have had any special significance, or would it have been an everyday object?
• How, if at all, does the object relate to the other objects, displayed around it?
• Talk to some of the other museum visitors – what is their opinion of the object you have chosen?
• How would you place the object in your own ‘history of the world’?

The learners can then report to the class on their visit and their choice of object.

In an article on ‘anthropological poetry’, published in the proceedings of a conference held in Leeds in 2001, Charles Gullick quotes from James Fenton’s poem about visiting the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford. Fenton’s poem sums up the learning goals involved in ‘reading’ museum exhibits:

Go […]
As a dusty semiologist, equipped to unravel
The seven components of that witch’s curse
Or the syntax of the mutilated teeth. Go
In groups to giggle at curious finds.

I have been talking to colleagues here in Sao Paulo in the past week of the challenges of developing multiliteracies amongst students in Brazilian public schools. Teaching learners to parse ‘the syntax of the mutilated teeth’ is a colourful way of expressing the task that intercultural language teachers face.

British Museum and BBC: A History of the World in 100 Objects:

Fenton, James (1984). The Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford. Newsletter (Museum Ethnographers Group), (16), 37-40.

Gullick, Charles JMR (2001). ‘Artifacts and Mentifacts of Alterity’, in Poetics and Praxis of Languages and Intercultural Communication. Edited by David Killick, Margaret Parry and Alison Phipps. Leeds: Leeds Metropolitan University, pp. 185-201


Pictures at an Exhibition

Pictures at an Exhibition

Intercultural language education, of course, addresses culture with ‘a small c’. Granting that, as Raymond Williams noted, ‘culture’ is one of the most complex words in the English language, we adopt an ethnographic stance towards it, and try to defamiliarise the ordinary in order to understand different patterns of behaviour and the attitudes that drive them. We look, for example, at the extravagant displays of youth subcultures, the competitive driving behaviour of pizza delivery boys, the everyday buzz of local cafés and the different layouts of kitchens across the world (you put the washing-machine where??).

And yet.

I feel nostalgia for ‘Culture’ with ‘a capital C,’ in particular, literature and the visual arts. I have a formal training in literary studies, but none at all in visual art – which possibly makes my engagement with it all the more mysterious and pleasurable. I’ve read various books on visual literacy and on art appreciation, but always from the standpoint of the interested viewer. There are obvious ways in which the arts can contribute to the intercultural language classroom: literature stimulates and dramatises possible cultural conflicts. The visual arts help us to develop what John Berger called our ‘ways of seeing’.

Obviously, visual props have long had an honourable place in the general language classroom. I have fond memories of using a lovely book called The Mind’s Eye in the 1980s, and more recently, Ben Goldstein has published a useful CUP handbook on Working with Images and Peter Grundy, Hania Bociek and Kevin Parker have written a book called English through Art , with contributions from Chris Lima amongst others. This textbook is beautifully printed and comes with a CD of 50 colour images, courtesy of the National Museum and Gallery of Wales. The activities are designed to stimulate talk, build vocabulary and encourage self-description – and no doubt they do this very well. One activity, for example, uses a Bad News – The Parting, a Victorian painting by James Tissot, to ask, ‘What are they thinking?’ The teacher provides empty speech and thought bubbles – the kind you see in comics or graphic novels – for the learners to fill in. The aim of the painting is to provide a prompt for the production of natural ‘funny, serious or silly’ language. And then the class moves on.

The activity is perfectly sound, but to stop there seems to me to miss many opportunities for intercultural exploration. Who are these people? On the left, a woman in an elaborate white dress and hat stands behind a seated man, her arms resting on his shoulders. They stare into space. The man wears a bright red uniform coat; he is probably a soldier. On the right, across a table on which lies a samovar, teacup and plates, but also writing implements and documents, stands a second woman, in a black shawl and black hat. She seems to be gazing at the woman in white, and possibly she is speaking. Since her hand is stretched out, she is perhaps offering her some tea. Beyond the windows we see a river, or pond and some formal gardens.

In An Intercultural Approach to English Language Teaching, I talk about the content of a painting as being its ‘vocabulary’: here, we can suppose the vocabulary of the painting consists of the woman in white and her soldier boyfriend, fiancé or husband. Their faces are disconsolate; the title of the painting suggests they have received bad news and are about to part. We need to guess the relationship of them to the second woman – is she a serving maid, or a sister, offering tea and consolation to the lovers who are about to part? Is she jealous of the second woman’s relationship with the soldier? Or is her black the black of mourning, and if so, is she then an omen of the grief that the woman in white will suffer – is the ‘bad news’ of the title a presage of a more permanent parting?

