Tact

Tact

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/

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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.