The ‘grammar’ of the image is the arrangement of the vocabulary: the painting is balanced by the woman in black and the two lovers. If we ‘read’ the painting from left-to-right, the woman in black frames the lovers: we read the lovers’ melancholy pose in the context of a woman wearing the colours of mourning. The table divides them, but the first woman’s gaze connects her to the second woman. The lovers are physically joined by the woman in white’s gesture, but the different directions of their gazes disconnect them.

What kind of intercultural issues can this painting raise? A few obvious ones are the cultural meanings of colour: white for innocence; black for death and mourning; red coat for the military. The body language of the couple is also interesting: how do we – or how can we – show affection physically in public? How do we give comfort? It is a cliché that the British solve everything with a cup of tea – is that what is happening here? Learners can be encouraged to update this picture: if this episode were happening in the 21st century, what would the soldier be wearing; what would the women be wearing? What would their clothes tell us about their relative status? What would their body language be? What would be on the table – a samovar for tea? An iPad? Then, of course, we can still ask what thought and speech bubbles might be attached to each character.

All of the 50 paintings reproduced in English through Art are representational, though the genres vary from portrait to landscape to still life, and there is a range of styles. Abstract art can be brought into the intercultural language classroom with more difficulty, perhaps, but it can be done. Last weekend my wife and I visited one of our favourite galleries in Sao Paulo, the Pinacoteca, partly to see a wonderful visiting exhibition of Chinese art, and partly to see a small exhibition of work by the Brazilian artist, Sérgio Sister. Sister’s work is demanding of the viewer: some works look like half-finished frames while many works look like partly-disassembled crates, slats painted in vivid colours.

It is obviously more difficult to ‘read’ these works than it is representational art: we have to pay attention to the mounting (Is it a crate? What do crates contain? Oranges, limes?), to the intensity and distribution of colours (vivid, ‘tropical’), and to any idiosyncratic associations the forms might trigger (shuttered windows?). We make our own sense of the works, perhaps bearing in mind that the work of art often doesn’t mean, it just is.

If we dare to look up from the textbook, move out of the classroom, and send learners to a gallery, they can also, obviously, loaf and lurk, and take the opportunity to observe and interview other visitors. My wife and I were eerily alone in the Sérgio Sister exhibition, for a while, till a young woman came in, pushing a pram. She circled the works, and then others also filtered in. What did they make of the crates and frames – and the swirling canvas of pure black, textured by thick brush-strokes? We did not have time to ask, but when my wife and a friend once did a similar exercise in Glasgow Museum of Modern Art, the answers were revealing. Those who liked the non-representational art in Glasgow liked it because it was accessible, it appealed to ‘the common man’. Those who disliked it complained that it went over the heads of ‘the common man’. ‘The common man’ was cited frequently, then, in defence of the viewer’s own position. Was that a strategy specific to Glasgow? It would be interesting to send your students to a local gallery to find out.

Corbett, J. (2003). An intercultural approach to English language teaching Clevedon: Multilingual Matters
Goldstein, B. (2009). Working with images. Cambridge: CUP
Grundy, P., Bociek, H., & Parker, K. (2011). English Through Art: 100 Activities to Develop Language Skills; [with CD-ROM]. London: Helbling Languages
Maley, A., Duff, A., & Grellet, F. (1980). The mind’s eye: using pictures creatively in language learning Cambridge: CUP.
James Tissot, Bad News (A Parting)
Sérgio Sister at the Pinacoteca

In traffic

Last weekend, my wife and I escaped from Sao Paulo to the quiet of the countryside, where my brother and sister-in-law have a house, with a pool and a commodious attic that stores many of our belongings. It is about a two-hour drive from the city – that is, on a good day when the traffic is reasonable.

Fridays, on the whole, are not good days, and attempting to leave the metropolis on a Friday afternoon, around four, as we did, was horrible. We spent two hours on the city bypass – the ‘marginal’ – crawling towards the city limits, buzzed by beeping mopeds, jostled by overbearing lorries, cut across by cars whose drivers were sure that by changing to this lane, their journey would be cut by – oh, whole minutes. My wife was driving, since I refuse to get behind the wheel in the city, daunted by the multiplicity of lanes and the ferocity of fellow drivers.  ‘In Scotland, the traffic tends to be quieter on Fridays,’ she lamented, remembering commutes to work from Glasgow to Falkirk and back. ‘But here it’s so much worse.’ And so I started thinking of the intercultural nature of traffic behaviour.

I’ve lived for spells of time in different countries: Scotland, Canada, Italy, Russia, Macau and Brazil. In each place the experience of driving – or, more accurately, being a passenger, differs. In my home country, life seems more civilised: the fact that we have demonised subcultures of ‘boy racers’ and stigmatised conditions like ‘road rage’ possibly testifies to the fact that the majority of drivers are rational, caring beings, even if they temper this rationality with a mordant humour. This, after all, is the country where speed bumps are routinely referred to as ‘sleeping policemen’.

Good driving behaviour in Scotland is reinforced by institutions like the driving test (‘A good driver needs feet like a ballet dancer, and hands like a midwife,’ my long-suffering instructor used to say to me) and illuminated signs on motorways that invoke us to Be a courteous driver. Sometimes the signs reinforce their message with jingling rhymes: In town, slow down. I find visiting Brazilians treat them with amused incredulity. Possibly the generally civilised behaviour is a result of not actually having too many traffic jams, unless there is an accident that blocks the road. My father, a small-town resident, huffed and puffed when a traffic jam extended to three vehicles at a roundabout. He spent a lot of time on the road in the 1960s, motoring to clients in different towns and villages of south-west Scotland, buzzing in his Ford Anglia along winding roads that nowadays would seem miraculously free of other cars.

In Canada, as I remember it, the ‘personal space’ between vehicles was if anything even greater, probably because of the vastly greater space available on the roads, and partly because of the sheet ice that covered them, much of the winter. In Canada, a friend pointed out to me, people did not talk about how many miles it took to get from A to B; they talked about distance in hours. This is because the travel time was fairly consistent: you got in the car, drove at the regulation speed and arrived when predicted. And you didn’t get too close to the vehicle in front. I remember sitting in the front passenger seat of a car, with friends, travelling from Fredericton to Moncton over roads that had the sheen of a skating rink, when the lorry in front began to jack-knife. I didn’t see my past life flash before my eyes, but I vividly remember the sensation of time slowing down as we realized that we could not stop on the ice if the lorry crashed. And it slowly righted itself, and so we carried on. At a distance.

Italy, of course, was different again. I lived there for a year in the early 80s, and my vision of hell is Piazza Garibaldi in Naples during rush hour at night. Cars seemed simply to have been deposited in the jam-packed streets from above, in random directions, and all their drivers had their hands pressed on the horns in an endless cacophony. It was the noise that struck me most. I taught EFL in a private language school in Salerno, and at certain times in the evening, the ululation of traffic horns made it impossible to be heard in the classroom. It was also in Italy that I first encountered moped culture. I quickly learned that the best way to learn new Italian swear-words was to position yourself behind a bus driver, and listen to what he said when a Vespa approached at speed down the bus lane in the wrong direction, playing chicken.

Asia has offered a rich new set of driving experiences: in Thailand and China the motorised rickshaws or ‘Tuk Tuk’s rattle you through the traffic jams with pleasurable speed, though in Bangkok they do not always take you where you wish to go. ‘I want to see the Sleeping Buddha,’ you might protest, having been kidnapped by a driver. ‘Yes, yes,’ he’ll reply, ‘But first you go to a gem factory. Really good prices. Only open today.’ In Taiwan, I have had my only experience of riding pillion on a moped. The abiding memory was the smell of gasoline, as we buzzed in a swarm of fellow motorcyclists along the regular roads and then through designated tunnels. I began to understand why so many wore masks over their their nose and mouth.

But nothing comes close to the Brazilian ‘motoboy’: the guys on their mopeds, beep-beeping like the Roadrunner, and weaving through all-too-often standing traffic.  There’s even a documentary film about them, Motoboys (2003), which contains the alarming statistic that three die each day on Sao Paulo’s roads. As a driver, you have to keep an eye on either side of the car since they suddenly whizz past you on your left or your right. ‘They’re crazy,’ my wife said on Sunday, returning from the countryside, as two riders, clearly working together, overtook us on the left and right-hand side in synchrony, before exchanging positions to do it again to the four-by-four in front of us. I had to agree.

Why do they do it? An honours student at Sydney University, Ian Coxon, has written one of the few self-ethnographies of motor scooter riding in the Australian city. A participant observer, he spent time loafing and lurking, and also researching the history of motor scooters in Australia, and interviewing fellow bikers. He concludes that, while many are concerned with safety, they see the ride as an adventure, and they pit themselves against cars – and particularly taxis – as a kind of game. The reward for dodging in and out of traffic at speed is a feeling of empowerment and an adrenaline high. No nanny-like illuminated road sign suggesting that they Slow Down is going to take that away from them.

For the intercultural language teacher, coming to and from school, college or university, traffic can be – as Ian Coxon says – a ‘buzz’ or a ‘bore’. But it can also be the content of a lesson that encourages learners to explore their everyday reality, and – again – to see it with fresh eyes.


Coxon, I. (2002). Journey to work, buzz or bore? A phenomenological, ethnographic study of motor scooter riders in Sydney. In Australasian Transport Research Forum (ATRF), 25th, 2002, Canberra, Act, Australia.   


In their Intercultural Resource Pack: Latin American Perspectives, the authors provide a wealth of activities for English learners that are also – incidentally, but happily – useful for anglophone immigrants like me.  Nahir Aparício suggests an activity called ‘Masquerade’ that invites English learners to explore subcultures in their own communities – from skaters to the elderly, from punks to clients of tattoo parlours.

The activity begins by brainstorming such social categories and then asking learners to draw examples, activating stereotypes and prejudices that can be shared and critically examined. Stereotypes figure large in the intercultural classroom – they are often thought of as synonymous with prejudiced portrayals but technically they are simplifications of social categories. To navigate the complexities of the world we live in, we adopt simplification as a survival strategy, extending a select set of attributes to a whole group. The attributes can be positive (e.g. ‘People from Glasgow are friendly’) or negative (‘People from Edinburgh are cold’). The negative stereotypes can harden into prejudice (‘I never talk to people from Edinburgh.’). Seeing beyond the simplifications is part of intercultural communicative competence.

So Nahir’s activity begins with drawing members of a subculture to air possible stereotypes and prejudices, before encouraging the learners to make contact with and do some research on individuals from different subcultures in their own society:

1. Choose a person from a subculture in your country that you don’t know well.

2. Search about this subculture.

3. Draw a mask with an image that represents the culture and/or disguise in a costume that represents it.

4. Tell your class why you chose it and what it represents for you, how you felt and what you learned.

The first two steps might not actually be very easy to do: they involve approaching strangers and asking rather personal questions. When experienced sociolinguistic researchers tried doing this with members of ‘spectacular’ subcultures in the UK  – punks, hippies, rockers – they were often met with suspicion and hostility. Moreover, when the subculture members were asked direct questions like ‘Why do you dress the way you do?’ the response was often something like ‘Well, I just feel comfortable like this’ or ‘Well, it’s just normal to me.’ A common response was to define oneself negatively, by describing the attributes of the kind of group you wouldn’t want to belong to: ‘Well, I wouldn’t want to wear, like, a suit, or a smelly shirt and tie.’ So the interviews need to be indirect, and this can usefully be rehearsed in class: instead of asking, ‘Why do you dress so strangely?’ the learners might say, ‘I really love your hair; where do you get it styled? How do you get the hairdresser to do it like that?’ Asking indirect questions can encourage informants to open up and give richer information – that helps complicate the stereotype and challenge potential prejudice. The learner better understands both the mask and the individual who wears it – and their language improvement comes in explaining their research findings in English to the class.

My Portuguese is not yet fluent or confident enough to engage in ethnographic interviewing in Sao Paulo. But I keep an eye open for potential interviewees and imagine conversations in my head. There are so many different communities around to explore: the kids at traffic lights who juggle tennis balls, or occasionally, at night, blazing torches. My fellow sufferers in the Pilates classes. The student activists who sit cross-legged in the airy spaces of the university campus, discussing politics. The boisterous congregations in the evangelical assembly halls, whose warehouse-like functionalism contrasts so starkly with the baroque churches of their Catholic counterparts. Some day I am going to have the linguistic resources and the nerve to start a conversation. And perhaps, in doing so, I’ll discover what kind of mask they see me wearing.



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.  [‘Masquerade’ is on pages 56-7]

Widdicombe, S., & Wooffitt, R. (1995). The language of youth subcultures: Social identity in action. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.